When I meet restaurant lovers, New York Times readers, and people familiar with my memoir, certain questions come up time and again. As I did in a post earlier this week, I'm reproducing some of those questions, along with my usual answers, so that they're more easily and widely accessible to anyone curious about these topics.
Q: In an era when critics are frequently recognized, are restaurant reviews as valid?
A: Yes, I think so. First off, critics have long been recognized. In big and sophisticated cities where the economic stakes are high and where restaurateurs are savvy, the major critics quickly become visually known. Restaurateurs will find a way. I remember, in my first months as the Times's critic, being gawked at by industry people who would walk into a place where I was dining, stand in the vestibule for a few minutes just for the purpose of laying eyes on me, and then leave. I learned through the grapevine that they had been alerted and summoned by the staff where I was eating, and they wanted to give themselves a better shot at spotting me should I ever walk through their front doors.
Bloggers' and industry people's ability to post and share photos on the Internet—and to take pictures surreptitiously with cell-phone cameras—have made it harder for critics to keep a low physical profile. That's certainly true. But critics can still, with pseudonyms and fake phone numbers and such, keep restaurants guessing about when they might come. And restaurants suddenly faced with a critic in the dining room can't change the menu instantly. They can't go shopping right then for better ingredients. They can't get a better service staff, or re-train the line cooks, etc., etc. While a recognized critic's portions may be slightly different from another person's, and while the kitchen may take special care with the order going to a critic's table, the fundamentals that make the restaurant great or mediocre remain in place. And while the service can get better for a critic, it can also get worse: hyper-solicitous, nervous, intrusive.