Restaurants: Dining Room Confidential

Bathroom’s a mess? Waiter forgot half the specials? These days, restaurant missteps show up online immediately, which is why Stephen Starr and others are using undercover diners to spy on their own places

BEING A MYSTERY shopper is a job many of us wouldn’t mind having, but it’s not quite the case that Kravitz gets to rant and rave to restaurant owners. He largely sticks to his “objective” list, and he knows he’s often viewed as the (unseen) enemy. “The thing that too many restaurant employees don’t understand is that our job is not to get them,” Kravitz says. He does what he’s hired to do: lay out exactly what happens during a meal. The report he works from — a combination of each restaurant’s guidelines and his own set of standards — keeps him from straying toward opinion. For each staff position, each interaction, there are points to be awarded, for things as small as “Was I offered bottled water?” to as large as “Was my steak cooked right?”

 Kravitz spends a lot of time editing judgment and emotion out of his freelancers. “I had a report recently where the shopper wrote that the chips didn’t go well with the dip,” he says. “I took that out.” Where he needs to get subjective — mostly when it comes to food — he treads lightly. On the Center City Latin shop, his report read that the shrimp was “perceived to be rubbery and slightly fishy.” No matter how you sugarcoat it, it was poorly cooked shrimp. But as unbiased as his reports are “perceived” to be, it might not matter that the line between opinion and fact gets blurred. The restaurants use him for both truth (the bartender was stealing) and perspective (the shrimp sucked).

Both are what Kravitz — as a proxy for us —  gets to hand directly to Garces and Stephen Starr, hopefully making everyone’s dining experience better. It’s a brave new restaurant world.