Will 2014 be the year restaurant critics come out of the shadows? The editors of New York magazine kicked off that conversation in a big way last week, splashing critic Adam Platt’s photograph on the cover of their January issue. Whether professional food critics actually matter may be much doubted in the InstaYelp Era, but apparently there’s still a lot of faith in their ability to drive city-magazine sales.
Platt, who has reviewed restaurants for New York for many years (and just named the new Han Dynasty in New York as one of the 10 best new restaurants in the city), explains his decision—and acknowledges his editors’ prodding—in a thoughtful essay that had me nodding amen from the first sentence.
My own seven-year stint as a “professional glutton” has likewise been an “accidental career.” (These days you can meet any number of college kids who’ll tell you they want to grow up to be food critics, but I hardly knew the job existed until I found myself doing it.) Now that I’ve been at it for a while, I too have grown a little tired of putting my dinner guests through the rigamarole of a review meal. It’s a pain to make people nervous about simply saying your name out loud. It’s a bigger pain to know that many of them are straining to defer to your perceived preferences around what to order—especially when you don’t have any, which in my case is actually most of the time. No grown person should have to spend the first 10 minutes of a meal divining the potentially nonexistent whims of his host.
Then again, no one’s complaining when the check goes on an expense account at the end of the meal. Least of all me. There aren’t many sweeter gigs than taking people out to eat.
Platt is also onto something about the way publications use the “myth of anonymity” to cultivate the illusions of impartiality and omniscience. That works on more levels than the priestly bestowal of stars or bells. For me, the most tiresome thing about reviewing is instructing dining companions not to use my name. What could be more self-important?
Just the same, don’t expect my photo on the cover of Philly Mag anytime soon—and not just because I have a face for radio. Platt is right to reject the charade that “anonymity” has become for him and many other big-time restaurant critics. A recognizable critic can still write honestly and insightfully about restaurants. But pretending to be anonymous when you aren’t is a disservice to your readers.
Yet for some reason—and maybe it’s that I am truly no more important than I tend to think I am, which is not very—anonymity has not become a charade for me.
That surprises me more and more. I’ve done this for seven years. I’ve reviewed something like 200 restaurants. It’s gotten comical. When I get chefs on the phone, they’ll half-whine, half-laugh: “No fair! You’ve already been in twice?? Nobody knows what you look like!”
It’s not hard to find out what other critics in Philadelphia look like. A couple years ago, former Philly Mag food editor Kirsten Henri texted me a photo of a paper grid taped up in a restaurant kitchen. It listed each local publication, the name of their critic(s), and a wallet-sized photo for identification purposes. Mine was the only column without a photo. To my knowledge, no one has gotten their hands on one since.
(As far as I know, only three restaurateurs know me: the former owner of a Thai restaurant I liked; the owner of my old neighborhood bar, which I never wrote about; and the owner of an Indian restaurant who belatedly realized our sons were in the same daycare class after I reviewed it.)
What have I done to elude detection? Not very much. I don’t use Facebook, mainly. As Platt says, it isn’t hard for a motivated restaurateur to find out what a critic looks like. Maybe nobody has been sufficiently motivated to ferret me out.
I hope that’ll last as long as possible. Because even though booking tables under aliases is probably enough to prevent a restaurant from giving a recognized critic a radically different experience than it gives anyone else, true anonymity does have its perks. I like being a fly on the wall. I hate being fawned over, or kowtowed to—hate it enough for it to ruin an otherwise pleasant evening.
And though, like Platt, I would do my best to ignore special items sent by an ingratiating chef, that’s the easy part. It’s the smaller gestures that are harder to interpret. After all, some of the most powerful influences are the ones we aren’t fully aware of. Do all customers get such a heavy pour of wine by the glass, or just the famous critic? Are the appetizer portions always so shareable? Does everyone get shaved truffles on top of that pasta? Better not to have to ask those questions every five minutes—getting more cynical each time.
So let’s go ahead and make it formal, Philadelphia restaurateurs: You carry on neglecting to find my mugshot, and I’ll keep on enjoying your restaurants free of the crabbiness that would come from constantly second-guessing the treatment I receive in them.
And now, may complementary slugs of Madeira flow to all Philly diners—short and tall, fat and small! The ones who aren’t on the clock are still Yelping, and the ones who aren’t Yelping are Tweeting photos tableside.
It’s 2014. Everyone’s a critic.
Hi, I'm Adam Platt, Your Restaurant Critic [New York magazine]
Trey Popp Archive [Philadelphia magazine]