Nicole Clark
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Eat, drink, and be wary

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Food critics are struggling to protect their anonymity from an onslaught of cunning restaurateurs trying to unmask and tempt them.

Eat.DrinkandBeWaryBy Nicole Clark

As my manager strides toward me, I sense urgency in his step. It is just before dinner service and I am standing in front of a large computer, matching diners’ reservations to their preferred tables for the evening. When he reaches the host stand, he tells me to look into the reservation of a man who said he is an American food and travel writer, in town for a writing conference. He has asked to be seated at the best table and has said his four guests are interested in food. My manager asks me to find out more about the party and checks where I plan to seat them.

Later, when they are settled at one of our better tables, all of the managers are reminded of the group, and we let the server and the kitchen know of their presence. I walk by, hoping to recognize one of them, having spent the last half hour trying to piece together who the critics could be. I only identify the man who made the reservation; he is in fact a PR guy for a tourism bureau, not a critic. I cruise by a few more times to catch snippets of conversation, listening for clues. Though the guests remain mysteries, they are still treated with care. The server is given a “note”—a discreet square of paper—that contains the information provided by the PR guy when he made his reservation.

As a host at a fine-dining restaurant, I also gathered information on him based on some simple Google searches, which turned up his job title and picture on his LinkedIn page. When confirming his reservation earlier that day, he volunteered he would be dining with food writers, so the fact that a group of restaurant critics may or may not be seated around the table is extremely relevant. This is why it’s also on the slip of paper. While the group doesn’t receive complimentary flutes of champagne and the chef doesn’t stop by to greet them, the service is flawless. When guests leave the table before the petits fours arrive, the server rushes after them to offer the sweets and a selection of artfully designed chocolates.

Restaurant critics are top priority guests in Toronto’s fine restaurants. In the sea of options, diners often turn to newspapers and magazines to help inform their decisions. For this reason, a known restaurant critic may be favoured with extra courses, a visit from the chef, or a new cocktail the server will insist she must try. The server, whether he recognizes the critic or not, will be given a note based on research compiled by hosts that’s stored in the computer under the critic’s reservation name; it could contain intel about a diner’s allergies, anniversaries, and favourite food and wine. In an effort to ensure perfect service, all of the notes about VIP guests are read out at a staff meal before the restaurant opens. The manager on duty presides, discussing details of all important guests, with critics being at the top of the list.

Staff who ace the name game are prized. One hostess, who has worked at high-end restaurants in Toronto’s tony Yorkville area and the financial district, recalls a manager who could recognize and name critics as soon as they walked into the room, without referring to the reservations database or the web. Meanwhile, in New York, some restaurants, like Eleven Madison Park, have greeters who spend hours researching guests to the extent that when they arrive, no one asks for the reservation name, but can instead recognize them from memory. Toronto hosts are moving in that direction, which makes the jobs of supposedly anonymous restaurant critics increasingly difficult.

Anonymity has long been considered necessary for restaurant critics who strive to be objective and fair. However, even before today’s advanced surveillance tactics, restaurants were outsmarting some of the most respected food critics for quite some time. Back when one of Joanne Kates’s reviews could make or break a restaurant’s reputation, there were photos of her plastered to the walls of Toronto’s top kitchens. Today, critics have to leave an invisible online footprint in order to be anonymous and must be constantly attuned to service that goes beyond what a regular diner would receive.

In 1993, New York Times restaurant critic Ruth Reichl experienced the difference anonymity can make when she dined at the exclusive Le Cirque five times in the span of five months. On the first three occasions, the incognito Reichl was left waiting for tables in the smoking section and next to server stations, then subjected to indifferent service. The fourth time, restaurateur Sirio Maccioni finally recognized her, though only after she received her petits fours. Immediately, those small treats were replaced by a plate overflowing with sweets, including raspberries three times the size they were when she was an unknown patron. On her fifth visit, she was swept away to the best table in the house, ahead of other patrons who had been waiting for tables, and served champagne instantly.

Reichl wrote two reviews: “Dinner as the Unknown Diner” (“[A]s I pay the bill I find myself wishing that when the maitre d’ asked if I had a reservation, I had just said no and left”) and “Dinner as a Most Favored Patron” (“I walk reluctantly out into the cool evening air, sorry to leave this fabulous circus”). In case her point wasn’t clear enough, she accompanied the two write-ups with the observation that “[N]obody goes to Le Cirque just to eat. People go for the experience of being in a great restaurant. Sometimes they get it; sometimes they don’t. It all depends on who they are.”

Keenly aware of this, Chris Nuttall-Smith, who replaced the legendary Kates as The Globe and Mail’s Toronto restaurant critic in May 2012, assumes he is recognized when he walks into a restaurant, though there are no images of him online or in print. So he is always watching other tables, comparing regular diners’ experiences to his own, and keeping an eye out for special treatment. Once, when a chef spotted him and made a visit to his table, he says he did not “return the warmth,” and made it clear that he disliked the attention. Nuttall-Smith says the only thing he can be sure of is that a restaurant doesn’t know he is coming. He also has a “rotating cast” of credit cards, with different names on them, none of which is his own. He even masks his IP address when making reservations online, changes his phone number at least every two weeks, and uses a variety of fake names, which he switches frequently.

Other reviewers aren’t so careful about protecting their identities. “There are a few critics in this city that, even though it’s not their own name, it’s a name that they have been using for 20 years,” he says. “Everybody knows who is coming in, and they will swan in and there will be flutes of champagne on the table.” Nuttall-Smith describes how readers are disadvantaged: “[Some reviewers] can’t understand all these people that say they get bad treatment and think that as long as you treat people nicely, restaurants are always great to you. Which is just false, it’s a lie, it’s an illusion.”

Dan Kislenko, The Hamilton Spectator’s critic, also takes precautions against receiving special treatment. On the rare occasion that he makes a reservation—he usually just drops in—it is under his wife’s name. They also use her credit card to pay for the meal; when she isn’t his dining companion, he will pay cash. As he sits down to eat at a restaurant, he chooses his seat to ensure his writing hand is the farthest from the server’s sight, and often hides his notepad on his lap with a discretion that comes from years of practice. If a server questions his scribbling, Kislenko will say he is planning a party and is taking notes on the restaurant to see if it would be an appropriate venue.

To the best of his knowledge, Kislenko has rarely been found out, which is of the utmost importance to him. “My goal is to be as accurate as I can be based on the experience I had at this place, without embellishment. I always keep in mind that you have to be fair,” he says.

On the other hand, Alexandra Gill, the Globe’s Vancouver-based reviewer, believes that it is close to impossible to be anonymous, so she simply tries not to draw attention to herself. She recalls a time when she figured out the identity of fellow critic Mia Stainsby, who writes for The Vancouver Sun. Gill was reviewing a restaurant when she noticed that a woman at the table beside her was asking questions about the dishes that Gill herself might ask when critiquing. That, plus a few details she knew about Stainsby, tipped her off. “If I can figure it out, every other restaurateur or chef or waiter who is trying, they will figure it out too,” Gill says. “It’s a charade, but you can still be honest about what you are writing and create some distance between you and your subjects. I applaud her for trying, but I just don’t think it’s reasonable.”

Nevertheless, it’s unlikely Gill would think of walking into a restaurant lugging camera gear, as one high-profile food blogger recently did at Sabai Sabai. Seng Luong and Jason Jiang, two owners of the new Thai eatery in downtown Toronto, also describe how some bloggers have asked for free meals in turn for reviews. “We politely decline. To me, the real critics don’t normally ask for free meals,” Luong says. “I would feel like we are trading meals for a review. It just doesn’t seem right; they should have honest opinions about their experiences.”

It’s not just bloggers who are accepting meals gratis, says Gill, whose own monthly Globe reviewing budget is $500 (recently dropped from $600). Some smaller papers rely on sending critics to media dinners—special events put on by restaurants that can feature lots of alcohol and multiple courses, sometimes including items they are just trying out or are not on the menu. Gill says many publications publish reviews based on the enhanced dining experiences at these events. “They wouldn’t be able to have a restaurant critic if they weren’t receiving free meals,” she says. “I can barely do it on a Globe budget.”

While bona fide critics agree that an entire free meal obviously crosses ethical boundaries, a free cocktail or amuse-bouche is viewed as fair by many. Gill, for example, says she will not review a restaurant without paying the full bill, but she will accept a small extra course.

“Even The New York Times has said that they get a special course sent to their dinner. I’m not going to refuse that all the time, because that’s not going to compromise my integrity. If I have ordered a full dinner and the chef knows that I am in the restaurant and he or she knows there is something that they really want me to try, then I will accept that,” Gill says. “That is not going to change my whole opinion about what happened that entire meal.”

But restaurants will keep trying to bolster opinions by cosseting critics. As a food blogger arrived for lunch one Sunday afternoon, I overheard my manager telling a colleague it was the reviewer’s policy to pay for all his meals. He sat at the chef’s table, peering into the open kitchen and asking the chef questions about his creations. The reviewer’s preference to pay was noted in his file and respected, though not without receiving additional treats.

As the manager put it: “We will let them pay. We will just give them some extra stuff.”

Illustration by Miko Maciaszek

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