Thursday, July 25, 2013

The Anonymity of Restaurant Reviewers

In DisguiseI haven't done one of these "ZOMG! Controversy in the food world!!!" posts in a while, but the furor over Pete Wells dropping Daniel down to three stars while using a secret diner seemed interesting enough to make note of and comment on. You can either read the whole review or get a lengthy summary at Eater, but the gist is that restaurants know who Pete Wells is and what he looks like. Being that getting (or not losing) that star from a place like the New York Times means significant money to these restaurants, they work hard to identify when any influential critic sits down in their restaurant and make sure to give them an impeccable experience. In Daniel's case that seems to have risen to the level of preferential treatment, where Well's colleague didn't get nearly the same level of service that he did. [As a side note, the inverse of this is Yelpers seeking preferential treatment in exchange for a good review]

The first thing to note, as L.V. Anderson does, is that the inner workings of the restaurant reviewing process of four star restaurants (and $150+ tasting menus) is not exactly the biggest issue facing the food world. On the other hand, these kind of restaurants are the places most of us can only go once a year (at most) on a birthday or anniversary, and it's exactly the type of place where you need a professional reviewer. You can sift the wheat from the chaff in Yelp! reviews and check Chowhound threads easily enough for Saturday night's dinner reservation, but not so much when you are trying to choose between your city's finest restaurants (or even more challenging: another city's finest restaurants). The idea that said professional reviewer is getting an experience that you will never see definitely undercuts the utility of their review, and it's not a new thing to worry about: Ruth Reichl famously went in disguise and as herself to compare the experiences back in the 90's. In the social media age the idea that a prominent food critic could be truly an anonymous diner like the rest of us seems pretty far fetched.

The aforementioned L.V. Anderson thinks this means critics should stop pretending they're anonymous, but it's difficult to know exactly what that means. Surely Pete Wells making all of his reservations under the name Pete Wells isn't going to help (though I do like the idea of all New Yorkers making reservations under the name Pete Wells). I suspect that reviewers simply need to more explicitly employ secret diners to evaluate service: an anonymous New York Times employee gets a free dinner at a fancy restaurant and Mr. Wells gets a better idea of what the average joe will experience. We need people like Pete Wells to evaluate what's coming out of the kitchen, but clearly some other strategy needs to be employed to gauge service.