I better not have spinach in my teeth, because I’m stepping out from behind the curtain.
I’ve been an anonymous restaurant critic since 1991, and for the past 10 years at the Tampa Bay Times. I’ve made it a point to not show my face in print or on tampabay.com, unlike our other critics and columnists. Until now.
The rationale for anonymity is this: It allows a food critic to be like every other diner, to have the same kind of experience the guy at the next table is having. And that’s the point.
Restaurant reviewing is more akin to theater criticism than it is reviewing books or movies. It is evaluating a live performance, different every night. However, while stage performers may know that a critic is out there taking crabbed notes in the dark, they seldom interact with the critic directly. A restaurateur, once a critic has been spied, can heap on the food, assign the best waiter, hover over every need.
So why change it now?
I am one of a few dozen full-time food critics still employed by major U.S. dailies in 2018. Newspapers have shrunk, food sections have dwindled, food critics have frequently been given the heave-ho. A couple of years ago, I moderated a panel at a conference on the issue of anonymity. In preparation, I took a poll. Of the 44 papers I asked, 22 had anonymous critics and 22 had critics who were open about their identity.
We debated: Was it desirable? Was it even feasible? Weren’t critics kidding themselves — in this digital age, didn’t every restaurant have a picture of us hanging in the back? Indeed, former Los Angeles Times restaurant critic S. Irene Virbila was famously outed, and ousted, by a restaurant that had a beef with her writing.
Google my name: A lot of people who are not me but, yup, there’s me. My predecessor at this paper, Chris Sherman, who did the job admirably for many years, looks like the love child of Santa Claus and Wilford Brimley, with a little Dalí in the mustache. I’m guessing people knew who he was.
And, in a way, haven’t Yelp and Trip Advisor created a meritocracy? Everyone can render a verdict on restaurants, and those verdicts are increasingly meaningful as diners eat out more, creating more educated eaters and a larger sample size. There is rough justice: If 500 diners weigh in on a place, you start to get an accurate picture of its food, service, ambience and price point.
I am not talking myself out of a job. Nor is this a capitulation.
If you eat out 200 times a year on someone else’s dime, the thing you have in spades is perspective. In the past decade or so, we’ve been through the most transformative period in culinary history — critics provide the framework, background and even the vocabulary with which the dialogue about food continues.
Restaurant criticism isn’t a hallowed profession. It was essentially invented by Craig Claiborne at the New York Times in the early 1960s. Food writing had previously been on newspapers’ "women’s pages" (Food Fashions Family Furnishings!), mostly casserole recipes adjacent to "how to grow a better begonia." He started telling people which restaurants were good and which weren’t, and people started paying attention.
The first 15 years of my career I called myself a food writer, not a journalist. I was a former cook and a professionally trained chef, could drill down on a wine list’s strengths and talk about mother sauces and such.
But the world is changing and I increasingly think of my beat more broadly. I believe there’s never been a more important time to write about food. Just as more people care about the provenance of what they eat, the food system has become infinitely more complex and opaque and the institutions for policing such things have become weaker. In 2016 I did my first real food investigation, called Farm to Fable, for which I was a Pulitzer and James Beard finalist. (I’m fine, really.)
I find myself writing more about agriculture, because with only 2 percent of American families involved in agriculture these days, it feels like pulling the curtain back on a mysterious world. I write about new food technology and industry innovators, about the confusing and conflicting pronouncements of nutrition science, about how the food system works. And about how it doesn’t.
One of the first things you learn in Journalism 101 is to hang up the phone, get out of the office, go to where the story is, be present. I’ve blown my cover with chefs and restaurateurs when a story has seemed "worth it," but there are stories that have been weaker, or that I haven’t gotten, in order to preserve that anonymity.
So what will this mean in the future? I will still make reservations under other names and visit restaurants unannounced. I won’t take anything for free and the Times will pay for my meals. And if I am "made" at a restaurant? I’ll discourage hovering, will watch the service and portion sizes of those around me (tip to restaurateurs: more is not always more in my book), and will hope that everyone involved comports themselves with dignity and professionalism.
My stories will be accompanied by a picture now. You may see me judging a chili cook-off or introducing a cookbook author at the Tampa Bay Times Festival of Reading. And if you spot me at a restaurant? Give me a wink and enjoy your meal.
Contact Laura Reiley at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley.