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Anonymous Restaurant Reviewing: Journalistic Gold Standard or Antiquated Parlor Game?

MISSION: INCOGNITO: I’m a card-carrying member of a dwindling species: anonymous restaurant reviewer. Is the ruse still crucial? Or is the jig up?

Illustration of anonymous reviewerWhen I joined Chicago magazine’s dining staff in 1997, my first task was to pick a pseudonym for my corporate charge card so I could review restaurants anonymously. I chose Evan Waterford, which I kept forgetting at crucial moments. At Scoozi!, I told the hostess I was there for the Waterman party, then watched while she scanned the reservations. “I’m sorry, I’m not seeing Waterman,” she said. “But we do have a Waterford.” Oh. That’s me. I’m Waterford.

For years, my dinner companions gamely called me Evan and found my doppelgänger far more dynamic than I ever was. Waterford was a cloak-and-dagger bon vivant who surreptitiously murmured into a hidden tape recorder, picked up the check, and tipped well. Ruby ate Taco Bell in the car. On the dreadful night my wife called me Evan in bed, though she swears she was joking, I took a pair of kitchen shears and turned Evan Waterford into a dozen thin strips of plastic in my garbage can. Rest in pieces, you smug bastard.

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Lately, I’ve been missing the guy. My new alter ego is just another food writer in a world full of them. While I fuss over anonymity, my foodie friends introduce themselves to the chef so they can watch her butcher a pig for their blogs. Waterford 2.0 is scrapping for turf with one arm tied behind his back.

The case for anonymity is familiar: The best means to give readers a true picture of a meal is by eating it like a civilian. “You get the real food, the real service, the real experience,” says Alan Richman, GQ’s widely recognized dining critic. If a known critic like Richman is in the house, a smart owner alerts the kitchen and puts his best server on that table. “Any [restaurateur] who tells you differently is bullshitting you,” says John Manion, a veteran chef currently planning a Latin restaurant on Chicago’s West Side. “Or maybe themselves.”

With everyone around me overtly snapping photos of their salmon and posting instant reviews online, my cat-and-mouse game recalls a dusty epoch when sassy yentas like Ruth Reichl and Gael Greene donned elaborate disguises. Anonymity today is like trying to waltz in a mosh pit. S. Irene Virbila, a Los Angeles Times reviewer, was dragged from her closet by a vindictive owner who booted her from his restaurant and posted her photo online. Much of cyberspace applauded him. The New York Times has taken few pains to hide the identity of Sam Sifton, its current critic.

Should I remain anonymous? When I put the question to industry folks, their responses fell along generational lines. Most veteran chefs prefer not knowing my identity, either citing the anxiety a visit from a known critic can induce in the staff or claiming they treat everyone like a VIP. Others believe anonymity is so crucial that publications should replace critics every five years. But that’s the old guard talking. The new guard says that game is over. Ryan Poli, opening Tavernita later this year, says he can spot a writer “from a block away.” Jim Miner, a Yelp die-hard who once called me “snotty and self-serving,” urges me to come out so I can write more personal food stories. “If you can go public and maintain your integrity,” says Paul Fehribach of Andersonville’s Big Jones, “I’d say there’s no reason not to.” What does all this mean? You tell me. (No, really. Weigh in in the comments section below.)

Manion says the only way to keep up with today’s news cycle is to maintain personal connections with chefs (i.e., not through Twitter). “On one hand, remaining anonymous is paramount to journalistic integrity,” he says. “On the other, we all know that the rules are out the window.” Every time I’m ready to follow them out that window, I think of Evan Waterford, and I stop. Then again, I’m pretty sure he’s still sleeping with my wife.

 

Illustration: Kagan McLeod

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