By Karin Vandraiss
In January, Jonathan Gold of the LA Times became the latest restaurant critic to make headlines by revealing his long-protected persona to the public.
In what is now rather formulaic fashion, Gold penned an essay detailing years upholding the pretense of anonymity, accompanied by a headshot sans his usual kitschy disguise. Like many critics, Gold has acknowledged the not-so-secret nature of his identity for some time, writing that he has become “adept at pretending not to notice that a restaurant staff is pretending not to notice me noticing them noticing me.”
New York Magazine’s Adam Platt started the trend in 2013, stating that it was high time for his readers to learn what restaurateurs had known for years, and to end his role in the “dated charade” that is the anonymous critic. Reviewers from San Francisco to Chicago followed in quick succession, all claiming to have come to the same conclusion: no one is anonymous anymore.
Platt acquiesces that his announcement came at the “prodding and endorsement of his editors,” and skirts the question of “Why now?” by citing examples of foreign writers who never pretended to be anonymous and New York critics who gave up that particular ghost years ago.
While some maintain that the traditional methods are necessary for impartiality, in the words of Gold, “In general, a kitchen team tends to cook about as well as it cooks.” And those who think restaurants don’t already have mug shots of local critics taped up in the kitchen are kidding themselves.
A better question then, might be one of motivation, rather than timing. In a culture saturated by social media, the restaurant critic has been all but replaced by a multitude of food bloggers who satisfy our hunger for instant gratification with to-the-minute updates and Instagram-filtered photos.
In an interview in 2012, restaurant critic Jonathan Kauffman of the San Francisco Chronicle said “Frankly, the practice of anonymity can be a marketing tool.” But with today’s readers becoming increasingly adamant about transparency, accessibility and immediacy, the critic can no longer rest on the laurels of mystery to garner readership.
The days of Gael Greene and her wide-brimmed hats are over (even she’d become weary of the act by the time she left New York Magazine), and the restaurant critic runs the risk of falling into obscurity as carefully-worded criticisms are drowned out by the dull roar of the blogosphere.
Perhaps what we’re seeing now is a shrewd marketing move to bring the restaurant critic back into the public eye. By revealing a critic’s identity, a distance is closed. The reader is let in on a secret, and may become a regular reader, drawn first by novelty, and later by loyalty.
Perhaps the next generation of restaurant critics (providing there is one) will slip back behind the Oz-like wall of anonymity. Then we’ll be back in a strategic round of frivolous hide-and seek between chefs and those who critique them.
If not, their game was fun to watch while it lasted.