The Evolution of Restaurant Critics

Restaurant critics occupy an odd space in the professional world, straddling the line between foodservice and journalism. In many cases, a restaurant critic can make or break a new restaurant’s reputation. While social media has contributed to the rise of influencers, many people still prefer the more traditional restaurant review medium of dedicated newspaper columns penned by critics who depend on a veil of anonymity. However, the internet is making secrecy harder than ever, contributing to the rapid evolution of the role of the restaurant critic.

Critical History

The first writer credited with penning critiques of restaurants is 18th Century French socialite Alexandre Balthazar Laurent Grimod de La Reynière, who wrote eight volumes of the Almanach des Gourmands, a series that combined restaurant guides and food criticism. Reynière also founded a group for critics that put out a monthly journal that discussed dishes prepared by top Parisian restaurants. Later, he would be accused of accepting bribes in exchange for positive reviews, leading him to cancel his publications and move away from Paris – but not before faking his own death simply to see how many people would attend his funeral.

Almanach des Gourmands title page and illustration

Despite the popularity of restaurant guides in the early 1900s, the job title we recognize today as “restaurant critic” did not come into being until 1963, when The New York Times’ Craig Claiborne introduced the star scale, initially with three stars and revised a year later to the four-star format most publications use today. Claiborne set many of the standards used by modern food critics, including dining anonymously, which ensured he got the same experience a regular diner would, rather than one tailored to earn stars. He also paid with funds from the newspaper that employed him, rather than being given free meals by the restaurant, and kept his column free of advertising to ensure he was beholden to no one in the industry.

Abandoning Anonymity

The detachment and anonymity that Claiborne enjoyed are becoming harder for modern critics to maintain. Many must now choose between taking increasingly extreme measures to maintain their secrecy and abandoning the ways of the past by revealing their faces to the public. Restaurant critics have long gone to extremes to maintain their anonymity, including making reservations and using credit cards with fake names, donning disguises with hats and glasses, and taking notes in the bathroom to avoid detection. Twenty years ago, this approach may have worked, but with the widespread use of camera phones and the easy sharing offered by social media, anonymous food critics are a dying breed. Chefs and restaurant owners have always been invested in identifying food critics, many going as far as training employees on how to spot food critics, offering bonuses to those who identify one, and posting “mug shots” of known critics in their kitchens. Today’s technology makes it easier than ever to identify critics, with some websites going out of their way to post any photos and descriptions they can find of well-known food critics. This increased scrutiny has forced restaurant critics to adapt.

A growing number of restaurant critics are abandoning anonymity, posting photos of themselves online in dramatic reveals. Renowned restaurant critic Adam Platt was one of the first to step out of the shadows, abandoning what he described as a “dated charade.” Platt, along with many other food writers, claimed that most industry professionals are skilled at spotting restaurant critics.

“I will continue to book restaurant tables at odd hours, under a string of ridiculously random made-up names, because more than a wig or a false set of whiskers, the art of surprise has always been the critic’s most useful tool,” said Platt in the New York Magazine article where he revealed his identity in 2013.

Aside from the potential for preferential treatment at restaurants, losing anonymity can also lead to other repercussions, like restaurants publicly fighting back against unfavorable reviews.

Restaurant critics are facing another internet-birthed challenge: the purported “death of print.” Newspaper readerships have declined dramatically as more readers get their news online, leading to mass layoffs at some of the biggest papers in the country. With the hefty spending accounts necessary to maintain consistent restaurant reviews, even well-known restaurant critics have found themselves unexpectedly jobless as the newspaper industry struggles to find its place in an increasingly digital world.

Feeding the Foodies

The nerves associated with being reviewed, combined with the fluctuating state of the restaurant critic profession leaves some restaurateurs unsure of what to do if they recognize a restaurant critic in their dining rooms. Katharine Shilcutt of The Houston Press addressed this conundrum after being recognized at one of the restaurants she reviewed. In her article, Shilcutt implores chefs and owners to not make a scene or point out the critic, recalling past instances where chefs would call industry colleagues to come inside the restaurant just to look at her.

The major takeaway seems to be that critics want to be treated like any other paying customer, emphasis on the “paying.” Critics agree that comped meals compromise the integrity of their reviews and can make things awkward when the critic insists on paying.

If the worst should happen and your restaurant receives a less-than-stellar review, resist the urge to retaliate publicly on social media or boot the critic from your restaurant the next time he or she shows up, as this can lead to negative publicity for all involved. Instead, remain professional, and extend an invitation to the critic to return for another meal. This shows the critic and your customers you are dedicated to providing a positive experience, and the courtesy might earn your restaurant’s redemption in the critic’s column.

Courtney Barkley
Courtney Barkley

Courtney Barkley has lived in nearly as many southeastern states as most Americans have probably visited, settling in East Tennessee in early 2013. She and her husband Thomas were married during ShadoCon 2012 – an anime, gaming, and comics convention – in a ceremony that featured a reading about dinosaurs in love from a friend dressed as Doctor Who. She spends her free time chasing her brilliant and imaginative son Nathan, hanging out with friends, binge-watching shows, playing video games, and keeping up with the characters of the Marvel Universe. And, any chance she gets, she sneaks off to Florida to visit friends and the happiest place on earth – Disney World.

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