Two Cheers for Anonymity
View various ways Jonathan Gold has concealed his identity in Anne Fishbein's slideshow, "Two Cheers for Anonymity: The Many Mysterious Faces of Jonathan Gold."
Anonymity, it has long been held, is the proper state of being for restaurant critics, who would otherwise be feted with rare wines, exquisite nibbles and a level of hospitality unavailable to diners equipped merely with their wit and a working American Express card. Anonymity in a restaurant critic is not a state of grace, and will never win out over hard work and an intimate knowledge of cuisine, but it is probably superior to celebrity, and to that end should be encouraged.
A truly anonymous critic, for I was one for many years, has the advantage of a table in the least convenient corner of the dining room, a server not far removed from his days at the Olive Garden, and a headwaiter glimpsed only on his way to the washroom, which is almost always at our elbow. If last week's halibut is being passed off as this evening's special, we are the first to have it foisted upon us. If there is a view, or a charming garden, or a table at which Lady Gaga is dining with Justin Bieber, the governor-elect and the violist from the Emerson String Quartet, they exist to us only as hearsay. When a well-connected friend gushes to us the next day about the intellectual presence of the sommelier, we can only shrug, because as far as we can tell, she never came within 50 feet of us. If one's purpose is to describe social alienation rather than cuisine, this is ideal: There may be no better way to experience class resentment than to be the sole anonymous person in a grand dining room.
I bring this up because in a well-publicized incident last week, S. Irene Virbila, the longtime restaurant critic of the Los Angeles Times, was kept waiting 45 minutes for a table at the new restaurant Red Medicine on a busy night, then photographed, told by one of the owners that she was not welcome in the restaurant, and "outed" in a rather unflattering picture posted on the restaurant's Tumblr site.
For the first time, a picture of Virbila was in wide general circulation, and sites like Yelp and Chowhound, food blogs and newspaper portals exploded with a bitter froth of schadenfreude and outrage, sympathy and smirking contempt. Most correspondents concurred that the incident was nasty and uncalled for, but there was an undercurrent of worry: Would she still be able to do her job?
Virbila is far from the first critic to be publicly exposed, of course. Craig LaBan of The Philadelphia Inquirer was famously unmasked when he was forced to give a deposition in a lawsuit brought by a restaurateur whose steak house he had slammed, and a website just this year staked out Manhattan KFCs when New York Times critic Sam Sifton hinted on his Twitter feed that he was on his way to buy a Double Down. My mentor Ruth Reichl wrote an entire book about the disguises she assumed as the critic for The New York Times. My own unmasking came when a well-meaning photo assistant posted a picture of my Pulitzer celebration in the Weekly's old offices, and by the time anybody realized what had happened, the snapshot of me drenched in Champagne was all over the country.
Anonymity is one of the first things people tend to wonder about restaurant critics, along with the question of who pays for the meals (the newspaper), how many times they return to restaurants before a review (at least three), and how they remain thin in the face of so many rich meals (I don't tend to be asked that one very often). And it's fun to unmask critics, in the same sense that it's fun to discover the first name of one's sixth-grade teacher. There is a thrill, and a cheap sense of power.
But of course what is being lost for restaurant critics is less anonymity than plausible deniability. It is extremely hard for a major critic in a big city to stay unknown for more than a few months, especially in the age of Twitter and the iPhone, and even the most nondescript among us — ex–New York Times critic Biff Grimes looks as if he was born on the 4:35 to Larchmont — become known to managers and maître d's. I remember the day I was "made" in New York: A friend at my magazine wanted to eat at Babbo a couple of hours earlier than the time I was able to book, and used her clout to get a 7 p.m. table. The next day, at an unrelated place across town, I just knew: The waiters were slightly more attentive, the plating slightly more elegant, that elusive ease that usually comes only with a third or fourth visit to a restaurant was present the first time through the doors.
Being known as a critic also can manifest itself in more obvious ways. At a new restaurant in Las Vegas a decade ago, a manager recognized me just after the first course was served to me at my seat behind a pillar, and had busboys physically lift the table, food and all, out from Siberia and into the center of the room. After the Pulitzer, a guy ahead of me in line at a Belvedere taqueria once said: "You're that guy. That guy who won that thing." I have had my photograph tweeted from a restaurant before the appetizers even arrived.
But a good critic never allows himself or herself to become accustomed to this treatment, and even the least of us notices when an amuse-bouche multiplies in size, when we are served three langoustines instead of two, or when the sauce on our plate is prepared à la minute instead of ladled from a bowl.
Our secret, if we have one, is that we tend to err on the side of kindness — we are looking for things to praise, not things to mock.
But even in Los Angeles, which for decades has been one of the most creative restaurant cities in the world, there are at most a dozen, a dozen and a half noteworthy mainstream restaurants that open each year, restaurants that push the dialogue forward. (When I was the critic for monthlies like California and Los Angeles here and Gourmet in New York, I still found it difficult to find 12 restaurants interesting enough to contemplate at length — although, I admit, some chefs whose food I thought too boring to review have earned international reputations for their dull cuisine.)
Is there a place for negative reviews? Sure. But at the Weekly, I am lucky enough to write for editors who agree that a great bowl of dan dan mian is as culturally important as the 43rd wild-mushroom flatbread or the 19th-best spaghetti putanesca in town.
A restaurant critic does spend a lot of his or her time in restaurants that are some combination of incompetent and dull, and as anybody who's ever spent time grading papers can tell you, there is nothing more aggravating than splitting the difference between an A- and a B+.
I have no beef with Red Medicine. I liked the meals that the staff prepared in the first weeks at Test Kitchen, and I'll probably enjoy what they do in their own space. I can even understand, almost, why they felt obligated to do what they did: They had kept Virbila waiting, they were slammed, she had been pretty brutal to chef Jordan Kahn's desserts when he was the pastry chef at Michael Mina's XIV, and they sensed disaster. It was a panicked move, and I suspect they knew it was dumb even as they were doing it. They did no real harm to Virbila — if anything, they lent her pluckiness — but they made themselves look second-rate.
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