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9 replies to this topic

#1 Lesley C

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Posted 27 May 2003 - 02:30 PM

Hi Tom, :smile:
Welcome to eGullet.
Could you say a few words about the importance of anonymity in this job. The topic has been widely discussed here. Some pretty heavy hitters (OK Shaw and Steve Klc) said they don't think it matters. I think it's essential. Care to add your two cents?
Also, have you ever resorted to a disguise? Any funny stories to share?

#2 Tom Sietsema

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Posted 29 May 2003 - 06:19 AM

(Hi Lesley!) I am a big believer in trying to experience restaurants as
an anonymous diner, though it gets harder and harder as time goes on and
people in the business learn what I look like.

Restaurant criticism is much different from other forms of arts examination. An author can’t change the ending of a book to suit every reviewer, for example. But a restaurateur can do a lot of things, short of firing the chef, to make a dining experience more pleasurable for a recognized reviewer, from giving him or her the best seat and the most polished waiter to making sure his or her plates all look ready for their close-ups. Details such as those
can obviously alter one’s perception of a restaurant.

In the past, when I’ve been spotted, I’ve been offered different stemware for my wine, had the general manager as my server, and even been offered the suit jacket of a maitre d’ when I showed up in his dining room, dripping with rain from an unexpected storm. Would that have happened to John Doe? Probably not.

I do have disguises, but prefer not to detail them here. I’m still a working critic, after all.

#3 Fat Guy

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Posted 29 May 2003 - 07:15 AM

In the past, when I’ve been spotted, I’ve been offered different stemware for my wine, had the general manager as my server, and even been offered the suit jacket of a maitre d’ when I showed up in his dining room, dripping with rain from an unexpected storm. Would that have happened to John Doe? Probably not.

But Tom, if you're aware that you've been spotted and you're able to identify the specific forms of special treatment you've received, don't you think you can "adjust" for that? I mean, aren't you too much of a battle-hardened veteran to be fooled by anything short of a Truman Show-esque reinvention of an entire restaurant?

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#4 BBhasin

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Posted 29 May 2003 - 07:41 AM

In the past, when I’ve been spotted, I’ve been offered different stemware for my wine, had the general manager as my server, and even been offered the suit jacket of a maitre d’ when I showed up in his dining room, dripping with rain from an unexpected storm. Would that have happened to John Doe? Probably not.

But Tom, if you're aware that you've been spotted and you're able to identify the specific forms of special treatment you've received, don't you think you can "adjust" for that? I mean, aren't you too much of a battle-hardened veteran to be fooled by anything short of a Truman Show-esque reinvention of an entire restaurant?

Phyllis Richman, in the washington post Dining Guide,
" what changes most when I am recognised as a critic is not the quality of food, but the service and sometimes the portion size "
She also mentions a bit about how she 'adjusts' for that. I am sure Tom does all that and more. He is not going to tell us all though, we have to wait till he retires and his book comes out.
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#5 Tom Sietsema

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Posted 29 May 2003 - 08:13 AM

I certainly pay attention to what kind of treatment the diners around my table are getting and occasionally send in food spies (trusted pals) to gauge the way a restaurant deals with anonymous diners. And last year, for my fall dining guide, I visited a half dozen prominent restaurants where I knew the staff knew me, wearing heavy disguise. (Boy, did my night at the Inn at Little Washington ever feel different than in years past! )

#6 Bux

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Posted 29 May 2003 - 08:21 AM

Only half jokingly it was once suggested to me that if I wanted to eat really well, I should arrange to get the table next that of a prominent critic. :biggrin:
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#7 Rachel Perlow

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Posted 29 May 2003 - 09:22 AM

We have dined in the past with a (different) reviewer, and I think one of the things that helps him know if the service is per usual is us. That is, he sometimes takes us to places that we have suggested to him to review. We've been there, we already know what the service and food is like. If they changed their modus operandi we'd be able to tell him.

Do you ever do anything similar, Tom?

#8 Tom Sietsema

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Posted 29 May 2003 - 01:56 PM

One of the great things about working for a place like the Post, which takes restaurant criticism seriously, is that I can go to a place as many times as I think I need to to get a sense of the restaurant.

If I know someone has a history or a relationship with a place, I might include that person on one of those visits. That tells me something about the restaurant. So, too, does experiencing the dining room as a solo guest; I sometimes go out by myself, in part because Washington has loads of singles who eat out and in part because, quite frankly, I'm tired of having to be the good party host. (Restaurant reviewing is not for the shy or the anti-social.)

#9 Fat Guy

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Posted 29 May 2003 - 03:02 PM

Tom, can you tell us about some instances where, if you hadn't used disguises, assumed names, etc., you'd likely have been tricked into writing a different review?

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)


#10 Tom Sietsema

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Posted 31 May 2003 - 06:08 AM

Not sure I understand the question?

I think it's tough for a restaurant to abruptly shift course or its MO in the presence of a recognized critic. And I really hate the two-tiered system of service one encounters at certain Big Deal restaurants, where regulars are fawned over and newbies are ignored.