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Bruni and Beyond: Reviewing (2008)


Nathan
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The thing is, either way (Adour overrated or Adour correctly rated) the logic doesn't argue for occasional anonymity. The star ratings are relative. Under an occasional anonymity scenario, if Adour was overrated (which I doubt), it's because Bruni was recognized and successfully gamed there but not at some number of other restaurants. Perhaps 100% anonymity would have some merit, but 15-20% anonymity is at best a joke and at worst a game of Russian roulette.

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)

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The thing is, either way (Adour overrated or Adour correctly rated) the logic doesn't argue for occasional anonymity. The star ratings are relative. Under an occasional anonymity scenario, if Adour was overrated (which I doubt), it's because Bruni was recognized and successfully gamed there but not at some number of other restaurants. Perhaps 100% anonymity would have some merit, but 15-20% anonymity is at best a joke and at worst a game of Russian roulette.

I know that Bruni is recognized at the best restaurants in New York. I was told by jean georges himself that I was sitting next to him at the bar during the time he was reviewing the restaurant. The top restaurants often let their competion know his disguises and pseudonyms as well.

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Again... since we all recognize that the Times reviewer is recognized by at least 80% of the restaurants he reviews, can we think of any instances where it's clear that he was successfully gamed to the extent that his review clearly overrates the restaurant versus the consensus of other "anonymous" non-soignéed customers?  If the answer is no, I don't see how there can be any tangible basis for furthering the argument for anonymity.

It seems to me that there are only two possibilities. The first is that the 20% of the time when he is not recognized gives the critic valuable perspective that he otherwise would not have. The second is that he gains nothing by that 20%, and the outcome would be the same if he waltzed in every time and announced himself as Frank Bruni.

Well, if the best argument you can make is that anonymity isn't much help, that's still not an argument for abandoning it. If anonymity were abandoned, the reviews can only stay the same or get worse. They only way a non-anonymous Bruni could improve his reviews is by using his position to obtain "extras" that the average, non-VIP diner cannot get. If he's going to continue to do what he does today — that is, to attempt to dine as the ordinary patron does — then he cannot possibly gain anything by shedding his anonymity.

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He (and we) would gain a level playing field for all restaurants, regardless of whether they recognized him or not; an end to the destructive game of cat-and-mouse that currently lingers in every aspect of the reviewing process; he would no longer be complicit in perpetuating the toxic myth that all restaurants are out to cheat us; he would no longer be living a contradiction, knowing that he's mostly recognized but projecting a myth of anonymity for the public "benefit"; and he could improve his access to chefs and restaurants so as to be able to spend time in kitchens, interview his subjects face to face, and do what normally would be considered good reporting in any other area of journalism.

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)

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I'm guessing that, at this point, my question as to whether we can think of any instances where it's clear that a major reviewer in NYC was successfully gamed to the extent that his/her review clearly overrates the restaurant versus the consensus of other "anonymous" non-soignéed customers is answered with a resounding "no."

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There was that Ruth Reichl review of Le Cirque where she claimed to go both anonymously and non-anonymously and had very different experiences. That was probably about 10 years ago. I'm not sure if it bears directly on that query, though.

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)

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Other than highlighting the fact that regulars and celebrities get different treatment from complete unknowns, I don't see how it would make a difference. I also have my doubts about that particular review.

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since none of is in a position to know all the circumstances of each review, obviously we can't answer slkinsey's question. that doesn't mean it doesn't happen.

does 20% anonymity matter? absolutely. here's hoping that Bruni isn't spotted at least once at Bar Q so that, unlike Adam Platt, he doesn't get unagi in his unagi fritters. (yes, I am suggesting that Bar Q might be cheating non-VIPs)

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I'm guessing that, at this point, my question as to whether we can think of any instances where it's clear that a major reviewer in NYC was successfully gamed to the extent that his/her review clearly overrates the restaurant versus the consensus of other "anonymous" non-soignéed customers is answered with a resounding "no."

I thought that FG provided a great example in Bryan Miller's Four Seasons review. This was pre-blog, pre-eGullet days, but he mentioned that he'd frequently heard complaints about the service there, but for some odd reason, it never actually happened to him.

More recently—although it's not quite what you're looking for—Frank Bruni did a quasi-scientific experiment at Le Cirque. He would send his friends in first, 15-20 minutes in advance, and see how they were treated—not well. Once the management realized they were with Bruni, everything changed.

Other than highlighting the fact that regulars and celebrities get different treatment from complete unknowns, I don't see how it would make a difference.
I think, though, that the extent of it varies from one restaurant to another. Gramercy Tavern (leaving aside its occasional off-day) gives terrific service to just about everybody, though if you're a regular it is even better. That isn't necessarily true everywhere.
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since none of is in a position to know all the circumstances of each review, obviously we can't answer slkinsey's question.  that doesn't mean it doesn't happen.

It's a question that can answered simply and definitively with data! All you have to do is find a restaurant where the general consensus of truly anonymous "reviewers" (e.g., bloggers, eG participants, etc.) is that the restaurant is clearly not as good as the critic's review would indicate. For example: Bruni said the steaks were mindblowing, everyone else thinks they're just okay. Bruni rated the restaurant excellent, everyone else thinks it's mediocre. These may be indications that Bruni is incompetent, but they may also be evidence that he was gamed by the restaurant. In the absence of such examples, it is reasonable to conclude that he's not been successfully gamed.

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You're just saying (again) that VIPs get better service, but that's non-responsive to Sam's question.

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)

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since none of is in a position to know all the circumstances of each review, obviously we can't answer slkinsey's question.  that doesn't mean it doesn't happen.

It's a question that can answered simply and definitively with data! All you have to do is find a restaurant where the general consensus of truly anonymous "reviewers" (e.g., bloggers, eG participants, etc.) is that the restaurant is clearly not as good as the critic's review would indicate. For example: Bruni said the steaks were mindblowing, everyone else thinks they're just okay. Bruni rated the restaurant excellent, everyone else thinks it's mediocre. These may be indications that Bruni is incompetent, but they may also be evidence that he was gamed by the restaurant. In the absence of such examples, it is reasonable to conclude that he's not been successfully gamed.

1. again, I wonder about Adour. I'm sure there are other examples. Mermaid Inn or Red Cat or somesuch.

2. many bloggers and foodboard participants aren't anonymous at various restaurants too.

3. many restaurant he reviews we don't have a wealth of data on.

Edited by Nathan (log)
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I'm guessing that, at this point, my question as to whether we can think of any instances where it's clear that a major reviewer in NYC was successfully gamed to the extent that his/her review clearly overrates the restaurant versus the consensus of other "anonymous" non-soignéed customers is answered with a resounding "no."

I thought that FG provided a great example in Bryan Miller's Four Seasons review. This was pre-blog, pre-eGullet days, but he mentioned that he'd frequently heard complaints about the service there, but for some odd reason, it never actually happened to him.

I think that somehow Steven's example has turned into something else in your mind.

Miller did not say "frequently" -- so I'm not sure where you got that idea. What he said was: "I have received complaints from customers who have been unhappy with the food or service; however, disappointments seem rare based on my six visits over the last four months." That rises to the level of "some" rather than "frequently" (and it's worthy of note that he said "disappointments seem rare" rather than "disappointments were absent"). More to the point, he later said that "a careful observer should be able to rise above his situation and watch how others are treated. On the whole, the staff appears to be professional on a fairly consistent basis." This highlights the fact that even a restaurant operating at a very high level will still have some degree of inconsistency (something Miller also points out in his review). Even the justly lauded Gramercy Tavern will sometimes have a slip-up in service.

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since none of is in a position to know all the circumstances of each review, obviously we can't answer slkinsey's question.  that doesn't mean it doesn't happen.

It's a question that can answered simply and definitively with data! All you have to do is find a restaurant where the general consensus of truly anonymous "reviewers" (e.g., bloggers, eG participants, etc.) is that the restaurant is clearly not as good as the critic's review would indicate. For example: Bruni said the steaks were mindblowing, everyone else thinks they're just okay. Bruni rated the restaurant excellent, everyone else thinks it's mediocre. These may be indications that Bruni is incompetent, but they may also be evidence that he was gamed by the restaurant. In the absence of such examples, it is reasonable to conclude that he's not been successfully gamed.

1. again, I wonder about Adour. I'm sure there are other examples. Mermaid Inn or Red Cat or somesuch.

2. many bloggers and foodboard participants aren't anonymous at various restaurants too.

3. many restaurant he reviews we don't have a wealth of data on.

If successful gaming of non-anonymous reviewers is as pervasive as has been claimed, these examples should be many and clear. We shouldn't have to say "I wonder" and "I'm sure there are other examples." The fact that there does not appear to be a preponderance of examples is a strong indication that gaming reviewers and receiving better-than-deserved reviews is not pervasive.

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And what I've been proposing (among other things) is that even if the answer to Sam's question is "yes" it still argues for leveling the playing field by being either 100% non-anonymous or 100% anonymous. And since we know 100% anonymity is unattainable, the non-anonymity alternative is the best choice by default.

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)

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He (and we) would gain a level playing field for all restaurants, regardless of whether they recognized him or not; an end to the destructive game of cat-and-mouse that currently lingers in every aspect of the reviewing process; he would no longer be complicit in perpetuating the toxic myth that all restaurants are out to cheat us; he would no longer be living a contradiction, knowing that he's mostly recognized but projecting a myth of anonymity for the public "benefit"; and he could improve his access to chefs and restaurants so as to be able to spend time in kitchens, interview his subjects face to face, and do what normally would be considered good reporting in any other area of journalism.

A couple of these points are strawmen: "destructive game"? "toxic myth"? "living a contradiction"? Strong words, those. "Destructive" implies "destruction", and I don't see any. Since all critics acknowledge that they're frequently recognized, there really isn't any myth.

Many restaurants, I'm afraid, are out to cheat their customers in little ways, or at least they achieve that effect by passive neglect or inattention. When the server encourages you to order a side of mashed potatoes, and neglects to mention that your entrée comes with fries, what would you call it? When the server encourages you to over-order, what would you call it? When the server whisks away a cocktail glass that isn't yet empty, and then asks if you'd like another, what would you call it? When a restaurant routinely over-books, ensuring that most diners won't be seated on time, what would you call it? Restaurants that get all of those things wrong are rare. Restaurants that get some of them wrong are commonplace.

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Something that's been obscured so far in this discussion is that critical anonymity is not just a binary on/off proposition. Even assuming arguendo that Bruni is recognized at some point during 80% of his visits to a reviewed restaurant (and where did that number come from?), it matters when in his visit he gets made. Consider that of all the appalling service mishaps Frank relates in his Ago review, the only one that provably demonstrates that he had not been recognized was when his party had to wait 52 minutes for a scheduled reservation even after the bartender poured a bottle of wine down his guest's shirt. Assuming Bruni let one of the other people in his party deal with the hostess, it's possible that up to that point the only person at Ago who'd seen him was the bartender. Even if he got recognized by his waiter or a manager later in the meal, he nonetheless gained valuable evidence that vastly improved the review over what would have happened had he walked up to the hostess and said, "Hi I'm Frank Bruni here for my 8:30 reservation."

Which brings me to my next point. Fat Guy seems to be arguing as if there's no difference between when a pseudo-anonymous reviewer like Bruni gets recognized in the middle of service and the sort of pre-announced fully-comped let-the-kitchen-cook-for-me "reviews" of a John Mariani. (Or of a "Travel & Leisure" type journalist, although at least those don't typically claim objectivity. And yes, I know that GQ pays for some of Mariani's meals, but he extracts others and indeed entire vacations from restaurants and chambers of commerce, etc.) Even if every restaurant recognized him the second he walked in the door, there's still a tremendous difference between a Bruni "futilely" playing by the rules of anonymity and a critic who makes a reservation in his or her name and thereby gives the restaurant ample notice to prepare--to make sure the head chef and GM and best waiters are in; to block out the best table in the house for the night; to splurge on better ingredients or plan out extra courses, etc.

And there's also a difference because the restaurant has to play by the rules of anonymity. Even if they spot Bruni, they can't comp him extra courses or off-menu luxury ingredients or really anything he doesn't order off the standard menu. (In fact this is probably one of the primary effects of Bruni being recognized--anyone else who went to a review-eligible restaurant five times in a row would be getting VIP'd all over the place by the time they were done.) Even if anonymity is a knowing charade played out by both reviewer and restaurant, it still has tremendous value in preventing outright corruption.

And this last example demonstrates the tremendous value of having the resources of an NYT dining section behind a reviewer. I'm unclear whether Crain's uses the same official guidelines as legitimate publications, but without the budget of a NYT to pay for 3-6 meals at the top new restaurants in New York you wind up with reviews written on the basis of too little evidence and, in some cases, tainted by corruption.

Fat Guy seems to be proposing that because not everyone can afford to pay for the integrity of the Times review process that the Times should unilaterally disengage and worsen the credibility of its reviews. But it's not entirely clear to me exactly what he is proposing. What does "100% non-anonymity" mean to you, FG? Does it just mean the Times publishes Bruni's picture, as less important critics like Alan Richman are allowed? Does it mean they pre-announce and pre-coordinate visits with reviewed restaurants? Does the chef get to cook whatever the hell he wants for Frank Bruni? Can the restaurant swallow the cost of white truffles and spoonfuls of Osetra for Frank Bruni, or is the Times still paying?

Do you really think John Mariani has more credibility than the New York Times? Or do you not care because the Times's extra credibility makes it harder for non-Times reviewers to do their jobs?

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I don't think it's necessary for a reviewer to make a reservation in his own name, nor to announce himself upon entry into the restaurant to give up the myth of anonymity.

Do you really think John Mariani has more credibility than the New York Times? Or do you not care because the Times's extra credibility makes it harder for non-Times reviewers to do their jobs?

I think that David Rosengarten, as non-anonymous a reviewer as you are likely to find, has more credibility than the NY Times -- certainly under the last few reviewers.

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Sam, you can find your demonstration of the difference between anonymous reviewers and Fat Guy's "100% non-anonymous" reviewers right here.

(Check the footnotes...)

What, exactly, do you think this demonstrates? It demonstrates that one non-anonymous reviewer (Bruni) gave Kobe Club a poor review whereas, according to Chodorow, three other equally non-anonymous reviewers (Greene, Lape, Mariani) "loved it." It's also possible that at least Green and Lape were "anonymous" when they dined there.

Surely you are not so naive to suppose that Bruni is not immediately recognized at a Chodorow restaurant?! If anything, it goes to show that, despite the no doubt extensive attempts made on behalf of Kobe Club's kitchen to game a good review out of Bruni, these attempts were ultimately unsuccessful. This mitigates against presumed anonymity, not for it.

Edited by slkinsey (log)

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I don't think it's necessary for a reviewer to make a reservation in his own name, nor to announce himself upon entry into the restaurant to give up the myth of anonymity.

What you've just described is what Bruni does: he reserves under pseudonyms and doesn't announce himself. That's pretty much how Bruni's brand of anonynimity works—whether mythical or otherwise. As far as we know, he has never donned disguises (à la Reichl or Craig LaBan). If they happen to figure out who he is, then so be it, but he does nothing to accelerate or hasten the process.
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Dave, you propose any number of justifications for presumed, if not actual anonymity. Many of them sound quite reasonable on paper. But "on paper" isn't my bottom line. My bottom line is the question: can we say for sure that presumed anonymity leads to better, more accurate and informative reviews? I just don't see that it does. Now, part of this may be due to the fact that we haven't exactly been blessed with the greatest reviewers at the NY Times for some number of years now. But, unless we can demonstrate that the "notionally anonymous" guys are turning out better and more accurate work than the non-anonymous guys, for me the argument in favor of presumed anonymity must fail.

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I don't think it's necessary for a reviewer to make a reservation in his own name, nor to announce himself upon entry into the restaurant to give up the myth of anonymity.

What you've just described is what Bruni does: he reserves under pseudonyms and doesn't announce himself. That's pretty much how Bruni's brand of anonynimity works—whether mythical or otherwise. As far as we know, he has never donned disguises (à la Reichl or Craig LaBan). If they happen to figure out who he is, then so be it, but he does nothing to accelerate or hasten the process.

Which is exactly why I have found the argument that his reviews are "anonymous" fallacious. The problem with him not "announcing" himself is that, if you believe that a reviewer can be gamed by a restaurant into giving an inappropriately good review, then this system in effect penalizes the restaurants that don't recognize him. This is one reason why, if it is going to be a one-visit review, reserving under the critic's own name serves to level the playing field. Given a system of multiple visits, wouldn't it make more sense to reserve under someone else's name for the first visit and then under the critic's own name for subsequent visits?

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Sam, you can find your demonstration of the difference between anonymous reviewers and Fat Guy's "100% non-anonymous" reviewers right here.

(Check the footnotes...)

What, exactly, do you think this demonstrates? It demonstrates that one non-anonymous reviewer (Bruni) gave Kobe Club a poor review whereas, according to Chodorow, three other equally non-anonymous reviewers (Greene, Lape, Mariani) "loved it." It's also possible that at least Green and Lape were "anonymous" when they dined there.

Well no, Chodorow didn't draw attention to Adam Platt's zero star review of Kobe Club in his paean to all the "respected" "critics" who loved it. But I assumed everyone remembered it was there. The story of Bob Lape I already linked to in my previous post, but there it is again if you couldn't find it.

As for the notion that Gael Greene tries to maintain the pretense of anonymity, I believe if you actually read the review in question and noted the comped $295 item you might think differently. (If you somehow had the notion that Gael Greene tried to maintain the pretense of anonymity. But I digress.)

And that's the important point: the pretense of anonymity. The pretense of anonymity is frequently more important than actually going unrecognized. (For instance when $295 dishes are being sent out.)

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