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Dec 3, 1998 03:35 AM

Reviewer Anonymity

  • s

Jim introduced the topic of reviewer anonymity--about
which he is quite passionate--over on the Manhattan
board (in the Il Buco thread). It came up regarding
David Rosengarten, who writes New York restaurant
reviews for Gourmet magazine and also hosts two shows
on the Food Network. I think Jim is of the opinion
(I'm sure he'll let us know if I'm putting words in
his mouth) that appearing on TV should be grounds for
automatic expulsion from the restaurant reviewing

I think the more important thing is that a reviewer
not deceive the public. If the readers know that this
guy is on TV, they can read his reviews with that in
mind. Although some objectivity (especially regarding
service) can be lost when a reviewer is recognized, it
is also possible for a recognized journalist to gain
additional knowledge that may be of interest to the
readers. I think it comes down to your mission as a
reviewer. If consumer protection is your priority,
anonymity is critical. Otherwise, it may not be as

There's also the problem of inconsistent results due
to sometime-anonymity and incorrectly presumed
anonymity. I don't know if Jim has ever been
recognized in a restaurant. I know I have, even though
I try to follow the usual procedures of reserving
under a different name, etc. I also have to assume
that, in some cases, a restaurant has recognized me
but allowed me to think that I am still anonymous.

Well, anyway, does anybody have any thoughts on this?

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  1. j
    Jeremy Osner

    What you said makes sense to me; I'd just like to add
    another example, that of Sylvia Carter. I think she is
    a very fine reviewer, but I think she is also often
    recognized. Last night I was standing outside the
    Afghan Kebab House #4 in Jackson Heights, waiting for
    my takeout dinner (I was walking my dog), and as I
    waited I read Carter's review posted in the window. The
    first sentence of the review says that the owner of AKH
    had called her up, inviting her to review his new
    location -- kind of an extreme example of the reviewer
    being known to the restaurant. The fact that she made
    that clear at the head of the review seems to me very
    ethical; and I think she wrote an accurate review.

    4 Replies
    1. re: Jeremy Osner

      jeremy--anonymity is not compromised via a phone call.
      And I promise you that Sylvia was careful to not tell
      the owner when she was coming.
      She's above reproach, ethically.

      1. re: Jim Leff
        Dave Feldman


        Just for clarification. I assume that appearances on
        television aren't, per se, the problem. Would there
        be anything wrong with Ruth Reichl or Jim Leff
        appearing on television, reviewing restaurants,
        assuming the disguise was maintained (speaking of
        which, what was your disguise at the Borders signing?).

        Any problems with having a reporter doing video
        reports about restaurants? Not full-fledged reviews,
        but recommendations (e.g., "here's a great place for
        ribs" with video accompaniment?).

        1. re: Dave Feldman

          I just think there can be different types of reviews
          and you get different types of information from each.
          A truly anonymous reviewer I assume will tell me how I
          might be treated if I were to visit a restaurant
          occasionally. A reviewer who is known and even fawned
          over can let me know exactly what a restaurant is
          capable of at what it conceives of as it's best. I
          might also have an idea of how I might be treated if I
          were to establish myself there as a regular. And
          then, recognized or not, all the dishes are filtered
          through the sensibilities of the particular reviewer -
          that varies and gives me yet another level of
          information. While true fawning (there are ruder
          names for it) is pretty repugnant to me, I think all
          types of reviews are valuable.

          1. re: Dave Feldman

            no, of course tv is not a problem per se...but television producers are unhappy with having on-air people heavily disguised. And going on without disguise is tantamount to wearing a "bribe me" button in restaurants.

            "Any problems with having a reporter doing video reports about restaurants?"

            again, in disguise no problem. The media isn't the problem, it's the loss of anonymity.

            At the signing today I wore a panama hat with Groucho glasses/nose/moustache (thanks to Jonathan Gold for suggesting the latter somewhat classic touch). Introduced myself as "Captain Spaulding"

            Many thanks to the many of you who came out, by the way; the Borders people were very pleased with the turnout and sales, so...again, thanks

      2. d
        Dave Feldman

        I think this is a complicated subject. Relatively few
        food writers make their living exclusively from
        reviews. Most reviewers also write features and/or
        news articles that sometimes involve
        meeting/interviewing restaurateurs. I imagine it
        would be difficult to learn more about the industry
        without talking extensively, and sometimes informally
        or off the record, with folks in the industry.

        We had a similar discussion here vis a vis the Ed
        Levine article by Ruth Reichl. I used to think that
        Jim's position was extreme, but I respect it
        immensely. I do think that upscale-restaurant
        reviewers, in particular, tend to minimize the drastic
        change in service that they receive because they are
        recognized. Anyone who has ever been on the receiving
        end of a Sirio Maccioni glare at Le Cirque would

        1 Reply
        1. re: Dave Feldman

          "I do think that upscale-restaurant reviewers, in particular, tend to minimize the drastic change in service that they receive because they are recognized"

          Rosengarten's Il Buco review is a stunning example. He blew it. He failed his readers. And that's just shameful (more tongue clucking in my message in the Il Buco thread, at

        2. Shaw--nothing personal, but you are a hobbyist
          with a web site, not a trained critic for a
          legitimate media outlet. Anonymity as an issue
          probably doesn't come up all that often for you
          because nothing is on the line for the restaurant.
          You are a good eater, and a big spender, and I'm
          sure the Gramercy Tavern adores you as a customer,
          but the Shaw Report ain't exactly the Times, if
          you know what I mean.

          As somebody who makes his living in this wretched
          profession, I've got to tell you--anonymity is
          a pain. I hate being stuck at a bad table and
          watching the waiters fawn over other patrons;
          I hate not being able to command a top performance
          from a chef. I especially hate it when I have
          to watch a restaurant staff fall all over
          freeloading critics from competing publications,
          while I--with literally 500 times the
          readership--have to worry about tasting enough
          dishes without pissing off the paper's accountants.
          When I am recognized, and it happens, believe me,
          I know.

          This is why every legitimate publication separates
          the function of restaurant critic and food writer--
          or theater critic and arts reporter, for that matter.

          I truly envy the diners who are able to form
          a true and lasting bond with a restaurant, to
          challenge the kitchen to please them, to be
          offered a special wine that the restaurant
          has just gotten on allocation, or a mallard
          that a customer shot at his duck club last
          weekend, or a special proscuitto the maitre
          'd's mom has managed to smuggle out of Friuli.
          It's truly perverse to play the anonymity
          game if you absolutely don't have to.

          But you know what? The reviews are better for it.
          I never have to worry whether the chef has
          rushed across town from his sister restaurant
          because the sous chef isn't up to snuff this week;
          whether I'm getting 3 times the usual allotment
          of foie gras with my quail; or whether the owner,
          knowing my great affection for winter savory,
          has somehow managed to sneak some into the

          Rosengarten, with his recognizability and
          (possibly more important) his employer's
          ability to make instant stars out of chefs,
          is no more able to make an accurate assessment
          of a restaurant, to experience a typical MEAL
          in a restaurant, than Elizabeth Taylor ... or
          Tim Zagat.

          14 Replies
          1. re: Al Pastor

            Al, I'm flattered that you're familiar with my Web
            site. Nothing personal, but should I know who you are?

            Based on what you wrote here (which is all I've ever
            seen of your writing) I think your notions of "trained
            critics" (what school offers this degree?) and
            "legitimate media outlets" (is the Internet
            "illegitimate"?) and such are a bit overblown, as is
            your sense of self-pity. If you think the business is
            wretched, and you feel that you're making a huge
            sacrifice by dining the way you do, I suggest another
            line of work. I write about restaurants because I like
            to do it, not as an act of self-flagellation.

            You think you always know when you've been recognized,

            1. re: Steven Shaw

              Basically, Mr. Shaw, you are in the position
              of a man who has gone to a lot of Knicks games
              and thinks that he is qualified to be Mike
              Lupica--or Patrick Ewing.

              Tom Sietsma, who runs the Sidewalk site
              in D.C., is a legitimate critic who just happens
              to be on the web; Jim, whose work is largely
              online these days, is legitimate, a professional.
              So is Amy, who posts here a lot.

              You, on the other hand, are an attorney with
              a fancy computer and a lot of time on your hands.

              Your thoughts on restaurants mean exactly as much
              as my thoughts on tort reform.

              1. re: Al Pastor

                Your messages speak for themselves--fabulous
                illustrations of all that's wrong with self-styled
                "professional" restaurant critics. I certainly don't
                have enough time on my hands to dignify your
                groundless statements with further argument. When you
                address the points I've already made, I may have more
                to say. Since you've said nothing, I'm done. Nothing
                personal, of course.

                1. re: Al Pastor

                  Wow, I thought your previous message got the point across very nicely; it's a pity you chose to go this extra angry/insulting mile.

                  I think it's cool that Steven's trying to establish a habit of anonymity. Who knows; he may one day get a real writing gig, and this way he'll be in a more comfortable position than, say, Ruth Reichl who has lots of friends in the restaurant biz from her pre-reviewing West Coast days.

                  And as to his qualifications, while I agree that he may show a bit of hubris, there are people in real reviewing gigs with lots of power and prestige who are less qualified than he (and who, for that matter, don't give a damn about ethics or anonymity). They deserve knocking down to size more than Steven.

                  Also, for the record, while "Al" is correct about my writing largely online these days (while I nurse my post-book burnout by laying low and playing tons of trombone gigs), I have long experience in print, having written for Newsday, NY Press, Brooklyn Bridge, Wine and Spirits, Time Out, and many others, plus two guidebooks.

                  1. re: Jim Leff

                    Jim, thanks for those parts of your messages that
                    constitute a defense of me--I think. As for the
                    remaining points--the ones on which you and Al-the-
                    coward (come on, Al, show your face if you dare) seem
                    to agree--I'm not going to bore everybody by dragging
                    this thread out any longer. I've already made the
                    basic points, and what I really wanted to do was have
                    a serious discussion of anonymity. Thanks to all who
                    participated in it. I'll see you on another thread.

                    1. re: Steven Shaw

                      "thanks for those parts of your messages that
                      constitute a defense of me--I think"

                      Ouch...I thought it was a pretty good defense. I
                      CERTAINLY didn't mean to make you feel ganged-up on
                      (especially after than spiteful message from "Al"),

                      Maybe you objected to my saying you had "hubris". Ok,
                      let me explain.

                      Say I was an amateur law buff. I read law books, take
                      adult ed classes on legal issues, hang around
                      courtrooms. I have a website where I opine on legal
                      issues, and some of those opinions are pretty good for
                      someone without the experience and breadth of knowledge
                      of a trained professional.

                      So far so good.

                      But then say I started talking about "my clients". How
                      would you feel?

                      Now, of course, food's a slightly different situation.
                      EVERYONE knows SOMETHING about food, and everyone's
                      justified in having an opinion when it comes to matters
                      of basic taste (that is, my saying a dish is delicious
                      doesn't make it taste buds are real good but
                      not intrinsically "better" than any other careful,
                      experienced taster). So in one sense, a professional
                      food critic (I'm only talking about GOOD ones who've
                      worked hard to learn, not hacks who've backdoored into
                      the job) is on a level field with any other dedicated
                      chowhound. In fact, there are chowhounds on this site
                      whose food knowledge rivals my own.

                      But that doesn't make them "real" restaurant critics.
                      Plenty of them definitely could be, but there's a LOT
                      to learn first. Restaurant reviewing is exactly like
                      singing...anyone can do it to some extent, and there
                      are amateurs whose voice quality is as pleasing as some
                      pros. But that doesn't mean that anyone who sings in
                      the shower is a professional just because they declare
                      themselves to be. Or that an amateur with a nice voice
                      would know what to do if the scenery fell over or if
                      the orchestra skipped a beat, or if they'd be able to
                      sing five shows in two days with a bad cold, or just
                      simply know how to comport themselves on stage in
                      front of thousands of savvy, second-guessing spectators
                      night after night without screwing up too much. Or fail
                      to pick up the pseudonym when someone sends them a
                      nasty message signed "Bell Canto" because they haven't
                      done sufficient study of music to know styles
                      and terminology.

                      What I was trying to say to "Al" was that you shouldn't
                      be discouraged from starting off on the right foot re:
                      anonymity, on the chance that you may one day reach a
                      point where you're qualified to call yourself a
                      professional reviewer. "Al's" point, made elegantly in
                      his first message and very badly and nastily in his
                      second, was that there's learning to be done before you
                      put yourself in that rank (though, as I said to "Al",
                      there are plenty in that rank who haven't learned a
                      blessed thing...same as with singing)

                      Also, I agree that "Al" is being cowardly in using a
                      pseudonym (again, folks, let me know--via email if
                      you'd like--if you think personal attacks should be
                      deleted from the message boards. I hate to play censor,
                      but I also hate to have flaming stuff on the site).

                      I agree that we should move on...I very much regret
                      being forced into the difficult position of having to
                      spell this out to you in order to break up a fight (and
                      explain what you took as a half-hearted defense).
                      Please note, too, that this took me over half an hour
                      to write in my brand new apartment full of leftover
                      airborne cat dander and I'm wheezing and taking
                      Ventolin inhalor hits every few you've got
                      to believe that I DO care about your feelings!! Ok, now
                      out for some fresh air...

                      1. re: Jim Leff

                        Thanks, Jim. Although I respectfully disagree with
                        much of what you said, I appreciate your taking so
                        much time to craft such an elegant, diplomatic and
                        thoughtful response. My own position is that there is
                        only one way to judge a critic: By what he or she
                        writes. I have a lot of respect for you and I hope
                        that you will someday come to view me as a colleague.

                        1. re: Steven Shaw

                          "My own position is that there is only one way to judge a critic: By what he or she writes"

                          Yes, I agree.

                          1. re: Jim Leff

                            Russell "Shit",

                            Aren't you the one who harassed the very same Lisa Antenone that Jim mentioned a few messages ago?

                            YOUR opinion is worth just what your last name suggests.

                            Crawl back under your rock and eat the fungi you deserve.

                          2. re: Steven Shaw
                            Russell Drecque

                            What I think big-dog's trying to tell you is that just because you can afford to
                            eat out in fancy places a lot and choose to vent your unsolicited smug
                            on your embarrassing little vanity website, that doesn't mean you know anything
                            about food (much less have the right to call yourself a restaurant critic). Now, it doesn't necessarily mean you DON'T know anything
                            about food, either. But in your case it does.

                            But this is the Internet. Keep acting like an expert and eventually people will start
                            to believe it. Be careful, though, not to EVER let up with the relentless self promotion.

                2. re: Al Pastor

                  Amen "Al" (Steven--it's a pseudonym..."al pastor" is a Mexican gyro/shwarma). My book wouldn't have had to go thousands of dollars over budget (uncompensed, I might add...this book HAS to sell) and I wouldn't have had to have done so many many hundreds of checkup meals (with the constant headache of lining up eaters...sounds like a snap, but it's a nightmare) if I could've just told each chef "give me a sample taste of everything" and waltzed on to the next place.

                  Oh, and as for "Al" always knowing when he's been recognized...believe it. You can't miss it. It's an umistakable thing. Trust us both on this.

                  But I disagree with one thing "Al" said...about not being able to form lasting bonds and become a regular. It IS possible, but you've got to eat out an awful lot. I manage to scout lots of new places while remaining on semi-regular status at a number of places where I'm a "friend" of the a musician/chowhound, not as a food writer. They don't know my name or that I write (many have my reviews in their window yet have no clue).

                  And, Dave Feldman: while I know you think I'm extreme, you have to understand that there are two tacks to take in this biz: surgical clean or sleazy as all get-out. Anything in the middle is an 89 degree slippery slope (and DUMB...if you're gonna lose yer innocence, sell out BIG). I happen to have chosen the former, reasoning that the only thing I have to sell is my opinion, and that I've got to do everything I can to protect its worth.

                  1. re: Jim Leff

                    So who is Al Pastor and why is he or she afraid to use
                    a real name when leveling unprovoked insults at me?

                    1. re: Steven Shaw

                      Not sure. Best to just ignore messages like that.

                      As webmaster here, I'm not really sure what to do about such
                      messages...Lisa Antinore received similarly insulting'
                      anonymous messages a few months ago. I don't feel that I should
                      delete them if they're non-commercial, non-violation of copyright,
                      non-libelous, etc, though I do hope for a more high-toned
                      discussion (feedback on this, anyone?)

                      As for his anonymity, there's no way to prevent that. Short of making this a registered, password-entered site, there's no way to verify identity...

                      1. re: Jim Leff

                        woops, I ran out of space (I'm using lynx).

                        Anyway, while we all want to see lively, opinionated, passionate
                        conversation here, I do ask that people try to keep things
                        substantial and not personal.

                        The Management

                3. Sounds to me like a bunch of egos! What makes any of
                  you think that many of us even care about your
                  opinions! Your reviews, at best, are interesting
                  reading. If I want to try a restaurant, I will do so
                  and review it myself! Same goes for movies! Please
                  don't be offended by my response...I do respect your
                  right to voice your opinions, just as I have voiced
                  mine! ps...Fran Schumer..formerly of the Times...calls
                  ahead and warns people...imagine that!

                  17 Replies
                  1. re: Anonymous

                    "Sounds to me like a bunch of egos! What makes any of you think that many of us even care about your opinions! Your reviews, at best, are interesting
                    reading. If I want to try a restaurant, I will do so and review it myself!"

                    Man, that's the smartest thing anyone's said yet! And it's the very essence of Chowhoundness: 'screw the pompous "experts" ("qualified" or not)...I'm out there eating!'

                    THANKS for posting!!!!


                    1. re: Jim Leff
                      John Knoesel

                      Where have you gone Lisa Antinore ? Joltin' Joe's in
                      bed and very sick - Hey Hey Hey , Hey Hey Hey.
                      Are we sort of pushing this site into areas that us
                      chowhounds fear not tread ?
                      Lets talk food !
                      Regards, JK

                    2. re: Anonymous
                      Josh Mittleman

                      Why should anyone care about a reviewer's opinion?
                      Because most people don't have the time or money to try
                      every restaurant in the city, and so look for a
                      professional whose reviews are competant and reliable
                      to help them choose among the thousands of

                      Note that "competant" and "reliable" are two different
                      standards, both important. By "competant" I mean
                      truthful, complete, accurate, etc. By "reliable", I
                      mean "generally compatible with one's own tastes."
                      There are plenty of reliably incompetant reviewers,
                      unfortunately. And there are plenty of compentant
                      reviewers whose tastes do not reliably match mine, so I
                      don't pay attention to them.

                      If you want to do your own hunting, more power to you.
                      But it's silly to pretend that reviews have no purpose
                      or value.

                      1. re: Josh Mittleman

                        I realize they have purpose...but, as I said, it is my
                        OPINION that MOST of them have little or no value. If
                        the next person finds them useful, then so be it!

                        1. re: anonymous
                          Josh Mittleman

                          You are welcome to hold the opinion that reviewers are
                          valueless _to_you_, but it is simply wrong to say flat
                          out that they have "little or no value" -- they have a
                          real value, as I explained.

                          1. re: Josh Mittleman

                            Precisely, "they have a real value" to YOU. Not
                            to me and others.

                            1. re: Anonymous
                              Josh Mittleman

                              Fascinating. When were elected to speak for "others"?

                              This is a dopey discussion. You asked why anyone would
                              value a reviewer's opinion. I answered. Do you not
                              understand the explanation, or are you simply arguing
                              for the sake of arguing?

                              1. re: Josh Mittleman

                                I'm waiting for a discussion of how many restaurant
                                reviwers can dance on the head of a pin. pat

                                1. re: pat hammond
                                  jonathan gold

                                  ``One-hundred-forty-seven,'' said the
                                  wise rebbe of Pinsk. ``But they all have
                                  to be by Gael Greene.''

                                  1. re: jonathan gold

                                    Now THIS is more like it!
                                    Happiest of holidays to all of Chowdom. pat

                                  2. re: pat hammond
                                    Frank Language

                                    I'm waiting for a discussion of how many restaurant
                                    reviwers can dance on the head of a pin."

                                    Actually, I want to hear the one about how many
                                    restaurant reviewers it takes to screw in a light bulb.
                                    Anyone know that one?

                                    1. re: Frank Language
                                      Josh Mittleman

                                      > how many restaurant reviewers it takes to screw in a
                                      > light bulb.

                                      Only one, but you won't know who did it until next
                                      week's edition.

                                      1. re: Josh Mittleman

                                        note that it would have to be a very dim bulb.

                              2. re: Josh Mittleman

                                If I may interject a helpful comment (while humbly requesting absence of flames from either side), Anon. originally said " it is my OPINION that MOST of them have little or no value." According to Sturgeon's Law ("90% of everything is crap"), this can be taken as true without impugning the value of any particular reviewer.

                                1. re: steve d.
                                  Josh Mittleman

                                  > Anon. originally said " it is my OPINION that MOST
                                  > of them have little or no value."

                                  No, he didn't. He originally

                                  Sounds to me like a bunch of egos! What makes any of
                                  you think that many of us even care about your
                                  opinions! Your reviews, at best, are interesting

                                  I then explained why someone would care about a
                                  reviewer's opinion, and Anon. replied with the line you
                                  quoted. I then pointed out that that statement is also
                                  incorrect: Reviews have value because some people value
                                  them. They may have no value to Anon., but that's not
                                  what he said. What he said is simply incorrect.

                                  1. re: Josh Mittleman

                                    Let me clarify. I agree that Anon's original posting wasn't particularly polite, but it didn't strike me as vicious either -- he/she did, after all, say that reviews could be interesting reading. I think the intent was more mischievous/populist than destructive. Since the followup did talk about "MOST" reviews, I was trying to say that we could accept the truth of that formulation without attacking all reviewers -- although Anon seems to be doing the latter as well. I agree, by the way, with your defense of the value of (good!) reviews. No offense to either you or Anon -- I appreciate both expertise and mischievous populism.