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Seattle Times food writer Nancy Leson serves up the best info and tips on Northwest food, cooking, dining and restaurants.

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August 10, 2009 10:40 PM

Restaurant critic: get out! Is anonymity a thing of the past?

Posted by Nancy Leson

With the announcement last week that New York Times editor Sam Sifton has been appointed to take on the role as the paper's new restaurant critic, the hue and cry was swift: "Everyone knows what he looks like, so how can Sifton get a `true' read on the restaurants he'll be reviewing?" NYT executive editor Bill Keller answered that question in the Diner's Journal blog today, writing, "Read Ruth Reichl's book about her long stint as the Times restaurant critic, and you learn that despite all her theatrical dress-ups she was often made by the maitre d'hotel." True enough. As a restaurant critic of longstanding, I too was occasionally "made" -- even when I arrived wearing my favorite disguise.



The nose knows!

I still contend that during the decade I wrote lead reviews for the Seattle Times, I rarely got a second glance when I walked, unannounced, into a restaurant. Which isn't to say I was never royally busted (I chronicled my favorite bust in this column on the subject of anonymity). But you'd be surprised how many restaurant folks failed to recognize me when I showed up. And that includes Boat Street Cafe's Renee Erickson, who was quoted in the Seattle Weekly as having nailed me at her restaurant.

"I've been fortunate enough to have other restaurateurs in the restaurant when critics have been here, which has blown their cover," Renee told the Weekly's Mike Seely in 2006. "People pretty much know who most of them are." What she didn't say (though I bet she would if you asked) is that I'd been writing about her and her restaurant for years, and it wasn't until my third review visit to the new Boat Street that my cover was blown -- by the owners of Lark, who had recently sat in front of me on an early morning plane to New York City, go figure.

Funny, I remember my first visit to Lark, when owner John Sundstrom came out of the kitchen to chat-up the couple at the next table. "Yeah, it's been really busy," I overheard him say as I sat two feet away, staring right at him. "Nancy Leson wrote about us on Wednesday." And I almost fell off my bar stool laughing when I stopped into Place Pigalle after it was sold in 2007. "Are you the new owner?" I asked bartender Robbie McGrath, who said no, then asked how I happened to know the place had been sold. "I think I read it somewhere," I lied, to which he replied, "Did you read it in Nancy Leson's column?"

I also recall sitting across from Matt Dillon at his communal table at Sitka & Spruce as he consulted with the folks from Ballard's as-yet-unopened Snoose Junction. I had great fun listening in and stole the occasional look at the pizzeria's blueprints while I ate my baby chicken with morels during a review meal. Hilarious.

As Le Pichet's Jim Drohman told Seely, "Once you've been in this town long enough, you just get to know the critics. You get to know their faces -- you see them at various food-related events and charitable things, and they'll eat out a lot on their own time. It's hard to stay secret for very long." And hey, I'm quick to admit Jim's been able to pick me out of a lineup for at least a decade, thanks, in no small part, to my adoration of his cookery. Small wonder that when I switched to public blogging in 2008, I chose Le Pichet as the setting for my "coming out" photo.



Me, doing what I do best -- at Le Pichet (Seattle Times/John Lok)

In the age of the Internet, it's getting harder and harder to maintain any kind of anonymity, no matter who you are or what you do for a living. And these days, with the food blogs and restaurant-centric Web sites like Yelp and Urbanspoon, the notion that "Everyone's a critic!" rings especially true. So much so that one might rightfully inquire whether anybody really cares whether or not there's a (paid) restaurant critic in the house.

Having waited on or recognized many critics and food scribes during my tenure as a waitress (including the Seattle Times' John Hinterberger, the P.I.'s late Jonathan Susskind and the New York Times' Mimi Sheraton, among others), I can tell you that people sat up and took notice when they were in the dining room. And I'd argue the same is true today -- though I definitely think it's a much bigger deal in New York than it is here in Seattle.

Anybody want to weigh in on this one? I'd love to hear from those of you in the business. When a critic or food writer is recognized, what happens? Do folks go into "full alert" mode (as we did when I waited tables)? Do waiters pay more attention? Do portions get bigger or better? Or do you just shrug your shoulders and say, "Who cares?"

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Listen to Nancy at 5:30 a.m. and 7:30 a.m. during Morning Edition, at 4:40 p.m. during All Things Considered and again the following Saturday at 8:30 a.m. during Weekend Edition on KPLU 88.5.

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