Every year around this time, New York magazine publishes its “Where to Eat” issue. Usually, the covers of these editions are heavy on text, with some silhouetted photographs of trendy food items sprinkled in for fun. This year, the cover looks very different. It features a headshot of a glum-looking, middle-aged, balding white man, his face propped against his right fist. The man is Adam Platt, New York’s restaurant critic, and in the teaser text beneath his visage, he tells us that he’s “abandoning my disguise”—in other words, abandoning the pretense that he dines anonymously.
In his introduction to the issue, Platt writes that he’s publishing his picture because “I would like readers to know what restaurateurs around town have known for years.” He lists the rules of the ridiculous psychological game that restaurateurs and critics play when critics pretend to be anonymous:
Do they know who you are? (Of course they do.) So why do you register under an assumed name? (Because chefs would otherwise prepare for my arrival.) Will they come up and say hello? (Probably not.) Why not? (Because they’re pretending I’m not here.) Why are they doing that? (Because they want to pretend I’m having a “normal” dining experience.)
Platt’s glamour shot is an ingenious way to draw attention to an otherwise formulaic annual restaurant guide. But it’s also an important moment in the Internet-era evolution of the professional restaurant critic. Ostensibly anonymous critics have had their photographs posted on food blogs (and the walls of restaurant offices) for years. As I wrote in July, when New York Times restaurant critic Pete Wells acknowledged being repeatedly recognized in his review of Daniel, “In a social media age, you’d have to avoid having your picture taken your entire adult life to be an effectively anonymous critic.” (I’m hardly the first commentator to point out the pointlessness of critics’ efforts to conceal their identities.)
Platt, unsurprisingly, has a keen insight into “the myth of anonymity,” which he says serves mostly to bolster critics’ image: “It’s lent a sense of impartiality and Oz-like mystery to the dark art of restaurant criticism, and if members of the clubby fine-dining world didn’t always believe it, then at least the public sometimes did.” He adds that he’ll continue to use pseudonyms while making reservations to prevent restaurants from being able to plan ahead for his visit—a reasonable compromise when true anonymity is impossible.
It’s worth taking the time to read Platt’s entire explanation, which is short but packed with smart observations about food journalism. I wager that in 20 years (if any publications still have the budget for restaurant critics), media critics will wonder why Platt’s acknowledgment that he gets recognized was such a big deal. But for now, Platt’s candor puts him in the vanguard.