in Michael Bauer's Town
world-class chefs have found themselves catering to the food critic.
But more and more restaurant insiders are asking: Should this
man have so much power?
critics do their damnedest not to be recognized when they go out
to eat. Ruth Reichl, the legendary New York Times reviewer
and now editor-in-chief of Gourmet, had more getups and
wigs than Eddie Murphy in The Klumps. William Grimes, her
successor, is about to enter what he calls "phase three"
of incognito dining. Don't ask; it's confidential. Tom Sietsema
of the Washington Post has gone so far as to recruit friends
in the CIA to help him alter his looks. When Michael Bauer,
the lead critic at the Chronicle, walked into Stars one
night in April, the host welcomed him with a cheerful "Good
evening! Good to see you again." The savvy greeter stopped
just short of saying "Mr. Bauer," lest he ruin a good
charade. He knew who Bauer was. Bauer knew he knew. But the gracious
host smiled and pretended Bauer was a regular guy. Then with a
wave of his hand, he led us to a grand corner table, where we
were doted on by the wine director and treated to the best cuts
of rib eye and pork loin in the house. That little act
in the entryway was for Bauer's sake, as it often is when he arrives
at a restaurant to review it. See, restaurant critics are supposed
to follow some ground rules. They're expected to disguise themselves
because it's their job to sit in for readers and describe the
dining experience. If they're recognized, they get the best of
everything: the most attractive table, the most attentive server,
and the freshest, most meticulously crafted dishes to come out
of the kitchen. Accurate reporting is simply impossible. Which
is why this note runs at the bottom of the paper's reviews: "Chronicle
critics make every attempt to remain anonymous." Good critics
also know to keep their distance from chefs. They don't go to
restaurant openings or anniversary parties, wine tastings, or
any other soirees that would put them in close contact with chefs.
Bauer wrote this rule himself when he was president of the Association
of Food Journalists, and it makes sense: If critics hobnob with
chefs, they form personal alliances, and then, says Grimes, "it's
harder to be honest."