Accounts vary as to how anonymous Claiborne—who was apparently a rather flamboyant fellow—was able to be. But he reassures us on this point in the introduction to his Guide to Dining Out in New York (1968):
One of the questions that is most frequently asked of me in this wildly hedonistic occupation is whether or not I am recognized when I visit restaurants. The answer is—with rare exceptions—a firm no . . . . I have waited in line with the best of them, been abused by headwaiters and busboys, placed in the dim corners of restaurants, corners that the help ignores and calls Siberia, had my toes stepped on and jacket drenched with black bean soup (in lieu of apology the waiter said, ‘Watch out!’).
Claiborne also provided a further reason for anonymity: “I do not like being fawned over, with or without the circumstances of my job.” He recognized that the result of a critic’s being recognized was the appearance at the table of unordered dishes, comped bottles of expensive wine, and a fuss being made by the staff, all of it anathema to both the enjoyment of a meal and an unbiased analysis of the food’s merits. He realized that the acceptance of free food creates a classic journalistic conflict of interest. If reviews were to be trusted by the dining public, the reviewer must adhere to rules that conferred credibility on his conclusions.
As with most of his colleagues during that era, Claiborne tended to write his reviews in short declarative sentences, explaining dishes as if he were a very articulate high school teacher, and we his enthralled students. In an early review of the Japanese restaurant Kabuki, published in 1961 and running just seven hundred words, he explains, “Chopsticks are available and recommended. It is a curious fact that the physical manner of eating has a positive effect on flavor.”
Although we remember him as a gourmet and bon vivant (near the end of his career, he was reviled for a $4,000 charity dinner for two he ate in Paris, after winning it at an auction), he harbored no prejudice against inexpensive restaurants. Certainly there were many fewer places to be reviewed at that time, and people dined out far less regularly than they do today, but I prefer to believe that he covered lower-end places out of a democratic spirit. Indeed, in one book he awards a simultaneous single star to both Lutece and Chock Full O’ Nuts. Clearly, his star system—another Claiborne innovation that has endured—acknowledged the comparative worth of a very cheap dinner over a very expensive one.
In 1968, Gael Greene made a splash as the newly appointed restaurant critic for newcomer New York magazine. Her previous experience was writing for such fashion magazines as Cosmopolitan and Ladies’ Home Journal, and she introduced a flamboyance of prose to restaurant reviewing. Nevertheless, the strictures she inherited from Claiborne were maintained. In her collection of reviews called Bite (1972 edition), she notes: “I have been fed ambrosia flaming and slops in bordelaise. I am almost never recognized on these investigatory rounds. Though I would adore being fawned over and am a fool for pampering . . . anonymity is crucial to a restaurant observer. How else can I judge what joys or abuses await the average unknown everyday guest?”
Indeed, in her memoir Insatiable, published twenty-four years later, Greene maintains that she insisted to New York founder Clay Felker, “We have to do it like Craig Claiborne does at the Times. Anonymously. I’ll have to eat a minimum of three times before judging a restaurant—with friends—like he does. And pay the check.”
While Greene inherited Claiborne’s reviewing rubrics, her style of writing was strikingly different. She brought hyperbolic language to a medium that had once been merely informational. Describing André Surmain, the owner* Lutece, she observed, “. . . he is your host, a zany country squire with his fat lapels, the bluff blend of pinstripe, tattersall, stripe and Art Deco abstract. It is a highly aristocratic vulgarity, especially those crepe-soled rust suede Hush Puppies. It suits.”
After Gael Greene, the restaurant review would never be the same. When Mimi Sheraton succeeded Claiborne as the Times critic in 1975, it was clear that the paper was at least partly trying to clone Greene. Handy in the kitchen, she’d earlier published The Seducer’s Cookbook, which had a sexual zing never before seen in a book of recipes. Sheraton’s reviews for the Times were jam-packed with colorful dish descriptions and she adopted a confidential tone of voice that put us right at the table with her. In this emphasis she presaged what has come to be known as “food porn”—writing that is intended to stimulate the salivary glands through its primary focus on the appearance and flavor of food.