Even as Reichl was shaking up the demimonde of restaurant criticism, she upheld Claiborne’s tenets. Famously, in an early assessment of Le Cirque, she wrote a duplex review. The first part was an account of how she had been shabbily treated as an unrecognized diner, the second detailed the drastic improvements in service and food once she was identified:
Over the course of five months I ate five meals at the restaurant; it was not until the fourth that the owner, Sirio Maccioni, figured out who I was. When I was discovered, the change was startling. Everything improved: the seating, the service, the size of the portions. We had already reached dessert, but our little plate of petit fours was whisked away to be replaced by a larger, more ostentatious one.
Reichl struggled with anonymity during her time at the Times. Competition among restaurants was becoming fiercer, and a Times review could be a make-or-break matter. At an early point, someone got a photo of her, and it was reportedly plastered in the kitchen of every restaurant in town. Sometimes she wore wigs and other disguises, but increasingly she was forced to dine as a recognized celebrity.
Around the time Reichl started at the Times, I was hired as part-time restaurant critic at The Village Voice, alternating columns with my predecessor Jeff Weinstein. My qualifications were limited to having written Down the Hatch since 1989, a foodzine created in emulation of rock newsletters known as “fanzines.” Down the Hatch came out quarterly, and sought to review what I calculated to be the 99 percent of city restaurants ignored by critics. These were often small ethnic places in the so-called outer boroughs. In doing so, my obvious precursors were Calvin Trillin and Jane and Michael Stern, who’d made a point of celebrating vernacular food. While my Down the Hatch critiques tended to be slapdash affairs, more on-the-spot reportage than formal reviews, when I began working at the Voice I adhered to Claiborne’s standards, and the publication supported me with an almost unlimited eating budget.
I’d also been influenced by the consumerist movement of the previous decade, and felt that my mission was to represent the interests of the typical restaurant diner, who ate in plebian places most of the time and went to expensive restaurants mainly for special occasions.
The Voice started posting my reviews online late in 1998, but little did I suspect the profound effect the Internet was to have on restaurant reviewing. Around 2003 food blogs began to appear, and quickly became a predominant feature of the food-writing landscape. The prose is often spontaneous and unedited, and its quality can run from barely readable to brilliant and innovative. The Web site Food Blog Blog counts nearly two thousand of these blogs today, but I suspect there are many times that number. Though commercial versions featuring a paid staff have been launched (New York magazine’s Grub Street, for example) the majority of bloggers remain unpaid and unedited.
Food blogs cover all aspects of the city’s food scene. Some concentrate on recipes, some on chef interviews, some on greenmarkets and community-based food issues. But many are concerned, partly or fully, with reviewing restaurants. From their inception, these restaurant-reviewing blogs saw no point in adhering to the rules established by Claiborne, nor did they, in most cases, announce what the substitute rules were. Most rejected anonymity, accepting or even soliciting free food in the restaurants under review.
Writing a blog called Restaurant Girl, Harvard graduate Danyelle Freeman was typical of the new crop of restaurant-reviewing bloggers. She distinguished herself from the others by including an ethical statement in her blog, under the heading “Review Policy.” To Freeman, anonymity for restaurant reviewers was a disingenuous burden:
Why not conceal my identity: That would go against everything Restaurant Girl has stood for since the inception of my blog. I have no reason to hide behind a false identity, hats, sunglasses and any other disguise. Afterall [sic], I aspire to be as personable as humanly possible to my reader as well as to chefs & restaurateurs alike.