Last night, my husband and I entertained friends at our favorite neighborhood sushi bar — Taka Sushi in Lynnwood. The tiny place was packed, and I couldn’t help but notice a couple dining in a corner with their toddler and a newborn baby. When they got up to leave, they stopped by our table and inquired, “Are you Nancy Leson?” Then, bless their hearts, they thanked me for turning them on to Taka, which they love and regularly frequent — despite the fact they live in the University District. Yes, I was busted: in the best possible way.
It happened again last Saturday as I was crossing the street downtown at Fifth and Virginia. A young woman stopped me and asked, “Do you work for the Seattle Times?” She recognized me from my mug-shot and was kind enough to introduce herself as an All You Can Eater. And perhaps you recall my July post-vacation-post, where I mentioned the gal in the SUV who rolled down her window in the Boo Han shopping center parking lot in Edmonds and shouted, “You’re on vacation!” No, I didn’t know her, but she apparently knew me.
That never happened when I made every attempt (save for the donning of costumes) to remain anonymous during my decade as the Times’ restaurant critic. Readers didn’t know me from Eve. Nor did most of the folks at the great majority of restaurants I reviewed — though it was always more difficult to go under the radar at places like Campagne, Marco’s Supperclub, Nell’s and Brasa, where I noted my “affiliation” in my reviews.
Most people can’t “make” my pal Providence Cicero, who’s since taken on my old reviewer’s job (by the way, that’s her real name and she’s a she — despite all the “Dear Mr. Cicero” e-mails she gets from folks who read her reviews). Ditto for Jonathan Kauffman, who tries his best to stay out of the limelight as restaurant critic at Seattle Weekly. So, I’m not going to tell you that (shhhh!) Providence is an elegant Ethiopian emigre and Jonathan’s a strapping six-foot-six red head.
Yes, every critic gets outed, as I discussed here on Monday and at length long ago. And let’s face it: the longer you work in the business in a town of this size (21 years for me, 16 for Providence, three for Jonathan), the more likely it is someone will recognize you whether you’re on the job — or off.
“We’re reviewing a service, and we’re consumer advocates in many ways,” Providence told me this morning. “You try to write in an entertaining fashion, but I want to have as close an experience to the average consumer as I’m going to get.” Former P.I. restaurant critic Rebekah Denn agrees. She took her anonymity so seriously when she became the P.I.’s lead critic, she painstakingly went through her personal blog, deleting her name and leaving only the initial “R” — lest anyone Googling “Rebekah Denn” paged down far enough to find her photo, of which there were many.
“There are people who argue they can’t imagine things would get better just because a critic’s there,” Rebekah said. Yet she, too, insists that once a critic’s recognized — something that happened infrequently during her two-year tenure — he or she “is going to get a level of care that’s better than the average person’s. And you’re writing for the average person, not the VIP.”
I strongly believe there are compelling reasons for professional restaurant critics to attempt to keep a low profile. And every one of them is echoed by Jonathan Kauffman, who explains exactly why yesterday on Seattle Weekly’s Voracious blog. Read it here.