Second Helpings

Face Off: Why don't reputable restaurant critics announce themselves when they're reviewing restaurants? Because they'd get treatment that "ordinary" folks never would.

Anyone who thinks otherwise is directed to the June 16 New York Observer. "Bring Me the Head of Ruth Reichl" is a hilarious look at the lengths Big Apple restaurants go to identify the powerful restaurant critic of the New York Times.

If O.J. Simpson were looking for Nicole's killers with the same energy with which restaurant owners hunt for Reichl, he'd be back practicing night golf in his Brentwood mansion in no time.

High-profile Manhattan restaurants have compiled a list of Reichl's favorite aliases. When a call comes in from Rhonda Cole, Robin Smith or Sarah Burnes, the staff springs into action.

At one restaurant, they put together a plan worthy of Eisenhower on D-Day. Reichl and company had a reservation for a slow midweek night. So the owner recruited friends and relatives to fill the dining room and play the part of happy diners. (Talk about dinner theater!) He vetoed cell phones and other signs of excessive trendiness, which Reichl dislikes. The players were asked to keep their ears open and listen in on the critic's conversation. They were also instructed to murmur happily when they ate, and say things like, "This is the best steak I ever had," for Reichl to overhear.

Naturally, Reichl had the best table, and best waiter. Forget busboys: Management serviced the reviewer's breadbasket and water glasses.

The kitchen was put on alert. Instead of preprepared sauces and dressings, Reichl's table got it fresh made. The chef made two versions of every dish ordered by the Reichl group; it got whichever one turned out better. Everyone else's meal was dropped while the kitchen team worked on pleasing Reichl.

Appetizers appeared precisely 10 minutes after they were ordered. The rest of the meal followed with military precision. Not surprisingly, Reichl wrote a very positive review.

Some restaurants go to unbelievable lengths to confirm a pending Reichl visit. One place even checked license plates in its parking lot. It seems the owner had a friend who worked for New York's motor-vehicle bureau, who passed along Reichl's plate number. One evening the restaurant hit the jackpot--Reichl's car was there, and she was matched to her vehicle.

Reichl knows she's a hunted woman. At one tony restaurant, she knew her cover was blown when the restaurant owner told her, "The King of Spain is waiting at the bar, but your table is ready."

No one has ever told me, "The King of Spain is at the bar, but your table is ready." (However, I once got seated ahead of a low-rated television weatherman who didn't have a reservation.) Busboys routinely neglect my water; my table is often next to the rest room; and if the chef is preparing two versions of my order, it's only because one of them fell on the floor.

I've got a plan, though, for my next New York visit. I'll call a fancy restaurant: "I'd like a reservation. The name is Cole, Rhonda Cole."

--Howard Seftel

Suggestions? Write me at or New Times, P.O. Box 2510, Phoenix,


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