Cafe Reviews

Second Helpings

Critical Face Off: By now, even folks who don't care anything about restaurants or critics have heard the Ruth Reichl story.

The former all-powerful restaurant reviewer at the New York Times (she just resigned to take the editor's job at Gourmet), Reichl was recognized by the owner when she tried to make an anonymous visit to one of the city's poshest restaurants. He told her, "The King of Spain is at the bar, but your table is ready."

Do critics get special treatment if their cover is blown, as mine was this week at Convivo? Restaurant owners would have to be either supremely confident or extremely dense to carry on as if the scribe were just another customer.

A few months ago, I had an up-close and personal view of what one local celebrity chef did to try to please a critic he spotted. From my anonymous perch (it was pure coincidence that had both of us critics there that same night), I got to enjoy the whole fawning, Saturday-night spectacle.

First, the chef came sprinting out of the kitchen to make small talk with her. Naturally, everyone else in the jam-packed restaurant turned to watch, wondering who merited such attention.

Next, the parade of staff came over to make sure the critic was happy. First came the hostess. Then came the sharp-suited manager. The critic looked like she was ready to slide under her seat.

Then, the final straw: The chef himself served her dinner. The critic couldn't have attracted more attention if she'd stood on the table stark naked, held her veal chop aloft and belted out the national anthem.

(They say revenge is a dish best served cold. The critic got hers a few weeks later. In her review, her critical thumb was so far down you'd have needed a derrick to get it back up.)

I certainly didn't want any similar scenes of management affection at Convivo. I asked co-owner Pat Bloom not to tell the staff who I was--servers, who tend to move from restaurant to restaurant and have lots of friends in the business, can blow your cover more quickly than a segment on America's Most Wanted. She was also savvy enough not to hang around the table.

Finally, though, at the end of the meal on my last visit, she couldn't restrain herself. Knowing I'm an ice-cream-aholic, she brought over an extra bowl of her homemade ice cream for me to sample. How cagey can you get?

In an odd twist, however, I get to have the last laugh. That same night, I spotted the author of a local restaurant guide and his party also having dinner at Convivo. (And they noticed me right back.) No doubt, like me and my group months earlier, they were cackling over the situation and enjoying their anonymity.

I hope they don't get too overconfident. I've learned the hard way that when it comes to getting "outed," what goes around can come around.

--Howard Seftel

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Howard Seftel