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NYC restaurants, critics play the spy game

While writers try to protect their identities, eateries keep dossiers on them
/ Source: The Associated Press

When the chief food critic for The New York Times came into Telepan to secretly review the new restaurant, the staff knew it instantly.

Pictures of Frank Bruni had been posted in the locker room and at the front desk.

“Too much is at stake,” chef and owner Bill Telepan said. “You have to know who these people are. We had a big bull’s-eye on us. I just didn’t want him to hurt the business.”

Bruni, New York’s most powerful restaurant critic, and his colleagues routinely make their reservations under assumed names and deceptive phone numbers to try to ensure they are treated like any other customer.

But restaurants have adopted stealthy countermeasures. That includes compiling dossiers on important food writers and critics to help the staff recognize the reviewers.

The dossiers often include photos, a physical description of the critics (and sometimes their spouses), their culinary likes and dislikes and other identifying behavior.

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After all, “you don’t want to wake up one day and read your own obituary,” said Drew Nieporent, an owner of the popular restaurants Nobu and Tribeca Grill.

A file on one critic described him as having “very bad teeth” — yellow and gray, as if stained by antibiotics. Another dossier reported that the wife of a certain critic had “short old lady hair (helmet head).”

A stack of dossiers obtained by The Associated Press contained these other tidbits:

Dana Cowin, editor in chief of Food & Wine magazine: She has a “serious demeanor” and “should be served by a very professional waitperson.”

Florence Fabricant, a food writer at the Times: “Articulate, asks about ingredients and preparations.”

Jeffrey Steingarten, Vogue food editor: “Likes to try exotic dishes” and “orders a lot of different items.”

The mug shots are usually snatched off the Internet. Bruni, though, was photographed surreptitiously.

People associated with the restaurant industry are always on the prowl for phone numbers, credit cards and information on critics’ wives and children — anything that can lead them to the writer’s true identity.

William Grimes, a former restaurant critic at the Times, had many aliases, according to one file. The dossier has his home phone number and a list of credit cards associated with him, along with his wife’s name and what color lipstick she wears (bright red). His tipping habits: “Leaves 20-25% typically.”

New York Magazine’s Gael Greene favors hats and big costume jewelry. But apparently no one in the New York restaurant industry’s dossiers goes as far as former Times critic Ruth Reichl, now editor in chief of Gourmet magazine, who used to wear wigs and other disguises.

Restaurant owners have other tricks as well for dealing with the critics.

When Mimi Sheraton was the chief food critic at the Times, Nieporent analyzed her reviews and came to recognize her idiosyncrasies. Among them: “There was never a shrimp she didn’t eat that didn’t have iodine in it.” So when Nieporent opened a restaurant she was certain to review, he made sure it had a shrimpless menu.

Also, restaurants often hire food consultants who evaluate everything before they open. Karine Bakhoum, president of the consulting business KB Network News and a judge on the Food Network’s Iron Chef, said she once told a restaurant it had better serve a good banana dessert.

“I knew he loved bananas,” she said of Grimes.

Adam Platt, New York Magazine critic, is 6-foot-6 and weighs about 350 pounds. He does not even bother to alter his appearance.

“If I’d tried to disguise myself,” he said, “it would be absurd.”

Platt does not make reservations under his own name, and he doesn’t begrudge restaurants for trying to figure out his identity.

“I don’t think you can fault them for doing it,” he said. “They are protecting their investment.”

In the case of Telepan, the restaurant survived the Bruni encounter, earning two stars (or “very good”) out of a possible four. The restaurant might have garnered three if not for the interior, which Bruni knocked.

“It was all very nerve-racking,” Telepan said.