For most restaurant go-ers, getting the royal treatment is a dream. Specially made dishes, extra service, the best tables — who wouldn't want it? For New York Times restaurant critic Ruth Reichl, the red carpet is the one thing she wants to avoid. In her new book, "Garlic and Sapphires: The Secret Life of a Critic in Disguise," Reichl recounts her efforts to remain anonymous so she could find out what really went on in restaurants she was reviewing. Read an excerpt.
“I’m a restaurant critic,” I told the woman in the wig shop, “and I need a disguise that will keep me from being recognized.”
“That’s a new one on me,” she said as my story came to a close. “And are you working on someplace special at the moment?”
“Lespinasse,” I said. “The chef is amazing. I keep going back and every time he just blows me away. I’ve been thinking about giving him four stars, but it’s not something I could do casually. Not only would it be my first four-star review, but it would also be the first time a hotel restaurant ever got four stars from the New York Times. I can’t make a mistake with this. And here’s the thing: I think they made me, even when I was there in disguise. Everything’s just a little too perfect. So I’m trying to create a new disguise, one that is foolproof.”
“Gotcha,” said Shirley, moving to a deep, wide drawer, “I have an idea.” As she opened the drawer, her bulk blocked my view, so I couldn’t see what she was holding until she turned around with a cascade of hair the color of Dom Perignon spilling from her hands. As the wig caught the light, the color changed from pearl to buttercup. “Try this,” said Shirley.
The wig felt different in my hands—lighter, cooler—and when I put it on, the hair fell across my face as gently as silk. I squeezed my eyes tight, not wanting to look until it was seated right, holding my breath, wanting this to be the one. I could feel it settle into place, feel the soft strands graze my shoulders just below my ears.
“Wait!” said Shirley as I started to open my eyes, and she leaned forward and began tugging the wig, adjusting it. She slid the hair on my left side behind my ear and pulled the hair on the right forward so that it fell across one eye. Her hand cradled the hair under my cheek, then let it fall. “Okay,” she said at last, “you can open your eyes now.”
The champagne blonde in the mirror did not seem to be wearing a wig. The hair looked real, as if it were growing out of the scalp. Even the dark eyebrows looked right, as if this woman had so much confidence, she didn’t care who knew that she dyed her hair. My mouth dropped open. “Oh!” I said stupidly. “Oh my.”
In the mirror, Shirley caught my eye. “I told you there was a right wig for everyone!” she said, but her face did not match her matter-of-fact tone. “You look fabulous!” she said, looking absolutely amazed.
I don’t think I would have recognized myself if we had met walking down the street, and I had yet to put on any makeup. Somehow this cut, this color, made my cheeks pink, my eyes almost violet, my lips seem redder than they had ever been.
“You were meant to be a blonde!” cried Shirley. And then, as I watched, her face fell.
“What’s the matter?” I asked.
She hesitated for a moment, and I was afraid she was going to tell me that the wig was already sold. “It’s real hair,” she whispered sadly, and I was so relieved I burst out laughing.
“Is that all?” I asked.
Then she told me the price. It was shocking, but even if Lespinasse had not been in my future, I could never have left without the wig. I felt new, glamorous, bursting with curiosity. What would life be like for the woman in the mirror?
“I wish I could let you have it for less,” said Shirley apologetically. “But it’s very good hair, and I’ve just quoted the price that I paid.”
“I have a feeling it’s going to be worth every penny,” I said.
Shirley packed the wig into an old-fashioned hatbox and handed it to me. “You’ll come back and tell me what happens, won’t you?” she asked wistfully.
“You mean whether I fool the restaurant?” I asked.
“Well,” she said, “that too. But what I mostly want to know is, when you’re a blonde, do you have more fun?”
Excerpted from “Garlic and Sapphires: The Secret Life of a Critic in Disguise,” by Ruth Reichl. Copyright © 2005 by Ruth Reichl. Published by Penguin Group. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt can be used without permission of the publisher.