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MEDIA DISH

And I'll be your critic tonight

September 12, 2007|Regina Schrambling | Special to The Times

RESTAURANT criticism can be divided into two eras: BG and AG.

Before Google, reviewers could pretty much move freely about their business. Some might have felt compelled to slap on a wig, and those with integrity would definitely reserve and pay under an assumed name, but the game of tabletop charades was on. By all standards of old-media journalism, restaurateurs were not supposed to know when a reviewer with the clout to make or break his investment was anywhere near the kitchen.

After Google, the rules are being rewritten by the hour. When any human being is searchable online not just verbally but visually, how can a critic possibly hope to retain anonymity long enough to give a restaurant a fair evaluation? Throw blogs into the mix and it's a mashup of Facebook and a masquerade ball.

In the last month, a youngish but old-style critic adamant about his anonymity has been involuntarily outed for all of cyberspace and thousands of magazine readers to see, while a blogger-turned-critic happy to bask in the limelight has been hired by a newspaper that puts her pulchritude on prominent display with every review.

And those developments point up only a few of the ways the onset of AG and the age of transparency has changed what it means to be a restaurant critic. Amateur reviewers are increasingly being taken more seriously. Professionals are blogging. The "ethically limber," as gawker.com put it, are being exposed by the hordes of people commenting anonymously on blogs and websites who will call a freeloader a freeloader and know where the checks are buried. And smart restaurateurs are Googling themselves to monitor the whole freewheeling dialogue.

High visibility for bloggers has publishers taking notice. Adam Roberts, for instance, parlayed his amateurgourmet.com into a book of the same name, sans the dot-com but subtitled "How to Shop, Chop, and Table Hop Like a Pro (Almost)." His face is now becoming almost as ubiquitous online as those Japanese toilet ads. But after taking all of two free meals, he has decided to lay off most reviewing because, he says, "(a) I've started to see the error of my ways; (b) I don't want to be a restaurant critic."

"I'd rather make videos with Barbie dolls . . . than be the next Frank Bruni," he added.

When newspapers had a monopoly, the rules were clear, as they still are at many of the major dailies. The Los Angeles Times requires the restaurant critic to work anonymously, arrive unannounced, make at least three visits and of course always pay for meals. The New York Times and the Philadelphia Inquirer have similar policies. These are also guidelines used by the Assn. of Food Journalists.

These days anyone with a finger to type with can set up shop on the Internet for free and blog through services such as Wordpress and Typepad. In a MySpace world, the faces of the new breed of critic are, of course, often prominent on their blogs. Publicity agents eager for exposure will take coverage they might not get at the big publications, even if it means shelling out for free meals.

And the diner is left to sort it out with Google, or through links on the proliferating aggregate blogs such as eater.com and eaterla.com, which follow the restaurant world like stalkers. (Discussion boards such as chowhound.com and yelp.com are a whole other story.) The result is that choosing a restaurant without seeing what's been widely written about it is a gamble like never before. Do you trust the old-line critics, the blogger or the commenters?

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The critic's choice

ALL this only amplifies the debate, especially online, about the old ways of working. Does being identified really affect a critic's experience? (Restaurants can change the service and the ingredients, but can a bad kitchen ever turn out great meals on demand?) Is the traditional rule of reviewing anonymously really just a game (or only a performance of kabuki)? And why not just come clean in a world that seems to have become one big virtual confessional?

Danyelle Freeman, a sometime actress and television writer in Los Angeles who started the blog restaurantgirl.com in New York a year and a half ago, takes that last attitude big time. She was hired as a critic by the New York Daily News last month after the New York Times included her in a style story on the increasing effect of restaurant bloggers, and she is riding her new job to a level of billboard exposure. Her first review was accompanied by a half-page profile including a huge photo; her face has been overlaid on every review since. A head shot from her acting days has also been plastered on countless computer screens thanks to eater.com, gawker.com and others.

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