Restaurateurs bite back with campaign to out the food critics

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Indy Lifestyle Online

Food critics in Gotham know their power. A mean flick of their pen or the awarding of one star (merely "good" if it's The New York Times) can make a restaurant close faster than a Boy George musical on Broadway. Alternatively, their judgements can guarantee a queue around the block.

But those adjudicators of fine cuisine and top-notch service also understand that there is no abandoning their low profile. Only by adopting the stealth of a fox can they have any hope of being treated like every customer when they turn up for work.

In a counter-attack, however, entrepreneurs behind some of New York's ritziest establishments - who spend big money on getting their menus and decors right and cannot afford a single duff review - are turning the tables on the reviewers. Their mission: to out the critics the minute they walk through the door.

Increasingly, restaurants are providing waiting staff with detailed information about the city's most important reviewers in the hope they will quickly recognise them. That means, for example, posting up photographs of them or listing details of the kinds of questions a certain critic may ask or even offering descriptions of the critic's spouse in the event that they are brought along.

"Short old lady hair (helmet head)", was the less-than-flattering lowdown on the wife of one critic included in a file compiled by one Manhattan restaurant. Another such dossier informed waiters that a certain reviewer sported "very bad teeth", a hue of yellow-grey apparently.

Bill Telepan, who recently opened his restaurant, Telepan, on the Upper West Side, admitted that he had posted mug-shots of Frank Bruni, chief food critic at The New York Times, in a backroom for all his staff to peruse before opening night. He put up pictures of other reviewers too.

"You know, you don't want a piece of broken glass in the guy's soup," he said, tongue slightly in cheek. "It isn't that naughty. I do what I think all restaurateurs do to protect your investment, because the critics do come and are a really big part of your success. You hopefully have a plan that means you will be reviewed well anyway but you also have to take those extra steps."

A whole sheaf of restaurant files on critics collected by the Associated Press and shared publicly yesterday show other measures being taken to short-circuit attempts at anonymity. Owners try to track the different credit cards the critics use or assemble a profile of their likes, dislikes and other foibles.

A dossier on William Grimes of the Times told staff the colour of his wife's lipstick, his generosity with tipping and even armed reservation assistants with details of his various credit cards and home telephone number.

When Drew Neiporent, owner of Nobu and the Tribeca Grill, concluded Mimi Sheraton, an ex-critic of the Times, never ate a shrimp she couldn't find fault with, he decided to excise shrimps from the menus of all his restaurants. "You don't want to wake up one day and read your own obituary," he explained.

Mr Telepan's restaurant in the end received a dozen different reviews and he thinks his tactics paid off. Most importantly, from Mr Bruni he received two stars - "very good". He might have done even better, he suggested, but Mr Bruni didn't like his décor as much as he did the food.