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And it established a chummy insiders’ nomenclature that carried over to such dessert options as “Babe’s chocolate cake” — a reference, it turns out, to the slugger Ruth, not the socialite Paley — and “Mrs. Carter’s butter tart.”

Our server wasn’t sure whether the tart (excellent, by the way) paid tribute to Mr. Carter’s mother or grandmother or some other family matriarch, but whatever the case, its name suggested an invitation to an inner circle, a moment of contact fabulousness. Some diners won’t care. Plenty of others can’t wait.

The server in question here was me. I waited on Frank Bruni and three others on his second-to-last visit to Graydon Carter’s Monkey Bar back in 2009, and unwittingly provided him with the kicker to his one-star review (the restaurant had been aiming for two).

I had been told one story about the goddam tart’s name in the kitchen, and one story before my shift started, by the managers. I joked to Frank Bruni about the lack of clarity, and it ended up as the very moment that encapsulated, for him, the silliness of these faux-clubby restaurants. To be fair, he had a good point.

This doesn’t mean, however, that I didn’t have a sneaking suspicion that I had been too candid with Bruni, and that I didn’t wake up at 6 a.m. the day the review came out, to read through the whole thing sighing with relief, only to reach the last goddam paragraph. Upon arriving to work that night, I was marched down to the kitchen to explain myself and probably came very close to losing my job had I not told one small lie: that I had corrected myself, and perhaps Mr. Bruni didn’t hear or didn’t care to hear. 

This, to me, is one of the stranger outcomes of restaurant reviews: that waiters are sometimes treated like they work in the public interest, or something. Stay with me. There’s a fiction central to working as a restaurant reviewer, that you’re anonymous to the service staff and are treated the same as anyone else might be, and therefore your reporting on the matter ought to reflect the reality of what any diner might experience. And yet, every kitchen I’ve ever seen the inside of had a picture of Frank Bruni, until it was Sam Sifton, and now we must assume that Pete Wells’ mug hangs in their place. And restaurants shift to DEFCON 4 whenever a Times critic steps through the door: managers go apeshit running between kitchen and floor, chefs become incredibly agitated, and waiters are very closely monitored. If you’re Pete Wells you don’t just eat out at a restaurant; you turn it into a complete shitshow.

To report on what the service staff does at a restaurant is highly important: there’s really nothing worse than poor service at an expensive restaurant. On the other hand, each error is easily identified, as the kitchen knows exactly which dishes went out which nights and which waiter had that Very Special Table that night, and it all comes back to you if you’ve fucked up — or even if you haven’t, which I’d argue, I really hadn’t.

Another restaurant I worked at had a long-running manhunt to identify who had said something boneheaded to a critic. I had friends who worked at Roberta’s, and I heard that plenty of heads rolled after a service error was highlighted in this Pete Wells blog post

Fortunately I don’t work at restaurants anymore and I don’t think that I’ll have to any time soon (in fact, sometimes I get to write stuff for the Times and I want to make it very clear that I take no issue with them, but with restaurant reviews in general). But as people argue over whether the New York Times is being classist in its scathing review of Guy Fieri’s restaurant (I think not), I’d like to point out the quieter classism that is inherent to the restaurant review in general: that very dispensable service employees are outed for minor errors by critics whose audience consists of those who can afford to eat at these places. 

You must pretend that you think you’re off-record — or more precisely, not even near a journalist at all — even when you know that all your actions are on-record. The chef gets a phone call with the critic, for fact-checking purposes. The waitstaff certainly doesn’t. Not that they should. And I have no suggestions for making this system better. 

But having been on the raw end of this deal, and having done some reporting myself (where I have held back on details that were immaterial to the story, but would have put people in trouble at work), I can’t help but wonder about the ethical issues, even if they’re relatively minor.

(Source: The New York Times)

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