The Association of Food Journalists has just put together a revised set of ethical guidelines to address, at this late date, the existence of the Internet, the speediness of food blogs, and the difficulty of being an anonymous food critic in these photo-happy times. In the wake of the Internet outings of formerly anonymous critics like L.A.’s S. Irene Virbila, San Francisco’s Michael Bauer, and Houston’s Alison Cook, the AFJ now suggests that "Reviews should be conducted as anonymously as possible," acknowledging that "true anonymity is often no longer possible" in the digital age. So, the compromise is to arrive unannounced, "maintain as low a profile as possible," and pay in cash or use a credit card with a different name. Also, in order to compete with bloggers, they say that writing timely pieces about a restaurant’s opening is okay so long as it doesn’t sound like a review and consists just of "first impressions."
Also, they suggest using more than one identity on restaurant reservation websites — this could get tricky, of course, given how quickly restaurants and publicists will catch on to such things, leaving a critic to remember which of his or her twelve identities they’re using this time.
If none of that works, and the restaurant still sends out a free dish, the critic is supposed to ask that the price of the dish be added to the bill, and to acknowledge the event in the review.
And given the slim budgets of many publications and the fact that many critics must wear two hats these days, as both restaurant reporter and critic, they suggest that all interviews be done by phone, or that one does not, at least, interview the staff of a restaurant in person before or after a review.
Got all that?