Kathleen Purvis

Restaurant reviewers see a lot when they stay behind the mask

If you go to Google Images and type in “Helen Schwab,” you’ll see a lot of pictures of an attractive, nicely dressed woman. She’s Helen Schwab, but she’s not The Observer’s Helen Schwab.

In the fight to maintain anonymity as a restaurant reviewer, The Observer’s Helen Schwab has an advantage: She shares a name with the wife of financier Charles Schwab.

I’m also not Helen Schwab, although the most common question I get about my job is: “What’s it like to eat at all those restaurants?” Beats me, I usually reply, you’ll have to ask Helen. She’s the reviewer for The Observer, I’m the food editor and food columnist.

I sum it up this way: I write about how to cook, what to cook, when to cook and why to cook. Helen writes about where to eat. Although I do write about restaurants and I’m expected to know them, I usually get there on my own.

Helen’s attempts to keep her face out of view make her unusual these days. Restaurant reviewers all over are dropping their masks: Jonathan Gold at the L.A. Times, Adam Platt at New York magazine, Leslie Brenner at the Dallas Morning News, Rick Nelson at the Minneapolis Star-Tribune.

When they do, they usually write a column defending the change. They’ll always cite the Internet and insist that no one is really anonymous.

“It doesn’t matter,” the argument goes. “The chef can’t change the menu when I walk in the door.”

Maybe that’s true. But there are still some reviewers who stay true to the standard. Tom Sietsema at The Washington Post, Phil Vettel at the Chicago Tribune and Bill Addison at Eater.com all work to stay low- or no-profile.

So why does Schwab go to the effort to keep her picture out of view and her face less seen?

“My job is to tell readers what to expect on a typical visit – not what happens when the restaurant makes a special effort,” she says. “If you think nothing can change once you’re in the restaurant, you’re wrong. Execution, portions, plating, to say nothing of service: It can all change. I’ve seen it.”

Schwab also points out another good reason to hang on to the anonymity standard.

“Truly top-notch places serve everyone great food, and treat all their customers expertly,” she says. “Those aren’t the places anonymity is useful for, by and large. It’s most useful to sort out the lesser places, ones that treat people differently based on its read of them, or ones not paying attention to much of anything.”

Here’s why I appreciate people like Helen, Bill, Tom and Phil: The very act of keeping a low profile shows me something about them. It separates them from the herd of bloggers and citizen reviewers. I know they’re being thoughtful about how they do what they do.

Even when they do get recognized – and they know they do – what I’m reading will be about their experience, and that tells me more than just what they ate.