I arrived in San Diego nine years ago, a well-spoiled food snob coming down (pun intended) from San Francisco like the culinary marshal sent in to clean up an untamed border town. Now, I find myself cheerleading for San Diego restaurants (the ones I like, and there are an increasing number of these): Instead of spinning Colt six-shooters in both hands, I’m twirling batons of Chino Farms carrots and pompoms of local-caught sea urchins. It’s not that I’ve lowered my standards, only that San Diego dining has changed. So I’m thrilled whenever I see increasingly frequent mentions of local restaurants in national publications — whereas in 2000, San Diego eateries were nearly terra incognita on the national scene. If New York was the Big Apple, then San Diego was the Big Fish Taco.
I didn’t want to leave my adopted hometown to the north, but after freelancing as a food critic and cookbook-writer/consultant for 18 years, I could see the “dot-com crash” coming, and it boded direly for the restaurant-review budgets of Bay Area publications. Just then, the Reader’s editor made me an offer I couldn’t refuse, a sufficient expense budget to cover the spectrum of restaurants without having to stoop to swallowing a comped luxury-meal, or basing half a review on a gala media dinner. After all, can you be totally honest when the restaurant is treating? It’s worse than dating — you’re professionally in hock for at least a good-night kiss.
As an “audition” (my tryout for the paper, and San Diego’s audition to see if I could live here), my first assignment was a freelance cover article on the “Ten Hottest Chefs of San Diego.” Camped out in a borrowed condo, I hit the Zagat and the travel guides for the best-reviewed restaurants and commenced eating out six nights a week. (On Mondays, I rested — and digested.) I assumed that within a month I’d uncover 15 or 20 great candidates to winnow down. Wrong! After seven weeks, I’d only found seven sufficiently impressive chefs. I started interviewing the “winners” by phone, hoping for additional suggestions. The first chef I called (a Zonie émigré who cooked a very San Francisco style of California cuisine) found my plight hilarious. “That’s perfect for San Diego!” he hooted. “The city’s ten best chefs — whoops, only found seven!” (Eventually, I dredged up three more, choices I regretted after moving here permanently, when I discovered several superior overlooked candidates.)
Back then, many local restaurants, even “good” ones, draped their plates with limp steamed three-vegetable medleys, assembled and pre-cut by Sysco, the huge restaurant-supply company, and some places used industrial gravy bases that made all their sauces taste alike. Today, you’re more likely to encounter “green” (local, organic, sustainable, humanely raised) ingredients, while many local chefs have become Slow Food enthusiasts, offering do-it-yourself charcuterie, salumi, even house-churned butter. (For that matter, Sysco itself is “going green.”) And some popular moderately priced restaurants have switched from restaurant-supply bases to house-made stocks, the real building blocks of sauces. No wonder I’ve holstered my pistols.
I’m often asked why I’m so strict about reviewing anonymously. (After all, it really is hard to eat with that brown paper bag over my head — the mouthhole makes everything smell and taste like damp cellulose.) I write under a nom de plume and reserve under different fake names. I interview chefs only by phone, so that I won’t be recognized in person when I show up at restaurants.
The reason, of course, is that known restaurant critics often receive better food and service than the ordinary customer — the customer I’m both impersonating and representing. True, a restaurant can’t surpass its own limits, can’t cook brilliantly if its norm is mediocrity, but the kitchen can take it to the limit — or not. And servers can turn into your devoted servants if they believe you’re Somebody Who Matters.
For example, during one meal (back in Frisco) at one of the city’s top Italian restaurants, the food was excellent, but not nearly as exalted as the restaurant’s reputation. Service was punctilious and chilly. Partway through dinner, I spotted a critic from another publication dining with a chic blonde — the restaurant’s publicist, it turned out. My fellow critic waved, and I dropped by her table to say hello. She was eating a dish not yet on the menu, especially prepared by the chef-owner for her table alone. “Fabulous!” she raved. I returned to my posse, and minutes later, after first stopping by my colleague’s table, the maître d’ paid me a special visit. Tall, fat, formal, and quite puffed up with himself, he loomed over me, his swollen belly so close to my nose I found myself leaning sideways to avoid contact. “How dare you come here to review us without telling me you were a restaurant critic?” he thundered. “Had I known that you were reviewing, your meal would have been ENTIRELY DIFFERENT!”
The same differential treatment applies to some high-end San Diego restaurants. At least twice, I’ve eaten at a restaurant in the same week as a local magazine critic well known to the industry. Judging by his subsequent rave reviews, he was treated like the Foodie Prince of San Diego; in contrast, my party and I, however nicely dressed, were treated like poor relatives at the palace table. And that’s how you, dear readers, will be treated at such places — but you can’t say I didn’t warn you in the reviews.
Sure, I’ve sometimes been busted, but mainly after the fact. When I go to ethnic restaurants, I’ll seek out regional specialties rather than the American favorites from that cuisine. If a day or two later I phone to fact-check, my questions about the foods I ate are often such giveaways that the chef-owners remember me — but no worries. The moms ’n’ pops of Peru don’t talk to the mom’s ’n’ pops of Thailand or Catalonia or Morocco, to tell each other whom to watch out for. But telephone interviews sometimes do prove perilous: Several chefs have remarked on my “900-number” phone voice — and a couple of them, after several interviews (as they move from restaurant to restaurant) have recognized the voice when they come out to schmooze with customers at the new gigs. One was a very “connected” and charming chef-restaurateur who could wreck my anonymity in a New York minute. I breathlessly phoned him the next day. “I think you recognized me last night,” I said. Yes, he had. “Please, please, don’t describe me to anybody else in the industry,” I begged. “Of course not,” he reassured me. “Why should I give my competitors an advantage? I’ve taken my licks, they should, too. It keeps us all on our toes. As long as nobody knows what you look like, everybody has to cook every night as though Naomi Wise were at a table.” (Well, I said he was charming.)