'Papa Bear in the House': Restaurants Play Spy Games

High-end joints go to extreme lengths to identify food critics
By Newser Editors,  Newser Staff
Posted Dec 15, 2017 7:21 AM CST
'Papa Bear in the House': Restaurants Play Spy Games
Restaurants go to crazy lengths to keep tabs on top food critics.   (AP Photo/Dieu Nalio Chery)

His name is Tom Sietsema, but he might be better known in high-end DC restaurants as "Papa Bear." That's because Sietsema just happens to be the food critic for the Washington Post, and an urgent whisper of "Papa Bear in the house" will send everyone from chefs to bus boys into a frenzy making sure everything is just so, just in case a review is in progress. And it's not just Sietsema who garners such attention. The Washingtonian provides an interesting look at the great lengths to which fine-dining establishments go in order to identify critics. It's practically CIA-level stuff, with secret dossiers of sorts compiled, complete with critics' photos and detailed notes about them. And while the restaurant business can be cutthroat and competitive, the information is often shared from place to place.

"They update them and add to them," one sommelier tells writer Jessica Sidman. "Everyone gets a core one, and then there’s 2.0, 3.0, 4.0. It’s like smartphone updates." But identifying critics who walk in the door is just step one. Assuming that is done—and managers have been known to lose their jobs for routinely failing to spot top critics—then comes the crazy effort to appease them, all while pretending to behave as if they haven't recognized them. Top staff gets called back in. If a special dish is running low, chefs might order waiters to tell other diners it's gone, just in case the critic's table orders it. And dirty dishes are pored over in the kitchen in meticulous detail to see what was and wasn't eaten. Click for the full story, or read about how at least one critic has dropped any hope of anonymity. (More Longform stories.)

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