Q: Why are restaurant critics anonymous?
A: Ideally, restaurant critics try to go unrecognized so that they receive more or less the same treatment as any other diner. At the same time, restaurant critics have a responsibility to write under their real names and they necessarily live in the communities they cover, so true anonymity is hard to maintain.
When I started working at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, I had just finished a program at Pennsylvania Culinary Institute. While writing for the school newsletter, I met and interviewed Bill Fuller of the Big Burrito restaurant group; Kevin Sousa, who now owns Salt of the Earth in Garfield (and several others); Toni Pais, chef/owner of Cafe Zhino and Larry Lagattuta, owner of Enrico's Biscotti. A few restaurants found photos of me online, which they posted in the kitchen. But I think that most people who recognized me had seen me in person, and had my identity confirmed by someone else who knew what I looked like. During my first year on the job, I was rarely recognized, but over time that has changed.
I was more successful at arriving unannounced, by making reservations under fake names from different phone numbers. My guests tried their very hardest not to say my name (with wildly varying degrees of success).
Ultimately, I don't think anonymity is the most important aspect of a restaurant review. Maintaining professional objectivity is much more important.
That said, restaurants would do well to worry less about critics and more about providing a consistent experience for everyone. A rave review followed by a bunch of less-than-perfect dinners is not going to translate to a successful restaurant in the long term.
Q: Is a four-star restaurant always better than a two-star restaurant?
A: For the most part, readers like star ratings and critics hate them. Diners want a quick way of deciding whether or not they're interested in a restaurant. Critics want people to read the whole review before forming an opinion.
Personally, I don't find star ratings very helpful. A two-star restaurant that excels at everything it does often seems more appealing than a three-star restaurant that was shooting for four. Those are the kinds of things that come out more clearly in reviews.
Star ratings do accomplish one important task, they keep critics honest. It's unpleasant to write a zero or one-star review, and without the star rating there to remind me, it might be tempting to cloak criticism in paragraph after paragraph of neutral description (which some readers and restaurants would definitely prefer). But I reviewed restaurants because I wanted to support the good ones, and that meant calling every restaurant as I saw it, even when the experience was unpleasant.
Q: Why do restaurants close?
A: Knowing why a restaurant closed is like knowing why a couple breaks up -- it's complicated and the story will change depending on whom you ask.
Q: There are so many new restaurants. Is the city getting oversaturated?
A: I believe there is plenty of room for new restaurants in the Pittsburgh area, so long as they are the right kind of restaurants. If I could predict what those restaurants should be, I would be a consultant, not a food writer. That said, there are two big gaps in the Pittsburgh food scene, at least as I experience it. Pittsburgh needs more casual lunch spots serving food that is simple and affordable, but special. Bluebird Kitchen, Downtown, has been swamped since it opened, and you only have to look to the quality and creativity of their dishes to understand why. There should be more places along these lines, especially in high-traffic areas such as Downtown, the South Side, Oakland, Shadyside and Squirrel Hill.
Maybe it's just the heat speaking, but one national trend I would love to see in Pittsburgh is creative ice cream, frozen yogurt or ice pops. For a taste of what I'm talking about, you could visit Toscanini's in Cambridge, Mass.; Jeni's in the Columbus, Ohio area, People's Pops in New York, Meltdown in New Orleans or Ici in Berkeley, Calif. I suspect there are some bureaucratic reasons for why these kinds of places aren't opening in Pittsburgh, but it could be an incredible opportunity for whoever figures it out.