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Wednesday, March 1, 2000 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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TASTE OF THE TOWN

Undercover: Restaurant reviewer strives for anonymity

Seattle Times restaurant critic

I am scam. Scam I am. A few months ago, a woman dined at an Eastside restaurant and introduced herself to the bar manager as the "Seattle Times restaurant critic"

The two engaged in a discussion about a Taste of the Town column in which I had aired my restaurant pet peeves - a column she spoke about knowingly. That column had coincidentally been used as an educational tool at a recent staff meeting, the manager told her.

I don't know whether the complimentary $50 gift certificate he bestowed upon my impostor was meant as compensation for help with staff training. Maybe it was supposed to be an apology for the less-than-satisfactory entree the "critic" sent back to the kitchen for correction. I do know that restaurant management waited with bated breath for my forthcoming review.

They were still waiting when my body-double showed up again on a recent Friday night. She was recognized immediately and the crew went into Full Restaurant Critic Alert. At evening's end, when the manager bid her farewell, she assured him - after paying with her $50 gift certificate - that everything had been fabulous.

I can't decide which galls me more: that a stranger could successfully impersonate me, or that anyone in his right mind would think I'd introduce myself as a restaurant critic and accept a gift certificate. Can we talk? There's a reason why, unlike other Times columnists, my photograph doesn't run with my column. There's a reason why I make reservations using phony names and have a wallet filled with credit cards in pseudonyms certain to lead to my arrest. That reason is anonymity.

The last thing I want is some nervous waiter tending my table. Or worse, a fawning restaurateur kissing my you-know-what. When I walk into a restaurant, I want my experience to be the same experience you'd encounter.

I believe it is my duty to dine at the crummiest table in the house, if that's where I'm seated. I don't want the chef replacing a tired piece of fish with the best fillet in the house, or garnishing my appetizer with beluga caviar when everyone else is treated to a sprig of parsley. If my meal is unsatisfactory I grin and bear it, then write about it later. Bad meal or good, it's paid for in full by The Seattle Times.

It's tough trying to work anonymously, but I try. That said, you should know that before I got this job I was a freelance food writer. Freelance meant free to interview chefs and restaurateurs face-to-face, and free to attend media events where I'd rub elbows with everyone in the restaurant business. As a result, many of the city's high-profile chefs and restaurateurs could pick me out of a line-up, never mistaking me for my impostor, who has short-cropped hair and favors business attire.

Because I used to wait tables I'm also occasionally "outed" by friends still in the trade. Just the other day, I was shocked to see one of my former bosses - a guy I hadn't laid eyes on in 10 years - hosting at a restaurant I was reviewing. I pretended I didn't recognize him, hoping he wouldn't remember me. Fat chance. My favorite outing was when a former co-worker showed up as I forked into a glorious plate of halibut cheeks. "I had no idea you were here," my waitress-pal told me in jig-is-up fashion, "then I went into the kitchen and heard the chef yelling: `Nancy Leson's cheeks are up!' " That line alone was worth being caught in the act.

Anyway, this column should help answer the question I'm so often asked, "When you review a restaurant, do they know you're coming?" No, they don't. And I try hard to keep it that way. If I need to interview the chef or owner, I do so only by phone after a series of visits.

This also should be an explanation to the generous restaurant-types who've sent me flowers in thanks for a positive review. I'm certain the floral arrangement was lovely. Unfortunately, it got sent back to the florist before I had a chance to appreciate it. Company policy: no gifts allowed. Which bring me back to that $50 gift certificate. A free meal? Please. That's the last thing I need.

Nancy Leson's phone number is 206-464-8838. Her e-mail address is: nleson@seattletimes.com

Copyright (c) 2000 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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