Everybody's A Critic (And Now, Everybody Can Be Treated Like One)

An Australian report this week highlights the various ways in which restaurants are using modern technology to spy—er, gather and share information—on their customers.

The practice goes beyond merely exchanging notes on diners' seating preferences and tipping habits. According to Good Food, managers are also using specific codes to identify "loud talkers, frequent no-shows or PIAs – pain-in-the-ass customers with excessive demands." The data-sharing sometimes even delves into a person's looks—information that can be used, for better or worse, to put the most attractive people in the most highly visible seats.

It's the kind of surveillance that restaurants formerly reserved for professional dining critics, whose photos, credit card numbers and names of frequent dining companions, among other juicy bits of intel, have been passed around for years. By sharing this information, restaurateurs can more easily identify any otherwise anonymous reviewers within their midst and then target their tables for better service in an attempt to boost ratings.

Just this past spring, Washington City Paper's Jessica Sidman unearthed a whole dossier on food writers in the nation's capital, which had been making the rounds at upscale restaurants throughout the city. The document included pictures and FBI-level detail on each scribe's perceived strengths and weaknesses.

Restaurants have good reason to conduct this type of surveillance on critics because it's traditionally the critics' job to operate under their radar. Serious reviewers have long strived to come across as regular customers, booking tables and paying with cards under assumed names—sometimes even donning disguises or otherwise changing their appearance. In theory, at least, such counter-intelligence measures help to ensure a normal dining experience and, thus, provide a more accurate review.

This long-running cloak-and-dagger game has taken on a whole new level of intrigue in recent years. With the advent of online review sites like Yelp, regular diners now wield a degree of power once possessed solely by the critics. A poor review by, say, Floyd the Barber, can actually influence a restaurant's internet rating.

As such, average Joe eaters are naturally coming under a similar style of surveillance.

It's a point that Stevan Premutico, CEO of the Australian online reservation service Dimmi, is quick to make when explaining all the data mining. "This passes some of the power back to restaurants," he tells Good Food.

If the cycle of espionage continues, then what's the logical next step? Will regular-guy reviewers take professional-level counter measures? Just imagine: a community of Yelpers dining out in fake mustaches.

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