Turnover is rare in the ultra exclusive realm of big city restaurant critics. After all, who wants to give up a hefty expense account to eat at the best restaurants, plus a platform to arbitrate tastes and cultural trends? Most Supreme Court justices serve shorter terms.
But in recent years, there has been a notable changing of the guards. Critic Michael Bauer departed the San Francisco Chronicle after 32 years in 2018. (That same year, the inimitable Jonathan Gold passed away following a decades-long career, including 12 non-consecutive years at the Los Angeles Times.) The Chicago Tribune‘s Phil Vettel retired last year after 31 years. He was shortly after followed by the Star Tribune‘s Rick Nelson, who covered the Twin Cities’ dining scene for 23 years. Just yesterday there was some more big news: New York magazine’s Adam Platt will no longer review restaurants after 22 years.
The shifting of tectonic dinner plates leave Washington Post critic Tom Sietsema, who’s also been on the job 22 years, as one of the longest continuously reigning full-time restaurant critics in America. The Philadelphia Inquirer‘s Craig LaBan beats him with a 24 year tenure. So does Texas Monthly’s Pat Sharpe, who’s been writing reviews for the magazine in one capacity or another since the 1980s. (Our own Ann Limpert clocks a mere six years as lead Washingtonian critic.)
Sietsema has no plans to follow his peers to retirement anytime soon. The critic tells me he’ll continue in his job “as long as I’m happy and can do it” and as long as “my employer wants it and readers want it.” His predecessor, Phyllis Richman, held the position for nearly 24 years, an anniversary that Sietsema is quickly approaching.
“I’d sure like to stay a day longer than that,” he says. “I’m still having fun. I still have things to say. I have stories that aren’t necessarily reviews that I want to write and themes that I care about. Right now, [retirement] is not in the cards.”
Sietsema is well aware of the criticisms that come with holding a powerful job with no term limits. “I realize, every day, I’m a white male waking up, and there are a lot of people who think they might do a better job with the position, or why has he been in there so long?,” he says. “Instead of getting rid of somebody, why not—to use José Andrés’s phrase—why not make a longer table? I think it’s really important to have different voices, different ages, different people writing on subjects.”
Sietsema touts the diversity of the Washington Post‘s food team as a whole—though the only other critic (Tim Carman) is also a white male.
“I can’t change being white and I can’t change being male or being in this job that long, but what I can do is change things around me,” Sietsema says. While he hasn’t broadcast it, he’s made a concerted effort over the past few years to dine out with more people who aren’t like him: young families, older folks, students, singles, non-white people, Washingtonians from a range of professions and backgrounds who aren’t “die-hard foodies.” Sietsema adds says he’s also tried to review more women-owned and smaller restaurants in addition to the “bigger, splashier restaurants that people expect you to review.”
Beyond the ubiquity of smartphones and the internet (Sietsema no longer needs to scribble notes in the bathroom), the pandemic is responsible for some of the biggest shifts in how the job of critic has changed. For starters, he has temporarily given up awarding stars. (Others have abandoned them altogether.) He’s still mulling over when stars may return: “We are still in a pandemic. I think restaurants continue to struggle and figure things out.”
He’s also just generally avoided negativity, preferring to not write about terrible experiences or dishes. “I became more of a cheerleader than I ever would have been,” he says of pandemic-era reviews. But the tides are already starting to shift back: “I do feel like I’m ready to write more negative pieces now… Do I have a negative review ready to go? I do not. But I can see a time where I might do that.”
One thing Sietsema has no plans to change: his attempts at anonymity. Never mind that he’s widely recognized in restaurants by those who care to spot him. If—and this is a huge if—he did ever decide to give up the Mystery Man schtick, he wouldn’t publicly proclaim it.
“I am not going to be the 25th critic to write, ‘Unmasked!’ If it happens, it happens. At this point, yeah, do a lot of restaurants know? Sure, but we all have our little tricks that we employ to get in and out.”
Sietsema certainly doesn’t see his recognizability as a reason to give up the gig. One thing is for sure: anonymity will almost certainly go out the door whenever it is he someday exits the job.
“Even if someone new were to replace me, the time that you have to be anonymous is about a month. And if you’re really young and you have a big social media presence, it’s less than that,” he says. “The more important thing is to know what you’re talking about, be as fair as possible, and write in, hopefully, an entertaining fashion.”