"What is your favorite restaurant?"
This is something I have been asked at least once a week during my eight years as Boston Globe restaurant critic. Sometimes I would put a great deal of thought into the answer. Sometimes I would ask for what occasion, in what neighborhood, at what price. Sometimes I would deflect and say something flip about asking a parent to choose a favorite child.
What I soon realized was that the people posing the question were only marginally interested in what I had to say. What they really wanted was to tell me about their own favorites. So I started keeping my answers brief, and turning the question back to them.
They were delighted. They waxed eloquent on the delis and ice cream parlors of their youth, their neighborhood bistros, the roadside stands they visited on journeys to distant lands, the luxurious and elegant settings where they celebrated life's big events. Sometimes they just wanted to show off how much they knew about the restaurant scene and celebrity chefs, checking off places on constantly renewing bucket lists. But they always had something to say. Any time you find yourself in awkward conversation, bring up food. The lulls will disappear, I promise.
Because we are passionate about food. We love to talk about it. Eating is the fundamental human experience. Cooking is rooted in love. As a critic, representing the interests of the consumer, dining in restaurants has been about many things, but rarely my own appetite. The real answer is, I didn't have a favorite restaurant. I was trying to help you find yours.
Next week, I leave the job I still can't believe I was lucky enough to land. I hope I have helped guide you to even one great meal, or steered you away from a bad one. I will be stepping into the unfillable and impossibly chic shoes of Sheryl Julian — food editor, mentor, wonderful friend. For 30 years she filled the pages of the Food section with recipes we couldn't wait to make and stories that showed us something about life through the lens of food. She will still be writing, and cooking, in these pages, and I can't say how glad I am of that. She had Julia Child and Anne Willan to make proud. I have her.
And now I can answer some of the other questions I've been asked over the years. Yes, Devra First is my actual name, not a pseudonym. No, I did not wear disguises. I paid for meals with credit cards bearing fake names. You can get them, too; just ask your credit card company. I ate out three to four times a week. At this point, many in the restaurant industry have figured out what I look like, and I hear tell of my photo hanging in this kitchen or that. (Someone once told me it was my driver's license image, which just seems cruel.) But many still seemed not to recognize me when I slunk in; I still got seated next to restrooms, forgotten for long stretches, and served cold food. Come to think of it, maybe it was revenge.
But let's be frank. The era of the anonymous restaurant critic is over. I don't expect the Globe's next critic, to be announced in the coming weeks, to be unknown. I came into the job in 2007, just before everyone and your mother created a Facebook profile. Now everyone has a digital profile, an online selfie that might come back to haunt them. We photograph, filter, and post about our meals. Let's not forget to enjoy them in the process. Yelp! and Instagram and food websites wield great influence, and the role of the restaurant critic shifts as a result. This isn't bad; it's just different. Should any one person yield the power to make or break a business? Isn't a plurality of voices a good thing?
And yet I believe there is still great value in having an individual chronicle the dining landscape as a whole — one known voice (love it or hate it) to serve as a benchmark, steered by the principles of journalism rather than financial gain, friendship, or even revenge. As our culture falls increasingly in love with chefs and their work, sympathies shift, away from the dining room and toward the kitchen. We feel kinship with those we admire. No harm there, except when food journalism slides toward boosterism. Recently, after New York Times critic Pete Wells gave a one-star review to Vaucluse, owner Ahmass Fakahany wrote an open letter in response. "You need to do some of the basic journalism and sharpen your food knowledge please — and actually show you love it as we do," he wrote. That last part, at least, is not a critic's job.
So much has changed in a short period of time. It is striking how many of the restaurants I reviewed are now closed. I wrote through an economic downturn, when we ate lobster mac 'n' cheese instead of lobster. Plates got smaller, cocktails became more important, food got weirder, for better and worse. Sometimes I simply yearned for dinner, rather than an experience.
What is fine dining in late 2015? We can eat inventive multicourse tasting menus at a place like L'Espalier or Menton. But we can also do so perched on a stool, immersed in the process, at Tasting Counter, set in a Somerville brewery, or Asta, where you pull your own silverware out of a drawer. Price points have blurred. Four-star hospitality has become more folksy, and service at more-relaxed places can be every bit as refined. It's sometimes hard to tell the difference.
So where to go for my final review? I had always imagined it would be O Ya, the first place I reviewed for the Globe. I would come full circle, tie a neat bow.
I went. I had a truly beautiful meal. I savored buttery curls of Scottish salmon, sweet spot prawns, fried oysters crowned with squid-ink foam. Tom Brady was seated in the corner. No one bothered him. I was glad there was a place he could eat dinner like a regular person. But regular people don't eat at O Ya regularly. Who knows when I will eat there again?
Instead, I wrote about the Baldwin Bar, a world-class cocktail bar inside a Sichuan restaurant inside a historic mansion in Woburn. For my last review, I realized, I didn't want a special occasion. I simply wanted to take readers someplace I love.
If there is one thing I've learned, dining in restaurants week after week, it is not so much what you eat or where that matters. It is whom you eat it with, and how it makes you feel.