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Alison Arnett
(Susy Pilgrim Waters)

A delectable job

Our critic bids farewell and gives us a taste of the reviewer's life

For almost 15 years, I've been the Globe's restaurant critic, a job that is almost universally envied. I won't deny that it's been a delectable way to spend my working life. But everything has to come to an end at some point, and now it's time to say good-bye to opening menus at least three times a week , 52 weeks a year, tasting thousands of dishes, phoning hundreds of chefs, making reservations under false names, and trying to look anonymous.

On my way out, I'd like to give a few pointers to those who think the critic's job is all cream and bon bons.

Job requirement A thick skin. Early in my reviewing career (I had a respectable editing job at the Globe before this), I overheard a woman at the table next to ours discussing me. "You know, she's a vegetarian. Isn't that awful? How can she write about meat when she doesn't even eat it? That's so dishonest." Of course, I wanted to jump up and throttle her. After all, there I was about to dip into my juicy entree of beef. I soon learned that the job combines celebrity with anonymity -- everyone knows you and no one knows you. Over the years, I've had many doppelgangers, some of whom reportedly dined well by pretending to be me. I've heard myself described as tall, black-haired, and heavyset (I'm none of those); I've been told by chefs in phone conversations that they've met me at a recent benefit (I never attend any); and I have been chided for liking only expensive restaurants, large portions, noisy rooms (false!).

How I know I'm anonymous If I'd been recognized by the management, would I have been seated next to the noisiest table night after night, restaurant after restaurant? You know that table -- 10 women, usually at a suburban hot spot, celebrating a birthday with plenty of cosmos and martinis. At least two or three in the group have piercing laughs that I sometimes think will break glass. As the evening progresses and the drinks flow, they get increasingly louder until we've screamed ourselves hoarse trying to converse.

The flip side of this are the tables full of suits who are trading lewd stories as they knock back bottles of red wine and cut into steaks. The libations are different, but both fuel the noise level. Then there are the fighting families (those are often fascinating; my children give me dirty looks for eavesdropping). And lest we forget : cellphones in a dining room. For a while, restaurants tried to curb those, but finally capitulated. While I'm trying to figure out what the distinctive flavor is in a dish, I'm forced to listen to everything from murmured sweet nothings to real estate purchases to children being disciplined via Cingular.

Who needs real theater? A restaurant is always a stage. Recently I was snubbed at the end of the evening by a young waiter who disappeared, leaving us to hunt for our own coats. As we pulled on gloves and headed for the door -- not a soul was at the front of the restaurant -- he crossed our path in the foyer without a word of good bye. There was certainly something else going on. He might be getting back at the owner, perhaps distraught about a failed romance, or dejected at not getting his novel published. He was, I noted, not too disheartened to check for a tip on our credit card receipt (it was modest ).

Undoubtedly, there were many unknowns at that spot that night. Which reminds me of the time, well before my reviewing days, when my husband left a minimum tip (we're actually very good tippers) at an upscale Chinese restaurant near the Theater District. The waiter rushed up to us as we were leaving, demanding an explanation. "Well, you stopped waiting on us, and I had to go to kitchen door to find you," my husband explained. "It wasn't my fault," the waiter insisted. "The cooks in the kitchen were having a knife fight." So now, whenever a waiter disappears for an inordinate amount of time, I must say, I wonder if there's scary business stoveside.

Sweeping trends Yesterday's spring rolls became today's tuna tartare. Chicken breast with cream sauce of the '90s morphed into flattened birds. Some dishes lingered. These I've tasted at least hundreds of times: risotto, duck confit, tiramisu, fallen chocolate cake. And Italian, Italian, Italian, Italian. (Lucky I love it.)

In all these years, I've never gotten food poisoning, though a strong stomach helped.

For the most part, a lot of love, care, and skill went into the cooking. Still there were surprises. Like the Back Bay fondue spot where the fish definitely tasted past its sell date, and the Asian sauces served with it might have come from the little envelopes tossed into Chinese takeout bags. When I interviewed the manager later, he admitted that the chef had left a few weeks earlier. He didn't say who was in the kitchen.

Some nights, a critic needs a raincoat Dining out has been full of adventures. I've been drenched when a manager spotted me and the nervous busboy leaned over too far and tipped his pitcher of ice water into my lap. I've had a Shirley Temple and a glass of red wine poured onto my shoulders when a waitress tripped and the glasses flew off her tray. I've been showered with glass when wine goblets on a shelf above us in a cramped restaurant were smashed by a bartender. Actually, a companion got the brunt of it; she was picking glass out of her hair for days.

There were some nights when the thought of eating cereal in my pajamas seemed more appealing then heading out to another restaurant, looking over another menu, and beginning the ritual of reviewing. On the whole, after 700-plus reviews, I don't regret a moment as critic. Because tonight and tomorrow night and for many nights after that, there will still be the all-important question: Where shall we eat?

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