They stalk their prey day and night. They don disguises to take advantage of the element of surprise. And they're notorious for their ruthlessness and lack of mercy.
What weapons do these culprits wield? Words like "unpalatable" and phrases like "cooked until every drop of juice and joy in the thing had been … eliminated, leaving a charred husk of a shell containing meat that might have been albino walrus," "like licking Mae West's face," "fish tasted like old ski boots," or, more to the point, "toxic scum on a stagnant pond" and "meals of crescendoing monstrosity."
They're restaurant critics, and when it comes to the fragile egos of restaurateurs, the pen is certainly mightier than the sword. A vicious review can be brutal to a restaurant's bottom line, driving away customers and even putting it out of business.
With their very existence threatened, sometimes restaurant owners and chefs try to get their revenge on the reviewers by any means necessary, using verbal assaults, parodies, full-page ads in The New York Times and even lawsuits.
A few weeks ago, the owner of Chops, a steakhouse in Bala Cynwyd, Pa., filed a 16-page lawsuit against The Philadelphia Inquirer, saying that its restaurant critic's three-sentence review libeled the restaurant, harming its reputation and its business.
The meal was "expensive and disappointing, from the soggy and sour chopped salad to a miserably tough and fatty strip steak," wrote the Inquirer's Craig LaBan.
Chops owner Alex Plotkin said that LaBan had erred in his review, saying that LaBan actually had eaten a steak sandwich without bread, not a strip steak, and therefore had "no personal knowledge of the quality of the Chops strip steak."
LaBan acknowledged his mistake and offered to correct it on his blog, says Plotkin's lawyer, Dion G. Rassias. But the Chops owner is holding out for an actual retraction in the critic's newspaper column.
Rassias says that LaBan, who is known for hiding his identity through a variety of guises, has a civic duty to be fair.
"If you are a restaurant critic in a major city, you have such a major responsibility, an overall obligation to the entire welfare of the city, not just some small restaurant. It really does transcend his opinion of something simple like rice pudding," Rassias said.
The Inquirer's lawyer, Rob Barron, did not return calls for comment.
Suits Against Critics Not Uncommon
The suit is just the latest in a perennial battle between thin-skinned restaurateurs and ruthless reviewers. Over the last few decades, there have been several high-profile lawsuits filed against restaurant critics for the cruelty of their critiques.
Almost none of them have succeeded.
Most lawsuits are thrown out or dropped -- and even when the restaurateurs prevail, the cases are tossed out on appeal, usually on First Amendment grounds.
"The chances of winning are infinitesimal," said Charles L. Babcock, who has defended newspapers in libel suits. "The reaction is out of proportion to what was said, and there is a lot of passion and anger. Restaurateurs are very protective of their restaurant, almost like it's a child."
In one case in Virginia, a jury awarded a restaurant $15,000 in punitive damages after a reviewer advised patrons to bring a can of Raid to kill the cockroaches scampering through the dining room. The state's appeals court vacated the judgment.
The best that most of them can hope for is to settle -- in 2004, a well-respected restaurant owner dropped his lawsuit against the critic for the Dallas Morning News who had given him 11½ stars out of 15 in three categories after the paper agreed to run another review by a different critic (who added half a star).
Hitting Back in the Papers
Sometimes, there are other ways to get revenge, but most of them backfire as well.
After The New York Times' Frank Bruni gave no stars to Kobe Club, owner Jeffrey Chodorow spent close to $80,000 on a full-page ad in the Times' dining section to whine about the ad review, adding some much-needed ad revenue to the Times.
The paper's former food critic, Mimi Sheraton, recently wrote in Slate.com that restaurateurs must have bought at least half a dozen ads in the paper after some of her scathing reviews.
"We make more money when you give a bad review than when you give a good one," her boss, A.M. Rosenthal, used to tell her.
But, with all the power they wield and the consequences of their critiques, do critics ever feel guilty about giving a bad review? Not likely.
"There was Le Pigalle, this horrible French restaurant," said Washington Post critic Tom Sietsema. "It went out of business less than two months after my review. I'm not feeling guilty. It was really bad."