THE LONGEST-RUNNING MANHUNT IN New York--the quest by restaurant owners to lure, identify and stuff foie gras into all-powerful New York Times restaurant critic Ruth Reichl--is over. Reichl, 51, announced last week that she is leaving after five and a half years to become editor in chief of Gourmet magazine. This means she can go out to eat without one of the legendary disguises with which she preserved her critical anonymity. ""In the last year I've had the feeling they're on to me,'' she says. ""Nothing feels stupider than sitting there pretending to be 70 while they're in the kitchen snickering--unless it's pretending to be 30.''
Reichl's legacy is her struggle to democratize this most snobbish of worlds. Her reviews helped ease the acceptance of new Asian and Latin cuisines. To restaurants that seemed to exist to serve only models and billionaires, she insisted that in America everyone spending $100 on dinner should be treated equally--a principle she established in a famous review of the too-chic-for-you Le Cirque, which treated her like a nobody when she arrived as one, and then all but pelted her with truffles once she was recognized. In her new job she wants to broaden Gourmet's appeal beyond the country-club set with better writing and articles that will tell people ""what's on the shelves in a Malaysian grocery store.'' And if she ends up lunching at her desk--well, she won't have to worry about being recognized.