CRITICAL MASS: What Do We Want From Our City’s Top Restaurant Reviewer?

newsroom bulletin board

Seems like lately there’s been a lot of chatter about the power of professional restaurant critics and whether they wield it fairly.

First came Rebecca Flint Marx’s deep dig into the industry-linked relationship of this city’s reigning restaurant power couple: Michael Bauer, the San Francisco Chronicle’stop food critic for the past 30 years, and his partner, Michael Murphy, whose restaurant-related dealings raised eyebrows about potential ethical conflicts in a recent story for San Francisco magazine. “The Trouble with the Michaels” caused a stir among culinary insiders and regular diners alike. Chronicle management did not respond to the piece publicly and declined a request for comment on the story from Edible San Francisco.

Among the San Francisco reveals: Bauer was the bait in charity-benefiting opportunities available through the luxury experience site IfOnly: “Dining with [Michael Bauer] is an experience akin to hanging out with the world’s biggest rockstar,” read the hyperbolic copy for one diner-driven chance to eat with the “undercover” critic for $2,000. “You will be lavished with kindness and treated like a royal, as Michael is respected, beloved, and sometimes feared in some circles.” Equally worrisome, the article reported, “The person IfOnly pays to convince chefs and restaurant owners to offer their goods and services through the site is none other than Bauer’s longtime boyfriend.”

It wasn’t the first time San Francisco magazine has taken Bauer to task. Back in 2001, then–senior editor Maile Carpenter, now editor in chief at Food Network Magazine, penned an unflattering portrait of a man who, the piece charged, plays favorites and flaunts his chumminess with the restaurateurs and chefs he covers. Bauer also took hits regarding the limited range of restaurants he reviews (think expensive fine dining and midpriced bistro fare) and, perhaps the unkindest cut of all for a reporter, pedestrian writing. Carpenter, who declined to be interviewed for this story, went on to win a James Beard Award, the equivalent of the Oscars in the food world, for her profile.

Bauer did not respond to an email request for an interview. But in the recent past he has addressed his detractors. He told San Francisco he is “honest and fair” and that he has a “clear conscience.” And one suspects that few other food critics would argue with his assessment that the job can be lonely and uncomfortable and requires a thick skin.

The twice-weekly columnist, who also curates the popular guide Top 100 Restaurants, is aware of his critics. “They say I’m not fresh, they need a younger palate,” he told a panel hosted by chef Tyler Florence at a Napa Valley conference earlier this year. “I always come down to the argument of experience. Credibility is built over time. The real credibility comes, hopefully, in consistency.” These remarks, according to an SF Eater account of the event, were delivered from behind a backlit screen in an attempt to retain his anonymity.

And in a 2015 interview for the video series “The New West” with Will Hearst, chairman of the board for the Hearst Corporation media empire, the critic donned sunglasses and a hat and described himself as more of a consumer reporter than a storyteller, unapologetically covering destination restaurants for readers. And, for the record, this butcher’s son with a master’s degree in mental health doesn’t think any taqueria—even the best one in the city—deserves four stars. Such ratings, according to the Michael Bauer method, should be reserved for the technically demanding, multicourse tasting menus of up-market restaurants such as Benu, Quince and Saison.

On the recent 30th anniversary of his tenure at the Chronicle, Bauer shared with the paper his view on the value of a top tastemaker. “For a time it looked as if the restaurant critic was going to go the way of the typewriter. Yet an individual voice offers an accountability that can’t be matched by Yelp, TripAdvisor, Zagat or other crowd-sourced reviews,” he wrote in September of this year. “With so much information at our fingertips, at times one voice speaks louder than dozens.”

And how. The paper ran a four-page spread highlighting some of the most significant dining destinations around town during his tenure; it’s likely Bauer had a hand in the success of them all. For seasoned San Francisco restaurant-goers, it proved a sentimental stroll down memory lane. The timeline begins in 1986 with nods to Sushi Ran and China Moon and moves on to perennial favorites scattered over the decades that still pack in guests today, including A16, Acquerello, Coi, Delfina, Foreign Cinema, Lulu, Nopa, Slanted Door and Zuni Café. There’s a chance to reminisce about the shuttered Aqua, Flying Saucer and Postrio. And the veteran critic highlights recent darlings: Mission Chinese Food, State Bird Provisions, Lazy Bear, Liholiho Yacht Club, Cala and AL’s Place. That brings us to 2016 and the latest game changer in Bauer’s book: Corey Lee’s In Situ at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

Yep, Bauer’s opinions matter. Chefs talk candidly—if not on the record for this article (detecting a theme here?)—about the power of Bauer. There is, of course, the Bauer bump: a favorable review by the Chronicle critic can lead to a spike in business, long waits for reservations, lines out the door and interest from national media, who watch the San Francisco dining scene hungrily for innovative newcomers and culinary trends. Likewise, a negative review or withdrawal of stars can help hasten the demise of a place or its top people. As Marx told me, “Everyone is terrified of pissing off Bauer.”

In fairness, the same could be said of the chief restaurant critic in other major cities with vibrant food cultures. Case in point: writing for the New Yorker, Ian Parker recently detailed New York Times restaurant reviewer Pete Wells’s singular ability to crush an eating establishment. During his five years as chief food critic for the Times, Wells has garnered national attention for takedowns at either end of the dining spectrum: he stripped Thomas Keller’s Per Se of two stars and panned Guy’s American Kitchen & Bar, the latter in a review cleverly constructed solely of pointed questions to celebrity-chef owner Guy Fieri. In the New Yorker profile, readers come along for the ride as Wells finds fault with the latest venture of food media wunderkind David Chang of Momofuku empire fame. Parker points out in the September story “Knives Out” that Wells works hard to remain anonymous, is relatively new to the gig at the Gray Lady and doesn’t fraternize with food folk.

That’s as it should be, say industry observers. “If you want to make your living criticizing other people, you can’t be their friends,” says Marx, a senior editor at San Francisco, who spent a dozen years in New York as a writer. She knows that sounds harsh and at odds with an industry built on the concept of hospitality, but that’s what needs to happen if critics are to remain objective and free of even the appearance of the professional conflicts of interest that plague Bauer: no hanging out with restaurant owners, no chefs throwing parties at your house, no going on vacation with the city’s culinary elite.

Every industry has its share of gossip, pettiness and competition. The culinary world—and the writers who claim that domain as their beat—is no exception. But grumbling and outrage about the status quo aside, what do we want from our top food voice in this town? Is the role of the restaurant critic to provide consumer service, educate eaters about cuisine and culture, entertain readers with a rollicking good yarn or all of the above? Are pro restaurant reviewers even relevant in the age of the citizen critic with a camera?

We asked food writers, industry insiders and city diners to chime in with their own food for thought on the subject.


What We Talk About When We Talk About Food

Restaurateur Patricia Unterman, herself a longtime food critic, first at the Chronicleand later at the San Francisco Examiner, thinks the power of one person is overstated. “It’s not the critic so much—whether it’s Bauer or Wells or anyone else—it’s the platform,” she says. “And since the Chronicle is the only major newspaper in the region, and the New York Times is the paper of record for much of the East Coast, then it matters. The people don’t matter as much as the platform.”

But people still matter. Besha Rodell, who writes reviews for the LA Weekly, thinks a major city benefits when there isn’t just one dominant food critic covering the community. “I do think San Francisco falls into that situation. Michael Bauer is a huge voice,” says Rodell, reviewing in Los Angeles since 2012. “Other cities, like New York and L.A., have more of a community of restaurant critics so there’s a conversation going on. Everyone has a different take and tastes.” Beginning back in 2006, when Rodell worked in Atlanta, she recalls there were three very distinct voices—herself as a food editor at the weekly Creative Loafing; John Kessler, then at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution; and Bill Addison, formerly with Atlanta magazine. “I thought for both readers and chefs it was a perfect situation: we all had completely different opinions and that offers a bit of balance.”

Unterman, who no longer reviews, is missed by her fans. Her restaurant criticism “is still a model for the Bay Area,” says freelance writer John Birdsall, who has reviewed restaurants for local alternative weeklies and has two James Beard Awards for food writing under his belt. “Unlike Bauer, who you always imagine wiping off the utensils at a cheap place, Unterman would get just as excited about a taqueria as she would a place by a chef with a pedigree,” says Birdsall, who also contributes to this magazine. “Unterman ate like we all do: occasionally fancy, often cheap, following what’s good. I learned stuff about how to taste by reading Patty’s column, like when she criticized a Cantonese place because the oil they used left a sticky residue on the stir-fries. I wanted to be able to taste with as much focus.”

Unterman has her own criteria about what’s important. “I want to hear about a place from someone who really knows the cooking,” says the founder of seafood stalwart Hayes Street Grill, opened in 1979. She took heat from certain circles for being both a restaurant owner and a dining critic, though she says she operated with honesty, fairness and integrity in her reviews. “I want to understand and explore the central experience of eating something and, of course, deliciousness trumps everything,” says Unterman, who eats out frequently. She counts meals at Kin Khao and Cala among recent favorites.

What else should restaurant reviewers bring to the table?

According to Birdsall, the best food critics are literary, entertaining and serve the public. They’re not interested in palling around with chefs or publicists. They write for readers. They also function as commentators and capture the cultural zeitgeist: explaining how a restaurant fits into the life of a neighborhood, city, or even the nation. That’s a relatively modern conceit: Up until 1957, when Craig Claiborne began covering food at the New York Times, restaurant reviews were viewed suspiciously by subscribers as little more than paid ads in the paper, according to former Village Voice critic Robert Sietsema in a history of restaurant reviewing. Sietsema, now covering food at Eater, writes that Claiborne is credited with introducing ethical guidelines for reviewing such as anonymity, visiting three times and the publication’s picking up the restaurant check. He also introduced the star-rating system.

Today’s restaurant reviews are a hybrid genre. “Restaurant reviewing—more than any other form of writing in print or online—occupies this weird space because the form is born out of service journalism but there’s also this higher-minded idea of cultural criticism that we’ve come to expect from writers covering the arts,” says Francis Lam, a food columnist for the New York Times Magazine and an editor at publishing house Clarkson Potter. “We expect so much more than ‘Is this new place good and should I spend my money here?’” Readers respond to evocative language, compelling character profiles, humor and drama. And they relish a sensual experience that stirs the appetite. As one critic told me, “The greatest compliment people can give me is when they tell me my review made them hungry. If I’ve accomplished that, I feel like I’ve hit the mark.”

For diners, money matters. The first goal is a service one, says Anna Roth, a freelance writer who covers the so-called cheap eats beat in her Eat Up column in the Chronicle. Should people spend their hard-earned cash at this restaurant? So yes, diners want to know what to expect—on the menu and in the service, ambience and so forth—but they also want context and the back story behind a place and its people she says. And in the best restaurant criticism, the service element and storytelling are not at odds with each other.

Reviewers Roth admires pull in references to art, music, politics, pop culture and the larger world, which elevates the conversation. Roth points to Pulitzer Prize–winning food critic Jonathan Gold, now reviewing restaurants with the Los Angeles Times and formerly a food critic with the LA Weekly, as a master of this form, sharing deep knowledge beyond the restaurant rubric. Says Roth, “One review sticks out in my mind where he spends the first couple of paragraphs talking about mariachi bands spilling out on a Los Angeles street and really sets the scene before introducing the Mexican restaurant or the food. It was an education to realize that you could do that, that you didn’t need to start with the guacamole or whatever.”

Birdsall points out that Gold is easily recognized and has been reviewing L.A. food for decades—two concerns that frequently pop up in discussions of the downsides of Bauer. But in and of themselves, these aren’t issues for Birdsall. His beef with Bauer: he’s not very curious, writes about a small subset of upscale restaurants and rarely offers cultural context. Gold, with his championing of mom-and-pop Vietnamese places tucked inside nondescript mini-malls, is his opposite. Gold wants to give readers a sense of what the restaurant and its chef mean to the cuisine, the community and sometimes to American dining as a whole.

Beyond mentioning whether there’s ample parking, community tables or noise concerns, says Roth, who has a story in this issue of this magazine, the most memorable restaurant reviews can offer a lens through which to at least touch on big‑picture societal stuff: class, culture, labor, immigration, farming, the environment, history, colonialism, appropriation and sourcing. Or, as she says, “You can just talk about your deep and abiding love for dumplings, and you’ll make a connection with readers that way, too.”

Context is key. Social media sites can tell you where to go in San Francisco, what’s new or hot. But these same sources typically don’t go into detail about, say, or the history of pho, the particular style of regional Mexican cuisine, or expound on a chef’s culinary philosophy and what they’re trying to accomplish with their menu. Professional reviews offer readers insight into ingredients, flavor pairings and dishes that may be unfamiliar or serving or plating approaches that may be unexpected. In turn, such insights can whet diners’ taste buds and help move a city’s food conversation forward.

But while restaurant reviews are a great vehicle for exploring current issues and ideas, they can also be fun, a reflection on how eating out has morphed into a form of entertainment. Reviews shouldn’t be precious or pretentious, says Roth, who does her bit showcasing neighborhood places that don’t have the budget for a PR team and who dish up tasty fare in unfashionable areas. There’s obviously pressure on food writers in all forums to shine the spotlight on prominent chefs opening new, highly anticipated projects. Restaurants that don’t fit that mold get short shrift, and they shouldn’t. (This publication and this writer are as guilty of that offense as any other in town.)

Observing from his perch across the bay as the restaurant reviewer for alt-weekly East Bay Express, Luke Tsai concurs. “The wider your reach and the more clout you have, the greater a responsibility it is,” says Tsai, currently the only writer of color among the area’s restaurant critics.

“We all have our own preferences and areas of expertise, as well as our blind spots,” Tsai says. “We all wind up missing things because, quite frankly, we don’t know to look for them—maybe because we haven’t been immersed in a certain regional cuisine, or because we aren’t tapped into a particular immigrant community. I’m one Chinese/Taiwanese–American guy covering restaurants in the East Bay to the best of my ability, but that’s in no way enough. For me, anyway, the biggest goal is to find, and then to champion, the undiscovered, off-the-radar types of places.”

restaurant reviewer with iPhone

Do food critics matter?

Industry professionals have mixed feelings about restaurant reviews.

“If you are engaged in your work and are paying attention to tangible feedback—like laughter in the restaurant, clean plates coming back from the dining room, repeat customers—then who gives a fuck what the reviews say?” asks industry veteran Dennis Leary, whose former restaurant Canteen was a critics’ favorite. “I think the really confident chefs pay attention to criticism (why not?) but don’t agonize over it. Jason Berthold of Monsieur Benjamin has better things to do than fret about his social media rep or what Bauer thinks about the seafood sausage. And [that restaurant] is always packed. I bet Jason is his own toughest critic. I know that I was always my toughest critic.”

On the flip side, says Leary, who owns a bunch of bars and restaurants in the city, a skillful review can distill what makes a restaurant experience matter, conveying the spirit of the place, the organizing principles behind its approach, why any of it is important. “I always thought a good review [is] directed at the operator—a kind of public feedback loop which the operator can benefit from.”

In an industry with razor-thin margins, restaurant reviews can mean life or death for a struggling venue. “Many places are a few payrolls away from closing,” says Leary. Even a good review, he says, can be like chemo when you have terminal cancer if your model is unsustainable. “You are still going to die. Maybe a bad review is something of a mercy killing.”

Sara Deseran has been on both sides of the critics’ table. Along with husband Joe Hargrave, the former San Francisco senior editor (now editor at large) runs the Tacolicious mini-chain with four Bay Area locations. “My whole perspective has changed since I became a restaurant co-owner,” says Deseran. “Very few food writers have also experienced how truly ridiculously hard it is to run a restaurant with all its crazy variables. They go for entertainment first and forget that they’re talking about someone’s livelihood. If you get a restaurant open in San Francisco and it fails the next day, I applaud you. That, in and of itself, is hard enough in a city that’s permitting-crazy and expensive as hell.”

In addition to their success with Mexican-centric Tacolicious, Deseran and Hargrave stumbled with their California-Asian concept Chino, a dumpling restaurant in the Mission that lasted 18 months. “I do wish writers could just step inside a restaurant owner’s shoes to understand what’s going on behind the scenes so that when they’re sitting at their computer trying to be clever and evocative, they have the restaurant owner in mind,” says Deseran. “And so they take care to write a measured opinion…not a poetry slam.”

Unterman says that being an owner made her empathetic during her reviewing career. “I also knew when people were sliding, when they weren’t putting their all into, it and I just wouldn’t go back,” she says. “Who wants to give publicity to a place like that? I wanted to turn people on to all the great people out there making great food.”

Sometimes what readers want and what chefs expect from a review can be at odds. Writer Francis Lam recounts that he found it intriguing when a young chef friend, who’d recently landed a positive review, was disappointed because the critic talked about “other stuff and not enough about the food and what was happening at the table in the restaurant.” Chefs want validation from critics as well as their peers. “He was frustrated that the review didn’t spend much time discussing the quality of the cooking.”

For their part, regular restaurant–goers surveyed for this story say they want to be entertained and informed by impartial critics who are playing fairly and don’t have conflicts of interest. They also want to be clued in to new places and shifts in culinary approaches. And even if they can’t afford to eat at restaurants like Lazy Bear or Saison, they want to read about what those places mean for the city’s cultural and culinary life. Some had read the recent rumblings around Bauer and were shocked, others had missed that story or never read him anyway, preferring to pick places via sites like Yelp, or personal recommendation. Many were inclined to favor restaurants close to their place of work or home, regardless of whether they’d received glowing reviews.

Convenience does tend to win out over critics. “Often location trumps what’s on our list of places to try,” says Kyle Minor, who lives in the Castro and frequently eats out with his husband. “We’ll eventually get to places like Leo’s Oyster Bar, Mason Pacific and Scotland Yard.” Avid Bauer reader Eugene Keegan of Noe Valley says he’s just as likely to check out a restaurant the critic pans to see if it’s as bad as Bauer says.
An accomplished home cook, he also reads to keep up on restaurant trends. He’s lived by the bay long enough to see the rise of farm-to-table cuisine, snout-to-tail cookery, wood-fired-oven pizzas, share plates, open kitchens and dishes served on wooden boards or pieces of slate. Like other astute restaurant diners, he’s followed the recent emergence of independent
chefs drawing on their ethnic heritages in their cooking while creating a unique menu and atmosphere in small, casual neighborhood venues.

“I’m always looking for reviews that describe food cooked in a different way or a lesser-known cuisine that’s really good,” Keegan says. “Those kinds of reviews make me want to try that food.”

Keegan’s millennial daughter Cara tends to ignore newspaper reviews (she’s got Dad for that) and seeks out Yelp for hole-in-the-wall places her parents are less likely to frequent.

Frequent restaurant diner and Mission resident Tracy Wong echoes what many readers expect from a restaurant review. “I want to read about why I should go there and why the food matters. I want good writing, not bland reporting,” she says. “What is the chef/kitchen passionate about? What does the chef value?” Wong isn’t swayed by star ratings. She’s more interested in finding out about small family-run restaurants and so-called ethnic food than celebrity-chef venues. “I don’t really give two hoots about fancy-pants dining.” That said, the quality of the food and the inventiveness in preparation and flavor combinations matter to Wong. At Zuni recently she was blown away by a fig-and-goat-cheese appetizer that was drizzled with roasted pinecone extract. “I haven’t been wowed like that for a long time. Every bite was incredible.”

That’s music to a chef’s ears. When I spoke with chef-owner Kim Alter, who  recently opened  Nightbird  in  Hayes Valley, she was anticipating that Bauer would swing by soon. She’d been open a month, after an almost two-year wait trying to get her place up and running, a frequent lament in San Francisco restaurant circles. It’s an intimate location featuring a refined tasting menu—currently highlighting lobster, rabbit and prime seasonal produce. As with any new chef opening their own space, there’s a certain level of anxiety about how your vision will be received by both professional and amateur critics alike.

Alter’s no newbie. She has an impressive independent dining resume that includes the Daniel Patterson Group, where Alter has done stints as the top chef at both Haven and the (now closed) Plum in Oakland. Alter doesn’t read her reviews; her partner Ron Boyd, also in the restaurant biz, gets that job. He telegraphs any bullet points—good or bad—he thinks might be helpful. Like most attentive chefs, she says she might tweak dishes—adjust the seasoning, for example—based on diners’ feedback, if the criticism has merit. But mostly she stays true to her mission and palate.

Alter is ready for Bauer. If he comes in to eat, she’ll be sure to taste every plate that goes out, to make sure everything is good to go. The truth is, though, she does that with every dish that comes out of her kitchen, regardless of who she is serving. She touches every table too. “If you have a diner that comes in who has a great experience and she tells ten of her friends to come eat here, that makes a difference too,” says Alter. “San Francisco is routinely called the best restaurant city in the country so we’re under the microscope from all quarters, locally and nationally. You better be at the top of your game regardless of who walks through the doors for dinner.”

What if paid restaurant reviewers went the way of white tablecloths?

Cara Strickland can speak to that, having recently lost her gig as a food critic for a monthly magazine in Spokane, Washington too. In May, the publication transitioned away from reviews, which Strickland had written for five years. In her city, the newspaper and the alt-weekly have already given up on doing professional restaurant criticism. That leaves Yelp. Sure, local publications carry feature stories and interviews with chefs and announcements about openings and closings. But that’s it.

And that’s too bad, because Strickland has something to offer that social media doesn’t. One of her best assets as a critic: she doesn’t look like one. She is small, youthful, female, unassuming, able to blend in. She is treated like a “normal person” at a restaurant. “I have heard complaints against management from waitstaff, constantly had first sips of wine poured for my male companion and been served inexpertly cooked food,” she wrote in a September Salon story on the subject.

Strickland sees a food critic’s role as part scout: she wants to know how a restaurant treats a family with kids, or someone who doesn’t look wealthy, or two women eating sans male companions. And she thinks the best critics leave clues in reviews so that readers can decide whether they are likely to feel comfortable in a place, whether it is worth it to save up and go. “Critics work hard for readers to find out where they’ll get the best bang for their buck,” she told me. She’s an advocate for the industry too. “I care about the community I serve, including the chefs and restaurant staff. I’m not out to ruin someone’s livelihood.”

Strickland then, is from the Ruth Reichl school of restaurant criticism. A former New York Times food critic, Reichl is lauded for her storytelling style, is famous for going to great lengths to disguise herself in restaurants and is credited for crafting reviews that made readers feel like they were at the table with her. That was intentional. “I have a really strong belief that I am there to be your eyes and ears when you’re at the restaurant,” said Reichl, who declined a request for an interview for this story, in a 2011 interview with Terry Gross on NPR’s Fresh Air. I’m supposed to tell you what’s going to happen to you, not what happens to the restaurant critic of The New York Times who is getting the best table and the chef is cooking the food specially and the portions are getting bigger and so forth. I think it’s really important for you to know what’s going to happen to you. And you can’t do that if you’re sashaying in as someone who’s going to have a big economic impact on the restaurant.”

Whatever San Francisco’s problems with food criticism, the alternative is playing out in Strickland’s city now. “No one is consistently looking out for families like mine,” she wrote, meaning people who can’t afford to waste money on a bad meal. “Now if we want to know what a restaurant is like, we have to pay to find out.”

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Critical Mass was published in the Fall 2016 issue © 2016 Edible San Francisco. Illustration © 2016 Dan Bransfield.