Quality of Newspaper Food Sections
The recent post by Tom Hilton about the absence of this site on the SF Chron's Food on the web article sort of prompted this question that I would like to throw out:
Which newspaper food sections do you like and which do you think are bad? Which food critic did you agree with or enjoy reading most?
As for me, I live in SF and for the most part I read all of the weeklies, the Chronicle and Examiner. I also follow the NY Times.
My (humble) opinion:
(Before that - full disclosure: I am the food critic at our tiny school paper that is published weekly on paper and web, but I think it would be a joke if a paper with an extremely limited circulation like ours even considered ourselves in any sort of competition with any of these pros below. Anyway, I am commenting from the perspective of a reader not writer.)
Fairly good food section, quality of writing is above average. I find Michael Bauer's reviews fair and good reading, but I always double check his opinion by looking up what other reviewers elsewhere say. (It's not that I have anything against him, I do that with every reviewer except Patricia Unterman.)
As for Robin Davis, I have a tendency to disagree with her opinions, as the places she recommends don't usually impress me much e.g. Citrus Club - which I went twice and did not like both times. Sometimes I get the impression that she isn't as savvy about Asian foods as she could be. I grew up eating in Singapore, so I think I am qualified to make such a judgement. Overall, these guys aren't as good as finding out of the way gems as I would like. Mostly they review new, flashy and big openings. But those are places that I think they should cover anyway, so that's not a big problem in my book.
I started to follow the Ex only more recently, so not much to say, except that I love Patricia Unterman's column. I've gone through archives of her writing and I love reading her reviews. She's good at ferreting out places that most wouldn't notice e.g. Hama-Ko, and she's sophisticated enough to understand that the red-hot Sichuan dishes can bear subtly different flavors despite the heat. She's the only critic in the city that I would trust without a cross-reference to another review.
SF Bay Guardian:
Paul Redinger has nice prose and makes a good read, and will occasionally cover neat nooks in the city that would otherwise be overlooked.
Greg Hugunin tends to long and bombastic. I typically skip the first third to half of his article so that I can get straight to the food descriptions. I suppose he's getting paid by the word. I don't blame him as I do the same occasionally. His reviews are decent if you want to know if the place is good.
I like Matthew Stafford's writing more and he gets to the point faster. He's also a pretty good critic. I think he was the first of many to point out that the new Stars wasn't really that good, and I agreed with him after eating there (yes - cross-referencing does not always work.)
My favorite writing comes from the NY Times, and I read their food section quite avidly, even the restaurant reviews. I love Ruth Reichl's writing - very fun to read and always entertaining. (Yes - I've read quite a number of her archived reviews on the nytoday website.) I haven't eaten at any of the places she's reviewed (on account of being in SF)and can't say much about whether I agree with her tastes or not.
I love Patricia Unterman's reviews too. I am glad that Bill Citara left, I never felt he was trustworthy or he just didn't communicate such a sense of good taste as she does.
There is something off about Michael Bauer that I just can't put my finger on. He does seem really through, but there is a formulaic feel. Perhaps it is because I have heard too much from friends who work in restaurants about what a jerk he is. And one place recently volunteered that his friends come in and mooch free food. I do tend to rely on his write-ups and he really cracked me up when he trashed Spengers.
I cannot distinguish between any of the Guardian or Weekly reviewers--they blend together. Oh, one stands out that you didn't mention--Dan Leone, who writes cheap eats. I just hate his writing. Also you should use his write-ups as a signal to run the other way. He likes cheap and lots of it and does not seem to distinguish beyond those criteria.
I liked Ruth Richel's reviews when I lived in L.A. Eating out can be dangerous there as so many places suck--you really need a guide.
A couple of years back, Bauer wrote a bizarre, hysterical tirade against the practice of cooking pork medium-rare. (It seemed to be a direct response to a piece by Corby Kummer in the Atlantic Monthly a couple of months before.) I thought the piece was thoroughly unprofessional, and as I understand it he was flat-out wrong. That incident has colored my opinion of him ever since.
My favorite reviewer of recent times is Max Nash at the Weekly Reader of San Diego. A true chowhound, he ferrets out hard to find places, loves ethnic foods, writes well, and isn't afraid to trash fancy restaurants when they deserve it.
The worst reviewer I've ever (EVER) encountered is Eleanor Widmer of the same publication. Utterly clueless. Unaware, for example, that Pecorino is Romano Cheese. She has also claimed that good stock is not important for making soups. On top of these sort of culinary faux pas, she completely hates any hot spices and refuses to drink wine. I would trust her only to review the tablecloths and curtains in a restaurant. And even then I'd probably want a second opinion.
I wasn't surprised that the SF Chron snubbed Chowhound. Their stuff always strikes me as lazy, though of course I read it anyway. They've got a formula, right down to those "plug in the adjective" restaurant reviews.
Here's one thing that bugs me: stories on a particular "ethnic" cuisine (a yucky term) are always handled by a writer of matching ethnicity. So Jacqueline Higuera MacMahan writes about Mexican food, Mai Pham about Vietnamese, etc. I know these writers have valuable expertise, but it's always exactly the same, week after week. What about the spark of ideas and perspective that might come from mixing things up? Or using new writers once in a while?
Most food sections seem to see their purpose as providing basic restaurant reviews and weeknight quick recipes. Those are helpful, but there's a missed opportunity to get folks excited about food in a deeper way. (Guess it's all about revenue, though, huh...)
End of rant.
I've always had a hard time dealing with the "ethnic" cuisine stuff myself and I emphathize. But I'm also a stickler for authenticity, and I find it difficult to trust reviews when they are about cuisines from Asia. So I suppose that having some "expertise" might be a good thing. I remember going to R&G Lounge in Chinatown because it had gotten best of the Bay in one of the weeklies. The food turned out average, and not as good as the stuff from hawker stalls I would get back home. And it always boggles my mind when I read glowing reviews about Straits Cafe, which provides overpriced Singaporean street food. It's like paying $20 for a burrito at a place with white linen and table service.
My favorite critics, with whom I most often agree and whose writing I most enjoy, are (in no particular order): Jen Kalb, Dave Feldman, Jeremy Osner (and all the other Osners), Tom Armitage, Melanie Wong, Allan Evans, Pepper, Frank Language, Wonki Kim, Pete Feliz, etc. etc. etc. etc.
re: Jim Leff
re: Jim Leff
Please! People already think we're lovers. Also, you've blown our witness relocation covers (re: "Chowhound Mafia" comment). I feel so humbled, now I can't write an 800 word essay on the virtues of Cheez-wiz and Salsa dip on that other thread.
I enjoy Gary, Pat, Josh, Betty from OK (where is she now?), Rev. Fowler, with or without onions. I even enjoy the agitated and the agitators.
As for Newpaper Food sections: currently, I don't have the time I used to to read them all. NEW YORK TIMES Wed section is what I read now, and I'm not happy w/it--save Eric Asimov and Mark Bittman. Wish I could have more time to read NEWSDAY. I only get to see the Sunday NEWSDAY, and the restaurant reviews aren't particularly interesting. POST--less said the better. And since Arthur Schwartz left, the DAILY NEWS has become less than the POST. I've always liked Schwartz's writing, blue collar attitude in a white glove world. And Schwartz's radio show (not nearly as interesting as his editorial supervision of THE NEWS) is where I discovered CHOWHOUND. Yes, Jim, it's Arthur who brought us together.
My favorite reviewers of all time: Jane & Michael Stern, and Seymour Britchky. For my tastes, the Sterns are the most accurate I've run across. And I love their enthusiasm. Seymour Britchky's reviews were the most fun to read, though I often disagreed with him. Never could stand Ruth Reichl. She always struck me as Britchky-lite.
William Grimes is the best reviewer in a long time. To me his analysis, insight and judgments are the best. However, you have to read the review detail, not go by the star ratings in considering the quality of the food. The stars themselves represent a witches brew of an unstated weighting combination of food, ambience and service with price thrown in. In particular, this means that the crucial distinction in food quality that you would expect to find between 2 and 3 stars is indeciperable. This leads to restaurants like Union Square Cafe getting 3 stars and Clinton Fine Foods getting 2 when from a food alone point of view they probably should be reversed. I agree that Ruth Reichl was very lite and rightly belongs at a cheerleading publication like Gourmet rather than as food critic for a major newspaper.
I totally agree with you on Jane and Michael Stern. They're the only reason that I still subscribe to "Gourmet" magazine. And I would also like to add that Ruth Reichl has made "Gourmet" worse when she took over as editor. I never liked her back when she was the restaurant critic for the L.A. Times.