Psst... We're working on the next generation of Chowhound! View >
HOME > Chowhound > Food Media & News >
Apr 9, 2008 12:09 PM

Patricia Unterman- conflict of interest?

Who you kidding, Patricia Utterman was terrible at the Chron. Not only was she a restaurant owner while being a critic (in the same town) but she was a grade A food snob.

Her last book on SF greatly redeemed her but the restaurant ownership and reviewing in the same town was too big of a line to ignore.

The snob stuff just brought everything to an unbearable level. She wrote that taquerias were fast food and insulted half of SF at once. Even if I agreed with something, like prep and quality, the way she went on about herself was beyond annoying...bad writing and bad reviewing.

[We've moved this discussion from the thread on Michael Bauer at -- THE CHOWHOUND TEAM ]

  1. Click to Upload a photo (10 MB limit)
  1. I don't know where you're getting that, Patricia Unterman was and is no food snob, and her reviews have always focused on the food. Here are some of the things she actually wrote about taquerias at the Chron in the late 80s:

    "If you've never eaten a great burrito, you owe it to yourself to wait in line at La Cumbre for one stuffed with carne asada."

    Taqueria San Jose: "These popular Mission district taquerias represent the best of the genre, and obviously the best item to order is the double-layered soft tacos, filled with spit-roasted pork, beef tongue, head meat, or grilled steak. ... Watch out, McDonald's!"

    9 Replies
    1. re: Robert Lauriston

      Okay, you like Patracia and she reviewed taquerias and she's not a food snob. I can buy that...sort of. Any way, explain owning a restaurant and reviewing other restaurants in the same city for a major metro paper.

      As a journalist and critic you have to know that's a sticky situation at best, a huge conflict of interest at worse. Even in between it rather iffy.

      1. re: ML8000

        I asked her about that when I interviewed her after the first time she left the Chronicle (she ended up back there after the Chron bought the Examiner):

        RL: Owning a restaurant obviously creates a conflict of interest for a reviewer. Did the Chron restrict what you could review?

        PU: I wasn't supposed to review other fish restaurants or other restaurants in my neighborhood. There were occasional exceptions. For example, when Bruce Cost had Monsoon a couple of blocks away, I thought that it was really a terrific restaurant and raved about it, and of course that was okay. The conflict of interest was a real problem for the newspaper, restaurants were really always looking at that.

        RL: There were complaints?

        PU: I'm told there were, but if the editors didn't think they were justified they didn't pass them along to me, and there weren't many of those. I was very conscious of the conflict and tried to keep my sense of integrity with me at all times.

        RL: It's kind of ironic--a common complaint of restaurant owners is that anyone who doesn't own a restaurant isn't qualified to judge.

        PU: There's some truth to that. My understanding of what goes on in restaurants enables me to evaluate them in a way that very, very few other restaurant critics can. I think that was a huge plus for the reader.

        It's very tough to get scrutinized by the press. You're in a powerless position, you have no recourse, you can't defend yourself. If you think you've been reviewed unfairly, what can you do? You can write a letter to the editor, but there's been this tremendous negative exposure and it's a very hard thing to deal with. On the other hand, I know that the effect of negative reviews isn't lasting. It really isn't.

        1. re: Robert Lauriston

          Yeah that make everything alright..okay not really. In any other industry or art form, that would hardly be tolerated. A disclaimer would have helpled (as journalist do now) but there never was one.

          It explains a lot, more then anything anyone could say. For one, the Chron are bigger idiots then anyone thinks if they thought that was kosher. I'd apply that to any readers who thought that was okay too. As anyone in media or public knows, it's not just the conflict, it's the appearance of conflict. Given the conflict of interest was real... well then WTF.

          1. re: ML8000

            As I recall, her bio always mentioned that she was co-owner of Hayes Street Grill. The restrictions on what she could review meant that there was no actual conflict.

            In my experience, her love of food outweighed the appearance of a conflict. She wrote few if any negative reviews; her interest was in sharing tips on delicious food. I think her Chowhound-type attitude made her a much better reviewer than Bauer, and her professional's eye meant she wasn't snowed by theater.

            RL: Have your feelings about reviewing changed over the years?

            PU: Very little. I always came to it with a kind of passion for eating. I always felt that my number one priority in life and in reviewing was to get an absolutely gorgeous meal, to have the food excite me and turn me on and be delicious and be a sensual treat. That's governed practically everything I've ever done.

            I may be completely outdated at this point. Apparently decor and level of service and power--who's eating at the restaurant--mean a lot more these days. But I'll tell you, as far as I was concerned, it was what ended up on the plate--how it smelled, how it looked, how it felt, the graciousness in which it was served. If it were up to me, I would have given the best tacqueria in town the same four stars as Chez Panisse or Masa's, I felt that strongly about it. ...

            RL: Did the limits on what you could write about for the Chronicle push you in any particular direction toward stuff that you might not have done otherwise?

            PU: I think it made me go out of my way to discover smaller restaurants and ethnic restaurants, which is the kind of cooking I've always loved. It was always exciting to find a place doing great Thai food or Salvadorean papusas or something like that. One that comes to mind is this little Mexican place called Mom is Cooking. There was just one woman in the kitchen, maybe 10 or 12 tables. I mean, it was kind of a dump, but if you really want to eat delicious food, sometimes that's part of it. You had to wait for them to take your order, then wait and wait and wait for that food to come out, but when it came out it was absolutely delicious, like eating home-cooked Mexican food. It was a wonderful discovery.

            1. re: ML8000

              I think you're wrong about what's tolerated in other industries or art forms. I'm pretty sure artists and musicians are allowed to review art and music.

              I'm pretty fussy about the appearance of conflict of interest and I don't think it was a big deal. As Robert noted, the potential conflict was disclosed. If people felt her reviews were biased, they could have said something, and if the Chronicle found that there was the appearance of bias in her reviews, she could have been let go.

              Basically, though, I don't think there would be any reason for bias. Even if she used her power to trash a competitor, there's no reason to believe that the customers who were turned off would then patronize her restaurant -- there are too many restaurants in the City for any one restaurant to be significantly affected by what happens to another.

              1. re: Ruth Lafler

                Frankly if PU wrote for the Chron as an occasional reviewer, I see no problem. Artist and musicians do review other work. It happens all the time...BUT

       write a weekly column in a major metro area with that kind of clout for that many years, while being a restaurant owner, is highly unusual. I've never heard this happening anywhere but maybe I don't get out that much.

                Maybe artists and musicians aren't a good comparison but I really can't think of another industry where this reviewing happens except on occasion. Perhaps in specific industry trade publications, but still there's an identification of who the writer is and what they do.

                PU never listed the disclaimer on her column or one-line tag as often writers do, like: "Robert Lauriston is a computer journalist and wine snob who occasionally reviews restaurants for the East Bay Express." That seems fair and reasonable but I never saw that in her Chron reviews...ever. Her official bio doesn't count, I mean who sees that when you read the paper?

                Any way, if you guys don't see a problem and like her stuff, hey that's you. I can't argue against it. I just don't agree.

                1. re: ML8000

                  One reason it's unusual is that few chef-owners have enough extra energy to moonlight as critics. I thought I was obsessed with food, but after meeting her I realized I had a relatively casual interest.

                  I've been reading her reviews for years and it's clear to me that her owning a restaurant didn't slant her judgment. Only a small percentage of restaurants in town compete with Hayes Street Grill, and I don't think she ever wrote a negative review of any of them.

                  Unterman's bio at the Chron always mentioned that she owned a restaurant.

                  1. re: ML8000

                    Menupages lists 4438 restaurants in SF currently. Unterman owns a seafood restaurant. Menupages list 108 of those ... which includes places like Bubba Gumps ... it might just be possible that she could easily avoid restaurants in her same class.

                    ... and menupages doesn't list all SF restaurants ... the last time I looked it was over 8000 just in the actual city.

                    Between the newspaper's supervision and the small ration of competitors ... what is the problem?

                  2. re: Ruth Lafler

                    Actually, at big dailies, artists and musicians aren't allowed to review. At the L.A. Times, for example, the main pop critic in the '60s was pushed out because he wouldn't leave his band, Christopher Milk; the late Craig Lee was only allowed to freelance after his band, the Bags, broke up; the late classical music critic Daniel Cariaga, married to a noted opera singer, was never allowed to review vocal music, etc. Patty, whom I admire, is clearly a special case - and her conflict might as well be tattooed on her forehead; it's the first thing anybody knows about her.

          2. The book that 'redeemed' her ... came from a lot of her reviews ... which were excellent in my eyes. Her tastes matched mine more than almost any other food writer.

            You wrote ...
            " Any way, explain owning a restaurant and reviewing other restaurants in the same city for a major metro paper. As a journalist and critic you have to know that's a sticky situation at best, a huge conflict of interest at worse. Even in between it rather iffy."

            In the decades she has been reviewing can you site one example where that might have produced an unfair and unbalanced review?

            2 Replies
            1. re: rworange

              I think it's a little more complex than being able to show bias by pointing to an unfair or unbalanced review. Conflicts can be subtle and can manifest themselves in ways in which the reviewer may not even be aware - for example, she could've been harder on a direct competitor than she would ordinarily be, without really going so far as "panning" the competitor (i.e., she may have consciously or unconsciously set a higher bar for a competitor). Each critic's biases are inherent in their reviews, no matter who the critic is, but it may have been that she was very well aware about the potential for inherent problems like this and been much more attuned to it in her reviews than she would have been otherwise (or she may have excused herself from reviewing a seafood restaurant across the street and asked another staff member to do so). However, as ML has pointed out, it's the appearance of a conflict which can cause a problem. Further, some conflicts by their nature are not "waiveable" even if fully disclosed. I don't know the formal ethics involved in restaurant reviews, but it has been pointed out that musicians review other musicians' shows and authors review other authors' books. In my industry, the kind of conflict described here would probably not fly, even with full disclosure to both "sides", but I'm a lawyer so the standards may be completely different for food critics.

              1. re: farmersdaughter

                Right, but she didn't review her direct competitors -- she didn't review (1) other seafood restaurants, and (2) other restaurants in her neighborhood.

                Everyone has biases of some kind, sometimes unconscious ones. All anyone can do is identify them and try to be fair.

            2. Frankly I figured conflict of interest stuff was pretty straightforward and common sense. I guess not. If people feel otherwise, I'm not going to change anyone's mind. I can provide some info however.

              From the Society of Professional Journalists:

              Journalists should be free of obligation to any interest other than the public's right to know.

              Journalists should:

              —Avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived.
              — Remain free of associations and activities that may compromise integrity or damage credibility.
              — Refuse gifts, favors, fees, free travel and special treatment, and shun secondary employment, political involvement, public office and service in community organizations if they compromise journalistic integrity.
              — Disclose unavoidable conflicts.
              — Be vigilant and courageous about holding those with power accountable.
              — Deny favored treatment to advertisers and special interests and resist their pressure to influence news coverage.
              — Be wary of sources offering information for favors or money; avoid bidding for news.

              Read into it as you will. Seems pretty clear to me but everyone has their own interpretation and understanding. I know it sure seems like making a mountain out of a molehill. It's freakin' restaurant reviews for god sake yet this seems to be the baseline.

              When you consider the venue, major metro paper with lots of power,you'd assume conflict of interest stuff would be followed. The fact that it wasn't probably says more about the Chron/Examiner then PU. What other major metros would allow this to happen? I don't know of any. This sort of speaks to SF's provincialism and a legacy of yellow journalism.

              About PU, she went to journalism school in Berkeley, so she knows how things work. Why she was hired despite a conflict, who knows. Why she thought she was exempt, who knows. It seems totally fair to question however.

              14 Replies
              1. re: ML8000

                I've read her review when I lived in SF. I thought she was honest and straight-forward. Also, I've heard her being interviewed by various radio personalities. She comes of as someone who loves food. If she was tanking a place due to conflict of interest, I think she would have been outed a long time ago.

                In regards to "Journalism", there are no true journalist anymore. Also, I liken journalist to lawyers and politicians especially with network claiming to be "fair and balanced".

                1. re: ML8000

                  The bottom line is that for me she had great suggestions and I ate better because of it.

                  If I had to substitute some 'perceived' Journalistic integrity for the majority of hacks in the Bay Area either interested in a paycheck or ego-fullfillment rather than food ... I'd choose Unterman whose passion for good food has been for me the lone shining beacon in this area ... why else would I have found Chowhound in the first place ... I couldn't rely on most of the press.

                  Johnathan Kauffman was a great critic ... I was a little harsh about his replacement John Birdsdale which unfortunately the East Bay Express seems to have dropped. However, he is genuinely interested in the food itself ... that is rare in this area.

                  Food writing may look easy ... too few do it well ... and with passion ... and if that comes with some baggage ... so be it.

                  1. re: ML8000

                    One of the things that infuriates some people about Chowhound is that there are really no set rules.

                    That can be good or bad ... but when have we dropped common sense .. being human?

                    There are times when being a stickler for 'the rules' is like biting off our noses to spite our faces.

                    1. re: rworange

                      Different medium, different standards, different traditions, different eras.

                      Print media was once the scourge of society, leveraging their power ruthlessly, spreading lies and causing trouble. It's not so much a coincidence that Citizen Kane was based on William Randolph Hearst, patriarch of the Hearst Corp, current owners of the SF Chron. So I suppose bias and lack of oversight is ingrained.

                      Yes, Hearst only bought the Chron recently but the tradition of SF yellow journalism is there, so I guess it's no surprise really.

                      On a side note, there's some suggestion that yellow journalism was coined vis a vis the anti-Chinese sentiment spread with cartoons and editorials of the time. I can't find verification but I've heard it a few times.

                      Any way, print media's power has diminished but not that much. The rules for that medium are there for a reason.

                      1. re: ML8000

                        OK, my bachelor's degree is in journalism. I am distressed that on tv, print and especially the internet ... few adhere to those higher standards.

                        However, you are comparing a food review to yellow journalism. Again, I wlll ask for a specific example when Unterman ever stepped over that line.

                        Thinking about putting a qualifying line in her column ... wouldn't that amount to a free adverstisement? In her book that is one of the first things she mentions.

                        Obviously you didn't agree with her food opinions or reviews. However, is that a reason to try to taint the reputation ... without any backup ... of a fine jouranlist and someone who has a passion about food?

                        Also after all these decades of her food reporting ... what is the point. It was what it was. Trying to discourage others that might want to own a restaurant and write reviews?

                        1. re: rworange

                          I for one miss Patricia Unterman, I still use some of the recipes she had in the Chronicle. I think the food writers now have little personality or expertise for the most part.

                          1. re: karenfinan

                            I think PU (unfortunate initials) is a wonderful writer who happens to love food. I have always enjoyed her writing and her ability to describe food in such a way that I can almost taste it.

                            I guess the question of conflict of interest is a valid one but I would rather have someone who knows the ins and outs of restaurants write about them than someone who doesn't. You can tell when someone has a firm grasp on the reality of restaurant kitchens and FOH systems. The added bonus with PU is that she can write well. Something that is sorely missing with most local food critics.

                        2. re: ML8000

                          Quote: "Yellow journalism is a pejorative reference to journalism that features scandal-mongering, sensationalism, or other unethical or unprofessional practices by news media organizations or journalists. It has been loosely defined as "not quite libel"."

                          As is made clear in the article you, yourself cited, the term "yellow journalism" applies to situations that are far more than just "unethical or unprofessional" -- in fact, you making this discussion about "yellow journalism" is far more akin to true yellow journalism (scandel-mongering, sensationalism and "not quite libel") than anything Patricia Unterman ever wrote. Except for the aspect of it being potentially unethical, I fail to see how the term "yellow journalism" applies at all.

                          1. re: Ruth Lafler

                            I made a historic reference to the Chronicle, Hearst and the tradition of bad journalism in SF, which in the case of PU, seems to be applied since neither the Chron or PU adhered to basic journalism ethics...seemingly a Chron SF tradition.

                            Yeah, it's only a freakin' food review column, for 10+ years, and yet she still crossed the line. Doubt this is an issue, ask any editor at any major metro if they'd allow the same situation, despite all the restrictions set up. No paper would allow it and no journalist, esp. ones with formal training, would allow it.

                            I know, I know, chill out... sorry that's not going to happen if it's related to journalism. I don't have a good analogy but if another profession skirted ethics, be it MDs, lawyers, accountants (people that deal in truthiness), who's go to them? In current times, given the lap dog status of the press, you just can't let up.

                            If you like PU's writing, great...however to give her a pass is silly. Imagine if MB was in the same sitaution. No one would put up with...unless "maybe" if you liked his wrting and passion...and that's baloney.

                            1. re: ML8000

                              Please deliver me from people who defend their principles by using the very tactics they decry. If you aren't ashamed of the way you've used a series of false connections to link someone who you can't show has actually published anything that was tainted to yellow journalism and even racism then I'm more worried about your ethics than hers.

                    2. re: ML8000

                      Unterman has great taste and does a good job of bringing unheralded gems to her readers' attention. She avoided and continue to avoid conflicts by not reviewing other seafood restaurants or restaurants in the same neighborhood as hers, with the exception of raves (and what higher praise than from a competitor?)

                      Compare that with her replacement, who has been around so long and met so many chefs and managers that he's frequently recognized and pampered on every visit, leading to rave reviews of places with dreadfully inconsistent food and service (e.g. La Suite and Tres Agaves).

                      1. re: Robert Lauriston

                        The existence of one unethical situation does not negate the existence of another.

                        What I'd say, is that Unterman did everything possible to mitigate her conflict of interest by disclosing it and agreeing to abide by certain restrictions, while as far as I know, Bauer had made no serious attempts to keep his reviews from being biased, and in fact, seems to enjoy the position of power he holds in the local restaurant community and all the perks that go with it.

                        1. re: Ruth Lafler

                          I have known of Chowhound for some time, but seldom visited, simply because there just isn't enough time to keep up with everything that gests posted on the web. Yesterday, somehow I stumbled upon this post. What is all the fuss about Patricia Unterman's conflict of interest? I don't get it.

                          I lived in SF from 1964 to 2005, most of that time working as a chef, including running my own restaurant, Timo's, for 12 years, so, I am quite familiar with the food scene there. In fact, my home page is SFGate (The Chronicle), which I still peruse daily. I have probably read all the Sietsema/Sesser/Unterman/Bauer and many other SF restaurant items from 1964 to date.

                          The best reviewer was, and still is, Patricia Unterman. Terrible and food snob, BS. My site,, is still live but now bilingual and dedicated to food, health and the environment. I am proud to have a section there just for Unterman's restaurant reviews , which I think are so good it's worth the effort of translating them every week so that more people can read them.

                          The "conflict of interest" issue never bothered me. I always thought I would prefer someone who understands how a restaurant runs reviewing mine. Patricia Unterman made negative comments about Timo's in her Food Lover's Guide; I took that as a wake-up call and wrote her a public thank you note. Her parting company with the Chronicle was the Chronicle's loss. (I never met with her face to face until after I sold my restaurant in 2004).

                          I guess this is one of those "Only in America" things: we have a sonofabutcher who can't write in English running a major newspaper's food section and a sonofabitch who can't (among other things) speak, running the country. But that will be the subject of another post, probably in my own blog.

                          1. re: ccorredor

                            Actually, the only poster here who insists that Unterman's reviewing was a conflict of interest is the one who originated this thread. The other responders have all been defending her and praising her reviews.