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Apr 17, 2012 03:56 AM

"Patricia Unterman, Examiner Food Critic, Dismissed"

Maybe the Chronicle could take a hint.

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  1. Heh heh! My suspicion is that there are probably quite a few people who read the Chron at least partly for Bauer. Whether you love him or hate him, we can at least admit that he is consistent in his assessments, with respect to his own tastes, anyway. I suppose that's one of the most important qualities in a critic, for any field.

    On the other hand, The Village Voice did lay off J Hoberman, so I guess these days, no newspaper employee is untouchable.

    11 Replies
    1. re: dunstable

      Michael Bauer the restaurant critic reports to the Chron's executive food and wine editor, Michael Bauer.

      He's highly inconsistent when writing updates of restaurants he's already reviewed.

      1. re: Robert Lauriston

        My main problem with him is that he plays politics too much. I don't want to get specific, but at the restaurant I once worked at, the number of stars we had was directly tied to how nicely he was treated by the chef. When he got into a row with one past chef, the restaurant instantly went from "Top 100 restaurants in the Bay Area" to two stars. To be fair, that chef was a prickly dude, but I've heard similar stories from other industry folk.

        1. re: dunstable

          Politics or not, Bauer bases initial reviews on at least three visits, while updates are usually only one visit, so an off night can translate into a lower rating or being knocked off the top 100.

          1. re: Robert Lauriston

            Funny, that is one of the few things Bauer does that makes sense to me. With respect to the top 100, at least. I think the entire point of the list is that you should be able to pick any restaurant and have a good experience every time you go (assuming you agree with Bauer's opinion of a good restaurant). If he has to go more than once to make sure the restaurant is still good enough for the list, it shouldn't be on the list anyway.

            1. re: nickis

              I think top-priced restaurants should be that consistent, but the reality is that moderately priced places can't afford to.

            2. re: Robert Lauriston

              You only get one visit from him to prove your value if you're a new establishment without a lot of hype, and known names attached.

              So where a place like Park Tavern (to give an obvious example) was a review he was expected to write, the true mom and pops, or little startups are lucky to get an initial visit. None of those are assured follow up visits unless he takes a real interest so essentially they get one shot.

              It's a little backwards, because a hot restaurant with a veteran staff should be able to get it right on one visit, where the little hole in the wall gems, and chef owned startups that really need these reviews would probably benefit from the multiple visits the most.

              1. re: sugartoof

                I used to know a guy who owned a small restaurant that probably would have been below Bauer's radar except that the guy kept sending him messages asking him to review it. Eventually, Bauer did and gave it two stars, which was probably as much as could be hoped for for that kind of place. The tone of the review was positive and the restaurant's revenue went up 30 percent in the weeks following the review. The food was actually quite good -- the chef later left to open his own place and made the Top 100 list several times.

                1. re: sugartoof

                  IIRC, Bauer has said that he primarily reviews the big-name/big-buzz places because expectations are different from those of a Mom and Pop place (people will forgive a lot of mis-steps at a smaller place that they wouldn't at a big-name place). Plus if you waste $40 on a bad dinner at a Mom and Pop shop, well, it's $40; but if a big-name place is lousy, you're out $100+.

                  1. re: waldrons

                    I think most professional critics feel it's part of their job to let readers know if places that have gotten a lot of publicity live up to their hype, or if a chef with a good reputation is doing as well at a new place, though that function is a lot less important now that we have Chowhound and Yelp and so on.

                    With a place nobody has heard of, if it's not good, you might as well just ignore it, though Bauer rarely if ever goes to those places.

              2. re: dunstable

                I've heard similar stories about a Chron movie reviewer.

            3. re: dunstable

              As someone currently receiving a (very small) check for writing on a regular basis, let me just say the downward spiral of fewer jobs -> fewer sales -> fewer jobs -> fewer sales is harsh --- then, media that's struggling with its business model.

              I am typically sampling 3 to 9 restaurants once for every review, and thus not getting fully reimbursed, and perhaps not being as thorough as I would like - but covering more ground. I get to review the kind of food I eat on a regular basis, which I hope adds authenticity and makes for better reviews. I like being able to contrast Pho Ga (or whatever) at 10 places in the course of a few days, and give a real vertical sample snapshot.

            4. Patty Unterman wrote for the Chronicle before working for the Examiner. Not a surprise as the Examiner is in constant disarray. Used to be I could pick up a copy at the Berkeley BART station but no more.

              Unterman is about the only food writer whose opinion I value. I think of her as the Pauline Kael of food critics. She has steered me right so many times. If it wasn't for her I wouldn't have known about Streetcar Sandwiches in New Orleans.

              5 Replies
              1. re: chocolatetartguy

                I didn't mind her opinions of food, but sometimes the timing was a bit off. She would write reviews for places that had already been popular for months. "Say, this Flour + Water place is great!" "Yes, I know!"

                I very much liked when she reviewed cheap no-name places. That's a lot more useful than finding out if a brand-new $100 per person place is good. (Unless you're a 1%er, I mean, which I am certainly not.)

                1. re: dunstable

                  She used to have a weekly column in the Chron pink page and her reviews of NO restaurants were my bible on my 1st visit. Her recommendations for Streetcar Sandwiches, Chez Helene (owned by arguably the Godfather of NO fried chicken) and Brigtsen's were spot on.

                2. re: chocolatetartguy

                  I also like Unterman a lot. I never followed her column in the Chron or Ex- I don't read newspapers regularly enough- but I really liked her San Francisco Food Lover's Guide (or, as I called it, "My To-Do List").

                3. For those who miss her perspective already (that would be me), she has a great web site with lots of god info and a newsletter:

                  1 Reply
                  1. re: flavorenhancer

                    Wow. Newsletter, web site AND god (sic) info! That must be some link.
                    ...just kidding of course.

                  2. She was at the Jacques Pepin/Daniel Patterson lecture the other night, sitting 4 rows ahead of us, looking chipper and no worse for the dismissal.

                    3 Replies
                    1. re: mariacarmen

                      I always figured Bauer engineered her dismissal from the Chronicle because he was threatened by how much better a writer she is. (I believe the reason given at the time was that it was not appropriate for a restaurant owner to be reviewing the competition, but I never saw any hint of politics in her reviews.)

                      1. re: mariacarmen

                        Who knows, maybe her situation (buyout? pension?) is cozy enough that she can finally attend to other projects she's been after without missing the grind of writing on deadline. I could see her admiring some of the new directions Ruth Reichl is involved in.

                        I frankly haven't found her too relevant for a while, but her enthusiasm for making discoveries and championing them has become the standard for the current food scene.

                        1. re: sugartoof

                          I doubt there was a buyout. From what she told Paolo Lucchesi, it sounds like they gave her the option of continuing to write the reviews without being paid. She still has her day job as co-owner of Hayes Street Grill.


                      2. Well, the good thing is that I no longer need to look at the Examiner, since she is not in it. Patty has fantastic taste, a great eye for the undiscovered, and is a talented writer. She really brings the food to life. She is not reviewing restaurants in the sense that "this one is better than that one"; rather, she treats each place on its own merits and what's good/not good about it uniquely. You learn a lot about food and different flavors when you read her. Patty KNOWS FOOD. That is really different from simply being a "reviewer". On to better things, and I'll look forward to that!

                        13 Replies
                        1. re: Tabetai yo

                          Now now, let's give the new fellow a shot, hmm?

                          Besides, they still have the crossword. I do it every day.

                          1. re: dunstable

                            What new fellow? Since they cut the restaurant column from the budget, they can't replace her. They may get a series of hobbyist bloggers who will work for chump change.

                            1. re: Robert Lauriston

                              I was under the impression that Jesse Hirsch was the replacement
                              Is this no longer the case?

                              1. re: steve h.

                                Yes, that is what I thought, since that is what went out with the media pieces about it. If nothing else, that is at least what Hirsch himself seems to believe:


                                He links to his first Examiner review, actually:


                                It does sometimes happen that people just get too expensive; it doesn't mean that their contributions cannot be replaced . That happened to J Hoberman, who was many times more critical to his publication's popularity than Patricia Unterman, and it's not like they stopped doing film reviews. No one wants to see them go, but budgets are what they are.

                                As for the Examiner, I think that's probably not the end of their cuts. Glenn Dickey better not anger Examiner management anytime soon, at which point, they truly will have nothing that worthwhile they can call their own, except Pamela Busch, and I don't know how many people read wine columns.

                                1. re: dunstable

                                  You underestimate Patty's following. She was the only reason I sought out the Examiner here in the East Bay (not that easy before and now impossible). Other than the fact that it is free, the only other reason I can see to read it is the Meet the Mixologist column.

                                  A former editor of mine, wrote a column for Brand Ex during the Fang dynasty and at that time they paid well. He told me that I could take over for him and would be paid a lot more than he had paid me.

                                  1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                    It's the same gig; henceforth he will write all the restaurant reviews (which he makes relatively clear at the bottom of the first review). Presumably he will be paid less, but as far as the reader is concerned, there would be no difference. He is the guy writing the reviews we are reading.

                                    1. re: dunstable

                                      Maybe you're reading it. Unterman was the only reason I ever rummaged through that mess of a Web site, and I haven't seen a copy of the paper edition in years.

                                      1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                        The paper copy is all over the place in the City; in addition to the red newspaper dispensers, some street corners even have people giving them out to passersby. As long as it's free (and as long as they have the NYT crossword), I'll be reading it.

                                        But seriously, let's give this dude a chance, eh? I don't have much experience with the East Bay Express, but so long as he explores esoteric restaurants, like he promises, I'll give him a look.

                                        1. re: dunstable

                                          Hirsch only started at the Express last October and at SF Weekly last January, not long after he moved to SF.


                                          You kind of have to focus on esoteric restaurants when the expense account's chump change and you don't have a trust fund or wealthy spouse.

                                          1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                            Well that works for me -- I also don't have a trust fund or wealthy spouse! My meals are chosen accordingly.

                            2. re: Tabetai yo

                              I fully agree. As a longtime restauranteur, she knows more about food than your average food critic. Also, as someone who truly loves food, she always tries to find something to like about every restaurant. I don't recall her ever totally slamming a place. I think she knows how much work goes into running a restaurant.

                              1. re: chocolatetartguy

                                That's true. It's also true that she has personal and professional relationships with suppliers and restauranteurs. She is a member of the restaurant community in way that most reviewers (and anonymous eaters) are not, and that has undoubtedly had an effect on her writing.