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Jun 10, 2013 09:53 AM

Michael Bauer's incomprehensible rating logic

Bauer explains in his blog post today that he gave Sir and Star three and 3.5 stars for food because the prices are so low.

Where's the logic in that? He rates food, service, atmosphere, price, and noise separately. As a reader, when I see a breakdown like that, I figure the "overall" rating is the place where a restaurant gets extra points for being a good value.

Part of the problem is probably that he hasn't updated the price ratings since 2000 except to add $1 to the breakpoint between inexpensive and moderate:

$ = Inexpensive: entrees $10 and under
$$ = Moderate: $11-$17
$$$ = Expensive: $18-$24
$$$$ = Very Expensive: more than $25

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  1. What he actually implies is that the food deserved the 3 stars, and would have been higher if they had an extensive dessert menu.

    He then bumped it up the extra half star for value/price. So if your issue is with that half star, and it appears it is, I'd say as long as he's consistent, and plans on goosing stars on such a criteria across the board, who cares?

    In many ways, it would be a great equalizer for places serving good food who weren't offering a full program based on a multi course meal, or that were penalized at least a half star or more for the rating limitations of the cuisine itself. There should be compensation if a place has extra value, or the addition of good cocktails, by taking into account that it's a good version of whatever that establishment is trying to be, rather than rank it by order of French to least French, or something. We live in the era of Yelp anyway.

    1 Reply
    1. re: sugartoof

      Crosstalk between individual ratings is inherently inconsistent, that's the problem.

      There was a recent revisit review where he knocked the food rating down because the prices had gone up and maybe the service was off, even though he said that the food was as good as ever.

      1. Seems like Bauer is still struggling with coming up with a consistent methodology for ratings (and Top-100 inclusion) after all these years. The price ratings are hilariously dated. By his definition, Perbacco with entrees averaging around $27 and entirely reasonably priced for a fine-dining restaurant would be considered "very expensive" even though sfgate only shows it as $$$. By the definition, it would be in the same price category as Michael Mina in the same block where appetizers are in the $20s and entrees start in the $40s. Given that Bauer tends to review high-profile, fancy places as soon as they pop up, but inexpensive hole-in-the-wall places only occasionally, you'd think he would do a better job of categorizing pricing at the higher end of the scale.

        1. Anyone with any sense quit reading Bauer a long time ago except to cross reference every once in a while, or by accident. His biases are well known: mid-range continental with a twist, nice decor, hunk of meat Midwest option, full bar and cute waiters.

          Yes he's the king maker big cheese in SF but who cares. I haven't read the guy for over 10 years and yet I can find places to eat that work very well...and frankly you have to be a bit of an idiot not to find something or some place decent to eat in SF.

          8 Replies
          1. re: ML8000

            I don't mind reading Bauer -- if only because he is influential -- and I rarely find myself completely disagreeing with his reviews. If you are aware of his biases and review methodology (or lack thereof), he is a reasonably useful datapoint.

            1. re: ML8000

              I agree 100%. I misread the subject line as "incomprehensible ranting logic," which actually seems a bit more apropos. His reviews are useless; this site and even the other one-that-shall-not-be-named have made him largely irrelevant. If I were him, I would be looking forward to retirement... maybe move to Stockholm and design a currency for cats and dogs to use.

              The only food writer worse than Bauer is Willie Brown.

              1. re: lakemerritter

                100 percent irrelevant to me, except to the extent that his biases/preferences shape the restaurant scene. I sometimes read his blog if I've been pointed towards a specific posting. I very occasionally read a review of his, just out of curiosity (i.e. his review of Saison). He's a dinosaur who hasn't yet realized he's facing extinction.

              2. re: ML8000

                One thing I loved about a recent trip to LA is reading J Gold and the LA Weekly staff writers. Having good criticism matters to an artistic community.

                1. re: bbulkow

                  Jonathan Gold's in a class by himself, but Jonathan Kauffman's first-rate. He's now working for Tasting Table and writes maybe half a dozen a month.

                  1. re: bbulkow

                    Indeed. The sense I get from JG is that he really is into it, is open to new things, ideas and cultures and he would be fun to hang. I never got that from Bauer.

                    MB writes from a narrow spectrum and to seemingly to hold position, as a gatekeeper. I can't find a reason to like having a meal with him. He just doesn't come across as much fun and ironically in SF and its legacy of weirdness/wackiness, we get the straight-laced Midwesterner (gay or not).

                    Meanwhile in LA, where the beautiful people literally don't eat at the nice restaurants to maintain weight (but pay the bill) you get a bit of an eccentric glutton who is from the West Coast and isn't scared of ethnic food. He gets it. There's an honesty.

                    A writer's backgrounds absolutely matter.

                    1. re: ML8000

                      J Gold is truly awesome, but the work he is now doing in LA is kind of a low simmer of his old rebellious stuff.

                      It kind of sucks, but he's too well known. He tends to be a "validator" rather than a discoverer.

                      It's not his fault. He's a superstar. His reviews are still very fun to read, and his exploration of LA in general knows to parallel.

                      He dines exactly how one ought to dine IMO, with reckless abandon, and the attitude that $1 tacos can be as good as $100 steaks.

                      I guess he isn't totally useless though. He remains one of Corzon y Miel's main champions, and was an early one, almost single-handedly keeping them alive long enough to float on their own.

                      Meanwhile, the LA Weekly has gone somewhat downhill since they lost him to the Times, though they do more pioneering I suppose.

                2. I wonder what relationships other food critics have with their cities. I don't recall William Grimes inspiring this much animosity back when he wrote for the NYTimes, nor even Ruth Reichl before him.

                  I'm not a fan of his either, of course.

                  26 Replies
                  1. re: dunstable

                    One thing, Jonathan Gold is from LA, a West Coaster. M Bauer is from the Midwest.

                    Also, to be frank, there's different levels of journalism between the NY Times, LA Times and the Chron. Even as the LA Times has been hit with the downturn in print, it still produces/ hires very good writers and that's editorial control.

                    1. re: ML8000

                      "M Bauer is from the Midwest."

                      As is a fair amount of the SF population. It's one possible reason why some establishments have caught on, but I don't know what reviewer can be considered a local boy/girl.

                      1. re: sugartoof

                        What is a "fair amount"? A fair amount of the SF population is immigrants; another fair amount is natives (yes, we exist) or from other parts of California; another fair amount is from the East Coast. I'd guess the "fair amount" of people here from the Midwest is smaller than any of those demographics.

                        1. re: Ruth Lafler

                          Why argue over an anecdotal "guess"?

                          I personally encounter more transplants from the Midwest than I do the East Coast or even natives. Whether that's statistically accurate doesn't matter, because I merely observed there were a "fair amount". I didn't say more, or the most. Why nitpick when I'm merely suggesting Bauer's opinions are representative of a sub section of the demographic?

                          Why not name the Native San Franciscan with another influential review byline. Do they exist?

                          1. re: sugartoof

                            Here's my point about MB being from the Midwest - his tastes and thus his reviews are stuck there...and yet here we are on the Left Coast. Okay, so there are transplants but this is about Bauer, his influence (and Midwest tastes) how it filters and effects the local scene.

                            The beet salad is classic example. He likes it, raves about it and suddenly almost every restaurant in his comfort zone (see above) starts serving it. Nothing against beet salad but that just kills creativity.

                            Look how Jonathan Gold embraces ethnic food, which in turns pushes the local food scene in LA. There is a cause and effect. People read and react.

                            Jim Wood back in the day had a similar effect. He liked small mom and pop ethnic places and that's around the time Thai food started becoming really popular. Obviously there's room for both but instead we get meathead dude tilting the table and mid-range continental with a twist, nice decor, hunk of meat Midwest option, full bar and cute waiters.

                            I'll just say it - overall his perspective is very white and limited. For pete effin' sake it's the 21st century. I want an informed opinion that's not limited, or a few voices at the least...or at least an opened mindedness to explore.

                            1. re: ML8000

                              Just FYI, Jonathan Kauffman is from the Midwest. The difference being that he's not "stuck" there and he has embraced the Left Coast.

                              1. re: Ruth Lafler

                                I was referring to Jonathan Gold but I get your point and agree. Nothing wrong with the Midwest...but yes, embrace where you are, use the Midwest as a reference just like how everyone uses their background but man, don't use it as your main reference point or metric.

                                MB's taste are so generally bland it's not good for the local food scene. The guy probably can't look at a fish with a head on it.

                                1. re: ML8000

                                  Bauer worked in his father's meat market, so I doubt he's squamish about animal parts.

                              2. re: ML8000

                                Reading Jim Wood's reviews alway gave me the impression of a jolly guy who hadn't had a meal in his life that he didn't like. Like this review of the Subway store on Ellis and Powell:

                                Still waiting for a Subway review from Bauer.

                                1. re: nocharge

                                  The guy certainly knew hot to accentuate the positive. "The … cheese, onions, lettuce, tomatoes, pickles, peppers, olives, oil, vinegar, mayonnaise and mustard … are such a large part of the sandwich, they're the main taste, not the individual meat, but with the very fresh rolls and condiments, you don't mind."

                                2. re: ML8000

                                  "Here's my point about MB being from the Midwest - his tastes and thus his reviews are stuck there..."

                                  I just don't think that affliction is really unique to him. I believe he's got an audience who share his biases, and speaking to the larger elephant in the room, that a lot of reviewers, food writers and for that matters, chefs themselves who arrive informed by their regional upbringings. Sometimes it's the opposite case, over compensating and favoring non-White exotic foods no matter the quality instead. It's not as if San Francisco was void of steak and potatoes or "White and limited" menus. Take a look at the original chop house menus of the Barbary Coast.

                                  There are some positive aspects to all this.

                                  Anyway, can you think of a very California restaurant with great food that Bauer panned because he didn't get it?

                          2. re: ML8000

                            The LA Weekly was where Jonathan Gold got his start. He had pretty much mastered his craft before he took his column to the LA Times, and he was back at the LA Weekly when he won the Pulitzer.

                            1. re: Robert Lauriston

                              The one refreshing thing about Jonathan Gold is his lack of desire to retain his anonymity unlike most critics. If you read the local papers and have an interest in local food you know what he looks like. i used to see him enjoying a coffee and a pastry at my local bakery on a regular basis. he's just a lovable person all around.

                              1. re: trolley

                                It might be refreshing to you for your own good reasons, but there are reasons why many respected restaurant critics from Mimi Sheraton on down have worked at keeping low profile. (More seriously, I gather, than Bauer.) The reasons are obvious enough to most folks who've spent serious time reading a lot of restaurant critics.

                                My favorite was one who was especially dedicated, elsewhere on the West coast, 30-some years ago; a hard worker, strong gastronomic background, offered penetrating insights, and stood no BS. I still quote him from memory. (One furious restaurateur took out an ad, offering a lavish dinner and epic wine for a copy of the guy's picture; a rare kind of implicit recommendation as a critic.)

                                1. re: eatzalot

                                  yeah I get it. i do. and to do their work with balance and fairness (a la ruth reichl's debacle with Le Cirque or more recently S. Irene Virbila with Red Medicine) of course you need to have anonymity otherwise every restaurant would possibly be reviewed as "excellent". and to that i realize not everyone can walk around like Jonathan Gold but for him it works.

                                2. re: trolley

                                  Gold got outed and gave up.

                                  “I pulled off being anonymous for 25 years. Now, there’s one picture of me out there and I’m drenched in Champagne."


                                  "... what is being lost for restaurant critics is less anonymity than plausible deniability. It is extremely hard for a major critic in a big city to stay unknown for more than a few months ..."


                                  1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                    25 years! That's far longer than those highly respected US critics of past years whom I mentioned. That itself is quite an accomplishment. The plausible-deniability point rings true.

                                    Michelin Guide (which I've bought regularly since it first appeared here a few years ago -- its real, meaty, content is print-only, utterly absent from the star-blinded online buzz, and from the consciousness of people who get their impressions of Michelin from that) is an interesting variation, a pool rather than a single anonymous critic.

                                    As detailed in the New Yorker article "Interview with M.," its reviewer pool is both obsessively anonymous (in New York, reviewer "M" said they were forbidden to tell their parents, who would then certainly boast), and professionally food-trained and tested for ability to do things like recognize all ingredients. And despite Robert's frequent assertions of franco- or eurocentrism, I've found the Bay Area guide not without insight in many cuisines. The first critical publication to recognize the unusual strengths at a modest Peninsula Shanghainese restaurant I now frequent was Michelin, whose inspector(s) knew the cuisine and went straight for it, recommending ethnic dishes and steering readers away from the inevitable pan-Chinese-American selection. Credit where due, I FIRST heard about the place (Bamboo Garden) here, from Melanie Wong:


                                    Incidentally the #1 seller there is XLB.

                                    1. re: eatzalot

                                      I say the Michelin star ratings in the SF Bay Area have a Frenchy and Eurocentric bias, but that's not the case with the non-star reviews. They're not print-only:


                                      1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                        Thanks for the helpful link, Robert, I stand corrected on two points. I wonder when the print text went online, because last Fall after getting the 2013 SF Guide, I searched for some of the restaurant detail and it wasn't online then.

                                        Rephrasing: Most of the Michelin's content -- including most of the restaurant recommendations -- might AS WELL be print-only, given how very little awareness of it I spot in general restaurant discussion and amateur "reviews" online. Yet everyone has heard of the starred restaurants, after their annual media buzz, which seems to informs most offhand references and perceptions about the Michelin that I spot online when I read about restaurants.

                                        1. re: eatzalot

                                          You searched for e.g. Mountain View, CA, United States, and it didn't find any restaurants?

                                          The French stuff has been on there for a while, I think I used it on my last two trips to France.

                                          1. re: eatzalot

                                            That site is practically useless the way it's designed.

                                            Maybe it's just me, but I don't find "Michelin recommended" to carry any more weight than seeing a Citysearch sticker, or a Gayot listing.

                                            The Chez Spencer review for example, calling it a "darling of the Mission" is a good example of the flowery exuberance better suited for a 7x7 review caught up in press release prose, instead.

                                            1. re: eatzalot

                                              Robert: I told people online about restaurants recommended in the then-recent 2013 edition and got queries back saying they couldn't find it in the Michelin and of course all they were doing was checking online. I then googled for content seen in the print edition and didn't find it. Hence my question above.

                                              Regardless of all of which, virtually all mention of Michelin that I encounter online reflects the online hyping about "stars" that occurs annually, and shows no awareness of the majority of the Guide's content. As if the only movies anyone talked about online were those getting academy awards.

                                              sugartoof: Sorry to read of your disappointment. I began using Michelin Guides in Europe about 30 years ago when nothing else approached their comprehensive coverage and detail for dining. Most of the useful detail in the Guides is NOT in the "star" ratings, indeed some of the best meals of my life were in restaurants that did not have Michelin stars -- yet.

                                              In Europe (where the other symbology in it is more detailed and useful), you could discern up-and-coming world-class restaurants that would sometimes subsequently receive stars. In the Bay Area, many restaurants I'd already experienced as inspired and outstanding did get stars.

                                              Of more modest local restaurants not in the running for stars but still standing out from their peers, such as the one noted above, I've often seen the Michelin recommend them too. Which should surprise no one, since they are the same restaurants noted also by well-informed, locally highly experienced individual contributors on sites like CH.

                                              The Guide "recommends" only a couple of percent of restaurants in the Bay Area.

                                3. re: dunstable

                                  Bauer is hardly the best food writer to ever walk the Earth. However, the hatred you see in a forum like this, where everyone likes to think they know more about dining than anyone else, may be a little over the top. After all, a restaurant critic that doesn't attract animosity is probably a total wimp.

                                  1. re: nocharge

                                    How true. And in traveling and researching restaurants, I've often seen a dominant or principal restaurant journalist who holds forth. And is often the object of scorn on the local online forum, or offhand opinion generally. Some of these critics are excellent information sources though, through sheer local experience volume, from a consistent perspective.

                                    [ETA:] -- and from the good veteran journalist's somewhat different focus and mind-set in writing up restaurants compared with amateurish critics who affect a similar style of writing without (as Paul Fussell once put it) the sensibilities that brought it about. (Like, further outside of themselves; writing more for the reader, with awareness of the limitations of limited sampling of a restaurant, less about confusing impression with reality.)

                                    That distinction, along with some favored mannerisms, I've long noticed as telltales, not limited to literal amateurs; from some minor-league professionals too.

                                    1. re: eatzalot

                                      I don't know if that can be said of Bauer, though, at least within his restaurant reviews. For instance, when Kauffman was the SF Weekly critic, he would often review hole-in-the-wall places I'd never heard of, and in that way I'd sometimes read his reviews just to see what new place I should try out. That's rarely true of Bauer. Usually, we're just curious to see what his opinion is about a restaurant we've already made up our minds about.

                                      1. re: dunstable

                                        On Tasting Table, it seems like this Kaufman guy still reviews hole-in-the-walls. Which is nice.

                                        We have a cool critical environment of reviewing hole-in-the-walls in LA. I am glad to have stumbled upon Kaufman, because he seems like the only guy that appreciates them in SF weirdly enough.