HOME > Chowhound > San Francisco Bay Area >

Discussion

SF Chron restaurant critic anonymity (redux)

  • 128
  • Share

I decided not to append this thought to earlier threads about SF Chron restaurant critic anonymity, hoping to re-launch the conversation with a different tone.

I was interested in Pete Wells review of Daniel this week in the NYT. He made it clear he knew he was recognized on each visit (as he surely is everywhere).

What he did at Daniel was have a colleague who wouldn't be recognized dine at another table at the same time. That way, he was able to compare. And the comparison was telling. His table's experience was better than that of the nobody-special pal. And that difference became a major point of discussion in the review.

Michael Bauer faces the same problem (not a chance he's not spotted).

I wonder if the SF Chron team might consider the NYT strategy--or if they might come up with some comparable way to test the fact that Bauer is getting the same attention as you or I would, were we to dine at the restaurant under review.

  1. Click to Upload a photo (10 MB limit)
Delete
Posting Guidelines | FAQs | Feedback
Cancel
  1. That's pretty clever, though few if any other newspapers would have the extra budget to cover it.

    1. "... few if any other newspapers would have the extra budget"

      Exactly. The gambit isn't without cost, in an era where that's a central consideration.

      Vs the "good old" past decades when US newspaper restaurant critics I much admired routinely spent 3 to 5 meal visits before presuming to write anything. (Today's professionals know what a difference that makes, even if they can't do it personally.)

      Naturally, this exposed the writers to recognition, but they had their countermeasures. One of them was precociously young, always dined with others, and someone random settled the bill, or they paid cash. (One outraged and, I'd guess, justly critized high-end restaurant advertised a bounty for the journalist's picture.) Another wore disguises. To be fair, neither had the length of tenure of a Michael Bauer, but they also had, by today's measure, lavish resources behind them.

      1. Uh. How do we know if the difference is due to anonymity or due to a career critic who eats out every night, versus the friend of a critic, with different taste buds?

        The entire pretense for the second party reporting back to the critic suggests they were predetermining the outcome, by constructing the situation. Who thinks they're going to get the same treatment as a NY Times critic to begin with?

        What would repeating that silly stunt do? Of course Michael Bauer's reviews are skewed. What's worthwhile about having him mimic the sentiments of a truly anonymous decoy instead? Might as well just employ a ghost writer at that that point. What happens when the decoy becomes too familiar? A third decoy reporting back? Might as well be employing a rotating cast of Yelpers at that point.

        The truth is, if you make a living in the food industry, or have a hobby that emulates those who make a living from it, your experiences at these restaurants will be different than a person visiting blindly for the first time. Even if it's just your methodology in ordering. A good portion of reviews you're reading are slanted due to advertorial relationships anyway, it's not because the food arrived hotter, with a smile, and an extra helping of marrow as a side perk.

        51 Replies
        1. re: sugartoof

          After reading the review in the NY Times, it would be hard to believe that the differences in treatment weren't due to the critic being recognized.

          1. re: nocharge

            All they came up with were lemon scented finger bowls, topping off his glass of wine, and an offer to hail a taxi at the end of the night.

            It's not like they didn't give him a digestive to take home, signed books, kitchen tours, granolas, boxed chocolates... all of which are perks that have come up in NY Chowhound discussions, for preferential treatment.

            Is it shocking a Times critic gets treated with preference?
            Guess what... so does every other person with an expense account, making monthly visits, and ordering several entrees at once.

            1. re: sugartoof

              You left out a few items, but I agree that some customers get preferential treatment, not just critics. However, the problem is that occasionally, a hapless restaurant may not recognize someone like Bauer or the young hostess may not recognize him and make him wait for a table. If the critic's experience depends on whether he gets recognized, it adds a component to the review that may be irrelevant to the general public, namely the restaurants ability to recognize critics. And a review from someone who gets preferential treatment may not be of that great value to the majority of diners who are unlikely to get it.

              1. re: nocharge

                There's an upper tier who know they're going to get reviewed, it's just a question of when. They're already at an advantage. These are the same places who will already have been blogged about, and employ a team or publicists. We're talking about the difference between a 3 and 4 star establishment. You think Pete Wells really cared if they recognized him at Mission Chinese Food? He was probably formulating his review before he got there.

                I don't get the idea that the "hapless restaurant" isn't equally as capable of keeping a reviewer's photo around. Plus these places will benefit from any acknowledgement at all.

                1. re: sugartoof

                  Here are three Bauer reviews where the restaurants lost stars where he apparently wasn't recognized at the host stand (or at least, they were unaware of his one of pet peeves, not being seated right away). In the case of Kokkari, it seems like he wasn't recognized at all.
                  http://www.sfgate.com/restaurants/art...
                  http://www.sfgate.com/restaurants/art...
                  http://www.sfgate.com/food/article/Ba...

                  1. re: nocharge

                    So if Bauer addresses a bad host or an issue with seating, we should presume it's only because he's accustomed to special treatment rather noting an exceptionally bad experience?

                    Kokkari was/is one of the most overrated restaurants in the city.

                    1. re: sugartoof

                      Bauer's biggest failures have been when he was recognized and given good service and good food by a restaurant that couldn't consistently provide either to its regular customers.

                      Two major examples were La Suite and Tres Agaves.

                      1. re: Robert Lauriston

                        Both reviews of Tres Agaves mention bad service.

                        La Suite's review showed more evidence of what Bauer fantasized the place could become with his first paragraph mentioning Balthazar in NY.

                      2. re: sugartoof

                        The point is that if Bauer gets recognized at the host stand, he may not notice seating issues normal customers would have to deal with. Hence, his review would not reflect a normal dining experience.

                        1. re: nocharge

                          Your premise is that every time he's written about seating issues, it was due to being one of the notable times he hasn't been recognized, and the restaurant was victimized by the resulting review?

                          The reality is, critics, and others do get special treatment. We're sophisticated enough to realize that and take that into account when reading their reviews. It's not a revelation that their dinners are fluffed. The idea that any of this is a real problem, or some shocking insight, is patronizing. Peter Wells findings were so minor, they practically debunk the idea that special treatment can change an experience as drastically as it does.

                          Are our problems with Bauer aren't going to change if he employs a decoy, when it's his own employment that's the issue?

                          1. re: sugartoof

                            The answer to your first question seems to be "yes" but I'm not sure if I would use the word "victimized" just because the reviewer had the experience of a normal diner. Those reviews would probably be more useful to the public than the ones where Bauer is given the usual Bauer treatment, except that he seems a little thin-skinned and easily slighted, perhaps a result of all the special treatment he is used to.

                            As for special treatment, most customers don't get it. If you are a regular at a restaurant to the point that you get special treatment, you probably don't need to read a review to know what the restaurant is like. If you read a review because you are curious about a restaurant you have never been to, you are unlikely to get any special treatment if you go there, so if you read a review based on special treatment, it may not be a good indicator of the dining experience you could expect.

                      3. re: nocharge

                        I read the Kokkari review differently: I thought his issues with Kokkari were primarily with the cooking, *not* with seating. He mentioned being seated near the host stand, but I didn't read anything about not being seated right away in that one. He was annoyed with the server for asking if he had been there before, but (at least he implies) the annoyance was because the server was trying to say the food was no different than usual; granted, the real source of annoyance could have been that he indeed apparently was not recognized at all.

                        But then, I happen to agree with his assessment of Kokkari.

                        1. re: susancinsf

                          Doesn't he mention them asking the question more than once, and not really paying attention to his answer?

                          I have to say, I've had the same experience, with them asking if I've been there before - so to that, he managed to capture the experience.

                          1. re: susancinsf

                            From my knowledge, and from reading some of the anecdotes in this thread, there is no way in hell that he would have been treated that way at Kokkari if he had been recognized. If he had been recognized, it would have been "all hands man your battle station" and the scenario where he left the restaurant with a gaggle of staffers around the host stand totally ignoring him as he tried to say goodbye would never have happened.

                            Now, I agree that not getting seated immediately was not an obvious factor in this review.

                    2. re: sugartoof

                      How about not being offered the cheese cart? Shouldn't every customer be offered the opportunity for a cheese course?

                      I've said before: my problem with Bauer isn't that he gets recognized, it's that he *doesn't admit he gets recognized* (as Pete Wells did) and acknowledge he might have gotten special treatment because of it. That's important information that people reading his reviews should know and take into account (and no, don't tell me they should know that -- not everyone reading the Chron restaurant reviews is that savvy about restaurants and/or journalism).

                      Adding to the disingenuity, Bauer claims he "makes every attempt to remain anonymous" -- although it's clear that he makes virtually no attempt besides not making the reservation in his own name.

                      1. re: Ruth Lafler

                        While I disagree with it, the practice of providing one table perks and specials over another table is commonplace.
                        It doesn't always involve a VIP or reviewer.

                        Here's a similar themed discussion on the NY Forum about a well regarded restaurant that does it on a major scale:
                        http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/836843

                        1. re: sugartoof

                          How is access to the restaurant's cheese cart a "special perk"? What not offering it smacks of is wanting to rush the unknown customer out so they can give the table to someone more worthy.

                          1. re: Ruth Lafler

                            Either it's included with the tasting menu, or it's not.

                            If they're offering it to some patrons and not others, it's a perk. Are the semantics that interesting?

                            1. re: sugartoof

                              I think the reviewer did the general public a favor by pointing out the cheese-cart issue and other service inconsistencies.

                              1. re: nocharge

                                Unless there's validity to the idea that once a critic enters the room, the rest of the service goes haywire while fixating on one table.

                                I'm pretty sure tasting menus and inconsistencies in offerings, and service are common anyway.

                              2. re: sugartoof

                                Apparently it's a regularly offered supplement to the menu. Where do you draw the line at what's a "perk"? To me, that term does not apply to something that is regularly offered and charged for, but something that is offered as a special favor, usually gratis (an extra amuse, a comped beverage, something special from the chef's private stash, a kitchen tour, etc.)

                                1. re: Ruth Lafler

                                  So if you don't get a negligent waiter you're getting special treatment?

                                  If it's not a perk, the other table was entitled to it too, in which case, it's not an example of a critic getting special treatment.

                                  1. re: sugartoof

                                    You're getting unequal treatment and paying the same price, in this case, a very large price. If there's a chance of getting a "negligent" waiter, I'd want to know that when choosing a restaurant for a once-a-decade meal.

                                    The sad thing is that the people who saved up for a special occasion are getting less value than the people for whom is it relatively trivial.

                                    1. re: Ruth Lafler

                                      I fully agree. I've said I agree.

                                      Yet if you don't think it's a perk, and both tables paid for the cheese plate, then it's not an example of a critic getting special treatment. If I get a bad waiter, and you get a good waiter, it doesn't mean you're getting treated like a VIP.

                                      1. re: sugartoof

                                        But what do you think the chances are of Pete Wells getting a bad waiter or a bad table? That's the whole point. At a restaurant like Daniel there shouldn't be any bad waiters. None. That's what you're paying for.

                                        1. re: Ruth Lafler

                                          The fantasy of a 4 star giving pristine service 100% of the time is a fantasy left to the naive and inexperienced.

                                          I think there's a better chance that when Pete Wells is in the room, nearby tables get neglected, and of the science here is tainted.

                                          It's also ridiculous assumption that the only times Pete Wells gets bad service is when he goes un-recognized. I've noticed tables next to me getting better or worse service. I didn't need a decoy to spot it, and neither should he. If you want the cheese plate and you're paying for it, you ask for it. Pete Wells was offered it automatically, as he should have been. It wasn't because he was a critic, it was because that's how the script is intended to go.

                                          1. re: sugartoof

                                            Here is a quote from the old SF Magazine article about Bauer:

                                            Bauer, aware that he's usually recognized, says he examines the surrounding
                                            tables during a meal, to make sure other diners are getting the same level of
                                            service and portion sizes as he is. But a master maître d' like Michael Judge at
                                            Masa's knows this and plans around it. When Bauer arrived, Judge sent him
                                            an extra canapé and VIPed the table for top service. And just to make sure
                                            Bauer didn't dock the restaurant points for special treatment, Judge gave the
                                            same service to every table around him.

                                            1. re: nocharge

                                              Then bringing a decoy seated at a nearby table as Pete Wells did wouldn't normally work. As likely as it is, we can't even prove Pete Wells was recognized to begin with. All we know the second party didn't get fawned over, and Pete Wells doesn't consider it's a coincidence, because he set up the situation expecting this very outcome, which he's blown out of proportion.

                                              I find the whole thing juvenile.

                                              1. re: sugartoof

                                                Where did it say that the decoy was seated at a nearby table? I thought all it said was that they had reservations 15 minutes apart.

                                                Do you really think it's juvenile to bring service discrepancies between special treatment customers and normal ones to light, or, if there was no special treatment, expose service flaws in a restaurant that previously had a perfect four-star rating?

                                                1. re: nocharge

                                                  Bringing gotcha journalism into food reviews and pretending it democratizes the process is entirely juvenile in my opinion. Especially for the review swiping it's 4th star.

                                                  And it's a wide open room.

                                                  1. re: sugartoof

                                                    Mentioning the experience of a normal diner contrasted to that of a recognized NY Times critic is "gotcha journalism"? I think it's a step forward in journalism.

                                                    1. re: nocharge

                                                      He's a reviewer, not a journalist, and he filed a review.
                                                      As a tactic, it's questionable journalism anyway.

                                                      He doesn't actually know he was recognized, meaning he fabricated his findings to fashion the story he wanted to tell.

                                                      If that's all the special treatment 4 star places give when they recognize a reviewer, there's not much to contrast, they get treated the pretty close to the same, and the one error, was an error, not a case of special treatment, just a case of a bad waiter forgetting a course.

                                                      1. re: sugartoof

                                                        If 4-star places have bad waiters forgetting courses, maybe they don't deserve all their stars. And if mistakes like that are the norm for 4-star places, maybe a review that includes a "normal diner" perspective is a good thing in terms of educating the general public about what to expect from a very expensive meal.

                                                        1. re: nocharge

                                                          If you want a normal diners perspective, you don't go to the NY Times and read Pete Wells byline, or the Chronicle for a Bauer review.

                                                          It just feeds some classism suspicions and paranoia. VIPS and frequent customers get better service at upper tier dining establishments. It's a fact of life, it's not a revelation.

                                                          1. re: sugartoof

                                                            Oh, there is no doubt that some customers get better treatment than others and not just at upper tier dining establishments. But are reviews in major city newspapers targeting frequent customers who are already familiar with the restaurant or the general public who would be less likely to receive an elevated level of service?

                                                            By suggesting that the NY Times and SF Chronicle reviews are irrelevant to normal diners, you are just saying that these reviews are irrelevant to the vast majority of the readers. Probably not an optimal situation.

                                                            1. re: nocharge

                                                              I don't find Bauer's not very relevant.

                                                              Wells, in attempt to stay relevant, jumped the shark with his review of Mission Chinese Food.

                                                              What's next? Should Bauer hire child actors to play his family, so he can experience what it's like to bring children to a 4 star restaurant?

                                                              1. re: sugartoof

                                                                Actually, hiring child actors might be an innovative idea if he is reviewing a place that appeals to families. But nobody vaguely sane brings kids to a 4-star place. That's why there is the concept of babysitters.

                                                                1. re: nocharge

                                                                  Better to take your children to 4 stars while they're young, so by the time they're adults and can afford tasting menus, they'll have discriminating palates, and won't be phased by a restaurant cherry picking who gets perks, or VIP treatment.

                                                                  1. re: sugartoof

                                                                    Yeah, that's the attitude of parents who think their offsprings are the most well-behaved ones on earth and can do no wrong. And no doubt, subjecting a young child to 4-hour tasting dinners is the epitome of good parenting.

                                                                    1. re: nocharge

                                                                      More assumptions.

                                                                      What about the well mannered child who loves to get dressed up, and wants to be a chef when they grow up?

                                                                      1. re: sugartoof

                                                                        Did it ever occur to you that parents who take their kids (who, of course, are always the best behaved kids on earth) dressed up to a 4-hour tasting dinner are the creepiest parents ever? Yeah, I'm sure the kid loves to dress up and sit through a 4-hour dinner in order to become a chef.

                                                                        1. re: nocharge

                                                                          I personally find it creepier to decide who the "creepiest parents ever" are. Relegating kids to fast food, and and children's menus, or deciding every meal has to fit within a time span is on the creepy side, in my opinion.

                                      2. re: Ruth Lafler

                                        ruth:
                                        restaurants are first and foremost BUSINESSES.

                                        the lifeblood of a restaurant is their group of REGULARS.

                                        the people who come once a decade are not contributing much to the ROI.

                                        when i was on an expense account i was a REGULAR at a lot of restaurants that, nowadays, i can only go to once a decade.

                                        it would be ridiculous and unfair for me to expect to be treated now the way i was treated then.

                                        in my view, a little respect for the people who have real skin in the game is absolutely appropriate .

                                        1. re: westsidegal

                                          Well then they should be honest and tell us they don't want our business upfront, instead of taking our money and treating us like second-class citizens.

                                          1. re: Ruth Lafler

                                            You've never been given a little something extra at a restaurant, or had a beverage on the house, or got a perk because a friend was working somewhere you visited? It happens everywhere.

                                      3. re: sugartoof

                                        But then you could argue that a decoy might be helpful in detecting the presence of negligent waiters, something that might be harder for a critic who has been recognized.

                                        1. re: nocharge

                                          Say what? Are critics mystery shoppers now?
                                          Are you putting decoys at every waiters sections?

                                          Is it the critics job to inform you that virtually every restaurant has poor service at times?

                                          1. re: sugartoof

                                            Yes, in a perfect world, critics should be mystery shoppers. Of course, a perfect world is hard to implement, but if decoys could be of any help, what's wrong with the NY Times having used one?

                                            1. re: nocharge

                                              This was a stunt hit piece.

                                              The critic is paid to write criticism.

                                              The final summary didn't justify taking away a star or making this standard practice.

                                              Nobody still thinks critics are truly anonymous or approaching a meal the way you or I would.

                                              1. re: sugartoof

                                                I'd point out that he didn't just take the star away because of the service, he didn't love the food: he thought the plates were overworked and busy.

                                                1. re: Ruth Lafler

                                                  Right, and there was anticipation i would lose a star.
                                                  So doing it this way, rather than focusing on the fussiness or execution, was shoddy.

                      2. I don't want my restaurant critic to be anonymous.

                        19 Replies
                        1. re: ipsedixit

                          But do you want him to be honest about the fact that he's not anonymous, or is it okay to claim that he is when he isn't?

                          1. re: Ruth Lafler

                            It's irrelevant whether it's mentioned or not.

                            When I read a restaurant reviewer by a professional review like Wells I read it with the full understanding that that's his job, and more likely than not the restaurant will recognize him/her.

                            Thus, I read a restaurant reviewer's review through that lens.

                            This is indeed one of those instances in life where it's not just the message that's important, but who's delivering the message.

                            1. re: ipsedixit

                              The problem with that is that the occasional nonrecognition may have an impact on the review without necessarily being spelled out. So now "critic recognition" becomes a hidden part of the review criteria taking on a larger importance than it deserves to the general public. Especially if the reviewer is thin-skinned with respect to service slights having been spoiled by all that special treatment.

                              1. re: nocharge

                                No review is perfect.

                                Distilled to its core, a review -- be it by Wells or some random Chowhound -- is simply one person's opinion of either one or a series of dining experiences. Nothing more, nothing less, right?

                                And, fwiw, true anonymity is never guaranteed. Wells may, for example, think he was not recognized while reviewing some restaurant in Manhattan but he doesn't know that for certain.

                                1. re: ipsedixit

                                  Yes, but the fact that the world will never be perfect and all reviewers completely anonymous shouldn't make us stick our heads in the sand when it comes to discussing review methodology. As far as I'm concerned, more anonymity is better and transparency as for when a reviewer gets recognized is a good thing.

                                  1. re: nocharge

                                    But why do you consider anonymity "better"? Better for what? And for whom?

                                    1. re: ipsedixit

                                      Better for the review being closer to what a normal diner would experience. And presumably, reviews are written with normal diners as the target audience, not special-treatment regulars who already know the restaurant.

                                      1. re: nocharge

                                        Do you really believe that's the case for professional reviewers?

                                        It's a nice idea in theory, but it rarely works in practice. Sort of like solar energy to power automobiles.

                                        It's also why we have the proliferation of sites like Yelp, Foursquare and Chowhound.

                                        The viewpoint of a professional reviewer -- regardless of anonymity -- will never replicate (much less duplicate) the one of the hoi polloi diner. For example, does the regular patron dine on someone else's tab? Does the regular diner come from a background where he/she has presumably dined at a majority of the city's (if not country's) more notable restaurants? Is the regular diner basing her menu selection not to satisfy her own particular preferences but rather for the purposes of canvasing the restaurant's breadth and repertoire?

                                        Those are the prejudices and biases that a professional restaurant reviewer brings to a review -- regardless of anonymity.

                                        1. re: ipsedixit

                                          Whether regular diners have a dining background or taste preferences similar to that of the professional reviewer is not the issue. The issue is that the Bauer situation is far from ideal. It would be pretty much impossible for him to be completely anonymous, but if it were possible, that would be the ideal situation. Or he could be completely open about who he is to the restaurant with his readers knowing that he always gets a treatment not available to most normal mortals. Instead, we get a scenario where he gives his readers the impression that he does his best to remain anonymous while given the Michael Bauer treatment in all but the few cases where the unlucky restaurant failed to recognize him.

                                          You could argue that if he gets recognized pretty much everywhere except for some few random occasions, he might as well introduce himself when he walks into the restaurant to take away "critic recognition" factor from his reviews.

                                          1. re: nocharge

                                            What difference does it make? You really think it's distortion reviews any more than their predisposed bias?

                                            They routinely champion crappy restaurants, and it's not because they got duped by the kitchen turning out all the stops.

                              2. re: ipsedixit

                                So it's okay to lie just because you personally understand what's going on? Doesn't anyone care about ethics anymore? Sadly, I think Bauer is deluding himself more than he's deluding anyone else.

                                1. re: Ruth Lafler

                                  Not sure I follow you.

                                  1. re: ipsedixit

                                    Bauer's reviews always include a line that he makes every effort to remain anonymous.

                                    1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                      Understood, but that doesn't mean Bauer is lying, right? (If I understand Ruth L. correctly).

                                      He can *try* to remain anonymous, which is different than representing that he *was* anonymous.

                                      1. re: ipsedixit

                                        Making every effort to remain anonymous would mean among other things not going to industry events, making public appearances, or choosing dining companions who are famous in the business.

                                        I think in his mind he gives himself a pass for that sort of unprofessional behavior because he assumes he'll be recognized.

                                    2. re: ipsedixit

                                      I said pretty clearly that I think it's dishonest that he claims he's making "every attempt" to be anonymous when he's clearly not. I don't know if he's lying to us when he says that or lying to himself, but he's lying either way.

                                    3. re: Ruth Lafler

                                      He's not announcing his identity or giving the kitchen notice they're on review. Perhaps it's the entire process you find a lie, but to call Bauer out is harsh....and I'm no fan of his.

                                      1. re: sugartoof

                                        I agree. But that's still a far cry from "every attempt to be anonymous." People who don't follow the food media generally probably believe that restaurants don't know he's there, and he never, ever, ever makes the disclaimer, as Wells did, that he knows he was recognized.

                                        1. re: Ruth Lafler

                                          Wells didn't actually make a disclaimer.

                                          He took the editorial license of crediting the amenities and cheery service he received to his status as a critic. At no point during his game does he say the house acknowledged him by name, or he revealed who he was.

                              3. For an amusing (and quite touching, I thought) take on this issue of the big-name critic being recognized -- written from the chef/restaurateur's perspective -- I like this Gourmet piece by Blue Hill's Dan Barber.

                                http://www.bluehillfarm.com/sites/def...

                                (In other news, I really, really miss Gourmet.)

                                3 Replies
                                1. re: abstractpoet

                                  It's a great read, thank you.

                                  1. re: abstractpoet

                                    I love this!

                                    (and also miss Gourmet)

                                    1. re: abstractpoet

                                      abstactpoet:
                                      i LOVED LOVED LOVED that article.
                                      thank you so much for posting!

                                    2. Michael Bauer's power is undeniable: ask people who run or ran any restaurant he added to or dropped from his Top 100 list. His arbitrariness, biases, disregard for professional standards, inadequate mathematical skills, and willingness to be gamed by savvy managers have a pernicious influence on the business. He should have been taken off the beat or been fired years ago, but since he's in charge of the food and wine department, in his role as a critic he's his own boss.

                                      http://web.archive.org/web/2003061805...

                                      Personally I find his reviews useless. He reviews only well-known places. By the time he publishes I've already heard a lot about the place and have either eaten there or know whether or not I want to. He never provides any new insights. But so what? Tourists and people who don't eat out much don't know that, and they go to the places on his list.

                                      13 Replies
                                      1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                        I have to agree with most of this.

                                        I don't think anyone is gaming anyone unless you count readers who might feel like sheep for getting excited about a place Bauer championed that in retrospect, was always mediocre, like Rosa Pistola. I think this is just how it works in the construct of the restaurant world.

                                        I find Bauer at fault the way I find Siestema types at fault for his bad food at ethnic dives fetish, and a reverse snobbery. These guys are all at a crossroads, because they're getting scooped by blogs, and other resources daily, so their relevance is being challenged. Wells pulled this stunt because he's having the kind of identity crises that causes one to think Mission Chinese Food isn't just good, but that it's the #1 triumph of the year.

                                        1. re: sugartoof

                                          If Bauer is fully aware that he's being gamed, as when he got the same server on all three of his visits to Pescheria, then it would be even worse.

                                          It seems more likely to me that he's kidding himself, somehow rationalizing his unprofessional behavior because he doesn't want to give up the power or lifestyle or whatever.

                                          1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                            Reviews in any field are full of bias.

                                            Much as I'd like to, I can't scapegoat Bauer for industry wide traditions.

                                            It's just as disingenuous to pretend there's any sanctity in the reviewing process which requires lazy undercover food experts to employ undercover mystery shoppers as if that's going to produce reviews with real integrity.

                                            1. re: sugartoof

                                              Just out of curiosity, what is your problem with a critic exposing something that is either a difference between special treatment and normal treatment or a case of a four-star place underperforming in terms of service? Isn't that a starting point for the kind of stuff critics are supposed to expose.

                                              Every single posting I see makes it seem more and more like you are pissed off about Daniel losing a star rather than making a coherent argument as to why delivering crappy service, for whatever reason, should be a problem that a critic should not mention.

                                              Look, if you believe that "Oops" forgetting about the cheese cart is something that happens all the time at 4-star restaurants, you really have no freaking clue about fine dining.

                                              1. re: nocharge

                                                The issue is a reviewers methodology. I could care less about Daniel.

                                                I think these fantastical ideas lack ethics in and of themselves, and I've explained why. The naive fantasy that Bauer is going to write activist exposes about classism amongst $200 tasting menu jetset, or defer his content to others doesn't even merit this much discussion. Keep dreaming.

                                                Disparities in service happen all the time at every level....my experiences rarely match that of other Chowhounders. Restaurant service is subjects to human error and much of the 4 star experience (if you've experienced it) is smoke and mirror showmanship.

                                                1. re: sugartoof

                                                  Maybe you go to a lower class of 4-star places than I do.

                                                  As for Bauer, he usually has a bunch of dining companions, partly so that they can sample more dishes, but I'm sure he takes some input from their opinions as well.

                                                  1. re: nocharge

                                                    Bauer usually has only one companion and it's usually Michael Murphy.

                                                    1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                                      Bauer has been known for having additional companions as well, but, in any case, I'm sure he takes some input from Murphy.

                                                      1. re: nocharge

                                                        Bauer's reviews typically describe some of the dishes in factual ways that don't reflect even his own opinion.

                                                    2. re: nocharge

                                                      Bauer's not supposed to review anything he hasn't tasted first hand.

                                                      "Maybe you go to a lower class of 4-star places than I do"

                                                      Think about what you just said.

                                                    3. re: sugartoof

                                                      "Restaurant service is subject to human error..."

                                                      Agreed!

                                                      "much of the 4 star experience (if you've experienced it) is smoke and mirror showmanship."

                                                      Whoa! There's one sweeping opinion.

                                                      Disclaimer: I read Bauer very little, but I gather this thread uses "four-star" in his sense. I've had some experience with Bay Area restaurants on Bauer's four-star list (and more experience with comparable restaurants in other cities and countries) and found that, with allowance for aforementioned human error, the ones with top critical praise truly earned it, with hardworking personnel, talent, and appreciative customers.

                                                      But as I also mentioned in another recent post, customers approach restaurants from diverse attitudes or personalities, which itself colors their impressions. Some people surface on food discussion boards who are consistently "unimpressed" or "gotcha" or just negative in their online interactions generally; in which case it's hardly surprising if a similar tone pervades their restaurant reports.

                                                      1. re: eatzalot

                                                        Fair enough, but hard working personnel and talent are not always enough. The difference between a 3 and a 4 star can often be illusion. Some people are so enamored with the idea of a restaurant that they lack all ability to weigh in with honest criticism that would dampen the event for them. I don't think it's outrageous to acknowledge that the high end dining experience at it's best involves showmanship, and where it's rough around the edges, a lot of smoke and mirrors. If you walk away believing the perfect dining experience, flawless from start to finish, exists...then they've done their jobs.

                                            2. re: Robert Lauriston

                                              Maybe not ALL tourists, Robert : -)

                                            3. The amount of energy spent on Michael Bauer on these boards is rather silly. Those of you who find him irrelevant still hang on his every review, looking for some perceived slight. If you already know all about the new hot spots before he reviews them, then why read him at all? If you think he does a bad job, then go out and offer him some competition. You don't feel he gives smaller places level attention, then go write 'em up. As we all know, the Cron is not the only source of restaurant reviews in the area, and we have many options. Being jeolous of someone else's job is easy, offering some real competition is something else.

                                              5 Replies
                                              1. re: budnball

                                                There is no other local critic with a fraction of Bauer's audience and no other publication with a fraction of the Chronicle's reach.

                                                Whether the kind of people who post here read his reviews or not is irrelevant to his large and pernicious influence on the local restaurant scene.

                                                1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                                  Once again, I say, offer some competition. It is easy to throw stones and complain about the big guy on campus. Yes he has advantages, but he does the work. If you have eaten at all the places he reviews before he has, then put up. And as for pernicious, really? That just sounds like sour grapes. The Chron's putting reviews behind the pay wall is the main reason I don't read his reviews much anymore and offers a great opportunity for some thing local. But the constant crowing about the same old argument is dull and sounds like jeolousy. If you can do the job better, go for it.

                                                  1. re: budnball

                                                    There's no other gig in the area with a remotely similar expense account.

                                                    I don't want Bauer's job. I found writing even one review a week too unhealthy. Writing two a week plus five blog posts plus eating all the extra meals required to update the top 100 would be hell.

                                                    1. re: budnball

                                                      Funny you should say that to him. He actually is a published print restaurant critic, as well as the former owner of a restaurant that received decent reviews.

                                                      We've already explained Bauer's impact on the Bay dining scene ad nauseum; you can read those other threads at your leisure. But it should be noted that your "put up or shut up" attitude is far worse. This is an Internet message board; he is not only welcome, but encouraged to voice his opinion. If you disagree with him, then you can explain why, or you can simply ignore him. No one is forcing you to read his posts. Simply saying "Shut up, you're just jealous" contributes nothing.

                                                      Anyhow, that is why we come on Chowhound, because we do care, and we do want to hear from people who care about food on the level of normal, non-mollycoddled patrons of restaurants. What is Chowhound, if not a repository of reviews written by people who care a lot about restaurants?

                                                      1. re: dunstable

                                                        No nobody said put up or shut up, and I know Robert's rep well and ate at his restaurant. It just seems that moaning on and on about Bauer's influence put a lie to the idea of personal conviction. It is arguing a negative. I am not a Bauer fan or apologist, he does not matter that much in the long term to me. He is one of many sources of restaurant info that I use to make decisions. And I am sure that most of the posters here have their own sources of reliable info,(this site being one). But just as I have to take into account the biases of the regular posters in this board and their agendas, so too do I have to read MB with a critical eye. That is a given. Having read the guy for 20+ years tho, I feel I can tell where his taste and mine overlap and where they don't.

                                                        The idea that he is not recognized is silly of course, even I know what he looks like.

                                                2. "[restaurants] with top critical praise truly earned it"

                                                  Bauer seldom if ever has over-praised a restaurant except when he was gamed by the staff. His first review of Nick's Cove is another classic example.

                                                  His shortfalls mostly go in the other direction:

                                                  - knocking down consistently good restaurants because of one bad meal on a revisit

                                                  - giving lower ratings for no comprehensible reason (compare what he said about the food at Miss Ollie's and Nido and try to explain how the latter got a higher food rating)

                                                  - giving lower ratings for things beyond the restaurant's control (e.g. giving Masa's under Ron Siegel only 3.5 stars because the bathrooms are in the hotel and some other customer was wearing wrinkled Dockers)

                                                  - factoring price into the food ratings, when price is rated separately and the overall rating is supposed to take all the individual ratings into account

                                                  - excluding around 35 restaurants from the top 100 for completely arbitrary reasons

                                                  9 Replies
                                                  1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                                    I can't believe I'm compelled to defend Bauer here, but there are plenty of reasons to gripe without misrepresenting his reviews or calling the limitations of a top 100 arbitrary.

                                                    Here's the Masa review:
                                                    http://www.sfgate.com/restaurants/din...

                                                    Citing a restaurants lack of a dress requirement is fair game.
                                                    Having to leave a fine dining setting to use a bathroom, located in a "frayed lobby" effects the ambience and experience, and that's also fair game. It's entirely within a restaurants control where they open their establishment, and if they chose to build bathroom facilities. If it contributed to losing a half star, it was because they cut corners.

                                                    1. re: sugartoof

                                                      If I remember correctly, Masa's bathrooms were in the same place even when it had 4 stars under some of its previous chefs.

                                                      1. re: nocharge

                                                        So you're saying once you give a place 4 stars you shouldn't take notice of any new details that detract from the fine dining experience when you return years later to reassess?

                                                        Anyway, Robert decide it must have been about the bathrooms, but it's not clear why Masa had a half star deducted.

                                                        1. re: sugartoof

                                                          If it wasn't something that changed, I could see how the restaurant would be pissed off about it. Critics should be free to change their perspectives, of course.

                                                          1. re: nocharge

                                                            Again, it's dubious to complain that his star system is abstract in one breath, and then claim to know why a place earned or didn't earn it's rating in the next.

                                                            And if you think it's controversial to scrutinize details they missed he first time, imagine bringing in a decoy to purposely target those details and...

                                                      2. re: sugartoof

                                                        But the idea of downgrading a well established restaurant because of one bad meal (often just one bad dish, or even one component of a dish),thus dropping them from the top 100 or reducing their star rating, while he claims to make at least three visits to a new restaurant before rating shows no understanding of the realities of the restaurant business and is inexcusable. I had a friend whose restaurant was updated years ago, giving immense credit to the fact that the owner was working the door, when he was just filling in and it was the one time that year he actually worked a service.

                                                        1. re: bdl

                                                          I fail to see how his misunderstanding the owners presence at the door really makes any difference. Do we need that anecdote to know Bauer lacks credibility? Likewise, do you really expect him to make multiple visits to all 100 places?

                                                          The Top 100's are the most influenced and partial of all the review editorials, by the way. I don't think that's any secret. I'm much more offended by what he does include than what he's left out.

                                                      3. re: Robert Lauriston

                                                        I recently saw something he wrote in which he said, "Even I get confused by my star ratings sometimes!" Um.

                                                        1. re: dunstable

                                                          Yes, Bauer's blog posts are sometimes so frank that it seems impossible he has a clue how much he's revealing.

                                                      4. One thing to remember is that people often read columnists not for the information or point-of-view they present, but rather as something entertaining to read. I believe that a lot of Bauer's readers don't take him that seriously. And quite a few read the columns to feel in-touch with their city environment.

                                                        1 Reply
                                                        1. re: Tripeler

                                                          Absolutely. And I think that if you have figured out how a critic's taste relates to your own, you can find value in his reviews even if you don't share exactly the same preferences as I think budnball already pointed out.

                                                        2. I can't believe all of you wrote so much about bauer in the last 4 days.

                                                          Let me just give one perspective: I love LA's food writing. The LA Weekly has a great set of visitors guides that vastly helped me plan trips, and were accurate. There seem to be about 5 people writing for the Weekly but standards are high. The LA Times also has about 3 writes but mostly J Gold, who writes like a house on fire but also knows his food - "chowhound style". Eater is doing well in LA too (pretty well in SF too).

                                                          It's too bad SF can't have food reviews as good as LA - OTOH, with the bad reviewing here, Chowhound was formed (board 1 is northern california for a reason).

                                                          14 Replies
                                                          1. re: bbulkow

                                                            Excellent point. Michael Bauer probably does deserve some credit for this board being so active.

                                                            Much of the material in the LA Weekly's archive was written by Jonathan Gold, who returned to the Times only last year. By comparison, Michael Bauer is a lazy critic without much appetite who doesn't eat out all that often.

                                                            1. re: bbulkow

                                                              "OTOH, with the bad reviewing here, Chowhound was formed (board 1 is northern california for a reason)."

                                                              An interesting contrast to the perspective in a recent early-days thread:

                                                              "those of you who weren't here in the early days of Chowhound, you'll notice how New York-centric we were, with the only American regional boards outside of the tri-state area all lumped together under 'Elsewhere in America' "

                                                              http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/909894

                                                              I do know however (from witnessing at the time) that principal pre-CH internet food forums were indeed launched in the Bay Area. One at Berkeley, 1982 (still operating); another, with the then-new HTTP format, at Stanford in 1993.

                                                              During the years when the internet was growing rapidly in use but not yet mainstream, the Bay Area was one of its centers, while major metro regions like NYC were online backwaters. One current forum manager complains that in NYC he had trouble getting internet email/news access as late as 1994, when everyone in the Bay Area who wanted it had access by 1985. So there are other historical factors here besides the quality of Bay Area restaurant journalism. (Which, frankly, I thought was better, richer, in the 1970s and especially 1980s, due partly to figures like the lamented Unterman.)

                                                              1. re: eatzalot

                                                                Lots of people in the Bay Area could post on Usenet in the late 80s and early 90s, but they all got it through a university or tech company or something like that.

                                                                I don't believe anyone here could just pay for access to Usenet before 1993, just months before before AOL added it and anyone could get it. I was writing about that kind of stuff for a living and actively looking.

                                                                1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                                                  I for one was sticking here to subject matter that I know in some depth and, as I mentioned, experienced first-hand.

                                                                  The "all got it through a university or tech company or something like that" characterization accurately describes a certain period of internet history, but your chronology is off, Robert. That characterization fits accurately from about 1975 through 1985, and in fact, figures in the relatively large Bay Area population that had pre-public Internet access -- because the Bay Area had disproportionate populations with work or university access to computers, in turn internet-connected (although that history is mostly off the radar of people who were not personally in such situations at the time).

                                                                  Public access to internet email and news was variously available around the US from enterprising firms by the middle 1980s as evident in postings from those sites at the time (and in archives); the Bay Area had a particularly large one, WELL (originally the Whole Earth 'Lectronic Link), which made these services available to the Bay Area public by phone dial-up in 1985, in fact some of my nontechnical East-Bay friends soon surfaced online by that route. Smaller Bay Area public-access firms also came and went though 1980s and very early 1990s before larger firms became interested, began buying them up, and more aggressively marketing these services.

                                                                  Your mention of AOL in 1993 is historically significant but for a different reason. For about a decade until the middle 1990s, several independent computer networking firms (incl. but not limited to CompuServe, Prodigy Interactive, and AOL) pursued a business model as independent from and, in effect, competitive with the relentlessly growing, relatively anarchic internet. One good history details their slow and reluctant opening of internet tools to their paid subscribers, incomplete still by 1995, before all of those firms morphed into ISPs (merging into the internet proper) or closed shop (then wrote Wikipedia articles grandly each crediting themselves for having effectively started the internet). Examples like WELL demonstrate that in fact, had those large network-services firms chosen to embrace the internet in the 1980s, their subscribers might have been using it 10 years sooner; fewer people like yourself, Robert, would report personal frustration getting early internet access; and today we might have far fewer of the pervasive popular misconceptions about internet history.

                                                                  1. re: eatzalot

                                                                    This is getting a little far afield for Chowhound, so we hope people can circle back around to subjects more related to food. Thanks!

                                                                    1. re: The Chowhound Team

                                                                      Point taken; merely clarifying something I'd mentioned earlier (which sees a lot of popular misconception) in context of online vs print food critics in the Bay Area.

                                                                    2. re: eatzalot

                                                                      I think ba.food's inferior signal-to-noise ratio was a major factor in Chowhound being quickly adopted hereabouts.

                                                                      My Well account dates back to 1987 but I wasn't able to access ba.food through the system until 1993.

                                                                      1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                                                        Chowhound is indeed compared to ba.food and the like in some longstanding CH FAQ; unmoderated newsgroups have noise problems, as you mention. ba.food (at its best, IMO, around 1989-1993) was a "local" newsgroup then -- limited backbone distribution. rec.food.cooking, which I cited in the linked recent CH topic, and others, also carried restaurant traffic.

                                                                        I have plenty of 1980s newsgroup food postings archived offline from WELL subscribers. Here's a random, public, 1987 posting re Anaheim eateries from Glenn Tenney on WELL (a frequent poster then):

                                                                        https://groups.google.com/forum/#!top...

                                                                        1. re: eatzalot

                                                                          The appearance of Well email addresses on Usenet prior to 1993 doesn't mean that most subscribers could use the system to post to Usenet.

                                                                          1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                                                            Hey, I can only testify to what I experienced first-hand, and what is a matter of record. I don't know what the particualr issues may have been with your own internet access.

                                                                            WELL offered public access to internet email and newsgroups starting 1985 (April, as I recall from published history). No one I know who subscribed to WELL had any problem posting on newsgroups about food in the 1980s if they wanted to.

                                                                            Quod Erat Demonstrandum, I won't belabor it.

                                                                            1. re: eatzalot

                                                                              It was tedious, but it was possible.

                                                                  2. re: eatzalot

                                                                    Of course the Bay Area had the earliest access publicly to Bulletin Board Systems, and home services like Well/Source. Chances are there were local food related boards, where you could dial in to a privately run forum advertised in the classifieds, almost always for free and open to the public.

                                                                    More importantly, it's true that the local reviewers took on a Chowhound like mindset in the 70's which spawned a trend of people taking day trips to farms, driving 2 hours to a suburb, or visiting an undesirable neighborhood for a hole in the wall, because of a single review. That period had a profound effect on the current scene, but it all went out of style around the mid-late 80's when fine dining, and deconstructed modern art influenced food started to boom.

                                                                    New York's trajectory was entirely different, with entire books getting published collecting the chowhoundish destinations, while the reviewers mostly neglected them unless there was a "Best of" roundup written like a human interest story. The alternative presses started to focus on those cheaper, ethnic places because it reflected on the economic realities of their readership at the time. Places like DiFara's pizza were unknown until the mid-90's, and the person reviewing Daniel wasn't really expected to provide comprehensive food coverage the way they have to today.

                                                                    I don't know why or how this forum got named board 1 (maybe something to do with where the web design was initially done?) but I can't believe anyone seriously thinks there's significance behind it.

                                                                  3. re: bbulkow

                                                                    The various boards became numbered in the url's when Chow.com launched the new software in 2006. Have never asked the question, but I assumed the SF Bay Area board was #1 because CNET/Chow's headquarters is San Francisco and this board was probably the first implemented for testing the programming.

                                                                    1. re: bbulkow

                                                                      The geographic layout, lots of driving and traffic from hell in LA dictates better restaurant reviews. In the Bay Area if you cover SF and Oak/Berk you have 70-80% of things covered, hence one major metro can dominate the local coverage. Can't do that in LA and thus the Weekly has some say.

                                                                      The other thing is the quality of newspapers. SF Chron vs. LA Times. LAT use to be a very good newspaper and put resources behind coverage...can't say that about the Chron.

                                                                    2. Bauer made every attempt to remain anonymous by attending another industry fundraiser and blogging about it.

                                                                      http://insidescoopsf.sfgate.com/blog/...

                                                                      2 Replies
                                                                      1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                                                        Well, at least he was low-key during the event, at least during the period I was there (I left shortly after the last course). But yes, there were plenty of industry people there in addition to the 30 or so chefs and sommeliers that headlined the event -- not very surprising, perhaps, given that the event was cosponsored by the Chronicle and the Golden Gate Restaurant Association.

                                                                        The more I think about it, at this point, he should just give up on any pretense when it comes to attempting to remain anonymous. He should make his reservations anonymously, of course, which is not too hard, but as soon as he enters a restaurant, he should announce himself. That way, he would level the playing field and not penalize the few unlucky places where he isn't recognized instantaneously. And it would end the charade of him pretending to try to be anonymous and restaurants not acknowledging that he is recognized for fear of being docked points for special treatment.

                                                                        If a reviewer can remain anonymous 90+ percent of the time, it's probably a good thing. But if a reviewer gets recognized 90+ percent of the time, the whole anonymity thing becomes a joke.

                                                                        1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                                                          The entire discussion over anonymity misses the elephant in the room here:

                                                                          The Chronicle is sponsoring food events.
                                                                          Restaurants are paying for ads, or offering services for events.
                                                                          The food editor is both directly and indirectly involved in such a business arrangement.

                                                                          Lots of ethical issues to chomp on.