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Jul 25, 2013 08:17 AM

SF Chron restaurant critic anonymity (redux)

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.

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  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.

                  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:

                        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

                                        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: 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.


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

                                3 Replies
                                    1. re: abstractpoet

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