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Mar 14, 2014 11:38 AM

SF-area restaurant critics: Validators vs Discoverers

This is about a larger phenomenon, spun off latest Michael Bauer thread, wherein bacoman wrote that current LA critic J. Gold 'tends to be a "validator" rather than a discoverer.'

After long attention to restaurant journalists, especially since the 1980s, and discussing some of this with a few of them, I estimate the "Validator" description is overwhelmingly the rule, for professional critics. Whether or not most people perceive that.

It may be less obvious if a reviewer covers a large area with many restaurants new to you, but it surfaces when you talk to individual restaurants and their local followings.

It surfaced in the Chron's Unterman/Sesser heyday (80s to early 90s). I remember two interesting new Berkeley restaurants that had developed local fans. Then, each got recognized by Unterman et al., and soon was crowded with new, often short-term, Chronicle-reading customers. One owner told me it threw off her planning, and so crowded out the already established local regulars that she wondered if her business would even survive.

In those days, if you were discussing Bay Area restaurants on the internet, you did it on the newsgroup, which often carried new-restaurant buzz like CH today. And comments about the newspaper critics.

But where do these critics and their editors get ideas of where to visit? Many mention (either in their writing or privately) checking out online sites like CH. And they get tips directly from the same sort of folk who post here.

Our local papers in the lower peninsula wait, by policy, three months before assigning a critic even to a "hot" new restaurant. It's meant to avoid new-restaurant-issue distractions. But also, by that time, some locals will have tried the new restaurant several times, and know far more about it than the professional newcomer.

So I see the restaurant journalist as popularizer, or mainstreamer, of restaurant awareness that's already well established among a random and unpredictable set of local and adventurous diners -- not, itself, a convenient resource for the general public, yet accessible online.

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  1. "So I see the restaurant journalist as popularizer, or mainstreamer, of restaurant awareness that's already well established among a random and unpredictable set of local and adventurous diners -- not, itself, a convenient resource for the general public, yet accessible online."

    Well, that assumes that the general public wants to be on the absolute razor edge of the dining scene.

    Personally, I am very happy to make my selections from vetted places that professionals have gone to after the mass of the "avant garde" has given them a place in the dining scene.

    I give major kudos to those of you who go out and have tons of shitty meals at mediocre (or worse) restaurants in order to find the good ones, but nothing ruins my day more than having a shit meal. So I'm not looking to be part of that avant garde of diners.

    The professional food critics thus serve to produce finely detailed information regarding those places that have been discovered by the avant garde, which is immensely useful to those of us not willing to go spend our money on tons of shitty meals to find the good/great ones, or who work in the food industry.

    10 Replies
    1. re: BacoMan

      " that assumes that the general public wants to be on the absolute razor edge of the dining scene."

      I was just developing on your own theme of "validators" like J. Gold, vs "discoverers," in restaurant journalism.

      My observation in the Bay Area has been that in practice, the professional critics have served by nature as "validators." Someone seeking true "discoverers" finds other media. I'd be interested to hear of any regular professional (current or past) around here who might fit the label "discoverer."

      1. re: eatzalot

        I would also be interested to find such a critic. It seems like most likely they don't exist. But who knows?

        how does Kaufman in SF (Tasting Table) find his places?

        1. re: BacoMan

          When Kauffman was with the East Bay Express, he would get tips from foodie friends and I know he got some from chowhound. Now that he's with Tasting Table, I my guess is he has a wide network of tipsters.

          1. re: Ruth Lafler

            I have a serious question, if it's not the discovery really, what is it that professional food critics bring to the table in the food industry?

            How do you make a name for yourself as one?

            1. re: BacoMan

              One thing that I appreciate is someone who actually knows how to write. Seems obvious but it's not always. Frank Bruni who used to be the restaurant person for the NYT now has his own column that has nothing to do with food. IMO, he's a brilliant writer regardless of the subject. I see here on CH those who can write and those who can't (I'm in the latter group so keep my 'reviews' brief). When the person writes well, I can almost see and taste the food. My two cents.

              1. re: c oliver

                I don't follow sports. But I used to devour every column by NYT sports writer George Vecsey. Brilliant writing.

              2. re: BacoMan

                "what is it that professional food critics bring to the table in the food industry?"

                There's the popularization I cited earlier. What might be a Validator role to people near a newish restaurant, or who regularly check out new places, is still a Discoverer to everyone else. Like those 1980s Chronicle readers I mentioned, who mobbed a couple of new Berkeley restaurants once written up. The critics (Unterman and Sesser) made the restaurants widely fashionable.

                A print critic I had some contact with formerly covered silicon valley, a vast region. He widened the visibility of restaurants often already well known in their particular towns. He was (per c oliver) quite a good and experienced writer. Moreover he brought knowledge of food and its history -- a person many people would want to read, on food, rather than just a person who'd like to write about it. (Which according to Jon Carroll some years back, describes everyone.)

                In "The Taste of America," the Hesses asked rhetorically why on earth anyone should read a restaurant critic who had the job simply because of wanting it -- any more than they should vote for someone because that person wanted to be President?

                1. re: BacoMan

                  I value Kauffman and Unterman because I've found I can trust their recommendations, which I guess means we have similar taste. Both are very good at evoking the experience.

                  Bauer rarely pans anyplace that I like, but the small portion of his reviews where he talks about the food often reads like he was working from photographs.

            2. re: eatzalot

              Luke Tsai has clued me into some places in the East Bay that were off my radar. I don't think he's beating the hardcore CHs to anything, but neither is he rubber stamping established choices. I also like Jonathan Kaufman, as Robert Lauriston has mentioned.

              1. re: calny

                Thanks calny. Looks like Luke Thai writes for the EBX.

                (Same venerable tabloid where Alice Kahn popularized the word "Yuppie" in a long cover story over 30 years ago, "Yuppie!," introducing the memorable couple Dirk and Bree, both 32.2 years old, in a story that has prompted some garbled recent references online. But a striking story at the time, so I saved several copies of the issue, and still have them somewhere.)

                Good story, I still have several copies of that issue stored somewhere.)

          2. I go to a lot of restaurants on opening day, but I usually refrain from making public comments about them because of the obvious issues with brand new restaurants that make professional critics holding off reviewing them until they have been open for a while.

            Going to a restaurant on opening day can be quite interesting if you know what to look for rather than just having a dining-out experience. Other than giving you bragging rights ("Yeah, I've already been there.") it can tell you a lot about where the restaurant is heading even if it's still a bit of work in progress. The difference can be staggering between places that are obviously clueless and places that are very professionally run and will likely be very good with a little fine-tuning. The most disappointing opening-day dinner I ever had was at Zinnia. I was a huge fan of Myth and ate there maybe once a week, so when the chef opened a place a block away, I had extremely high expectations. On opening night, the dining room was less than half full and they had less than half the staff they needed to adequately handle that kind of crowd. Immediately filed as "going out of business". Not surprisingly, it didn't last very long.

            1. John Birdsall does his homework. While he was at the Express he ate at every restaurant in Fruitvale and he dug up some places in Richmond that had never been mentioned here.

              5 Replies
              1. re: Robert Lauriston

                That sounds like a real Discoverer, the rare exception to the rule I see.

                1. re: eatzalot

                  How so? Fruitvale is a compressed area and it's where people go to find something under the radar. It sounds more like job security, plus the limitations of his own backyard would play a part.

                  1. re: sugartoof

                    I'd say the basic metric, the benchmark, is whether the critic leads or follows online buzz about a given restaurant. That's a concise definition of what I mean by "Discoverer," and it can be checked objectively.

                    To the extent that Birdsall truly "did his homework," or reported "places in Richmond" if they weren't already famous online, he was a Discoverer in the full sense. Note I said online, not just Chowhound. (I've found CH has blind spots for some parts of the Bay Area -- like all sites, it reflects the interests of its particular contributors.)

                    1. re: eatzalot

                      Sure, and I guess he doesn't have to be good at his job, but it's his turf, so I don't think mining the obvious neighborhoods like Fruitvale takes much credit. I'm not arguing against him so much as the designations this thread is based on.

                      1. re: sugartoof

                        Birdsall went way beyond "mining the obvious" in that piece:


                        Bill Addison did a similar thing in his unfortunately short tenure at the Chron:


              2. Sometimes I find their Bargain Bites reviews useful. Like if they write a little blurb about a hole in the wall and I later happen to walk past it, I'm more likely to give it a shot.

                1. The internet and review sites and CH changed the game of discovery vs. validation. There simply aren't very many undiscovered places, and/or they get covered quickly. Heck on Yelp there are reviews of places before they open, just so they can be first.

                  You simply can't out-run the masses and smartphone technology. Not a bad thing but not the same.

                  It use to be you'd get lost or end up somewhere like the Sonoma coast and you'd have to guess or pick a local place to eat from clues...but now with smartphones (or pre-trip research) you can check out ratings and reviews.

                  I see restaurant journalism as filters and reference info because frankly you can find most trends or reviews here on CH before you can in a paper, and at least there's some kind of discovery.

                  3 Replies
                  1. re: ML8000

                    Frankly, I'm thankful for that lag. It gives me a chance to eat at future It spots before they become crowded and irritating. I'm a little worried that this might happen to Kin Khao -- it's not exactly a huge space.

                    1. re: ML8000

                      Just about everyplace is on Yelp, but it's often useless at identifying standout places in a crowded category or neighborhood. For example, in Burmese restaurants, #1 is a pop-up, #2 is a food truck, and #3 is Burma Superstar.

                      So there's plenty of room for a hard-working reviewer to provide expert advice.

                      1. re: ML8000

                        "Heck on Yelp there are reviews of places before they open, just so they can be first."

                        Or because they are employees, owners, or their friends, shilling after enjoying "comped" staff-training meals. That has become the norm, in my part of the Bay Area, despite Yelp's claimed policies and guidelines, and even when the shilling is so gross that people flag it.