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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.' http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/9050...

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 ba.food 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.

                      2. I wouldn't really call Michael Bauer a validator. I know being on his top 100 is good for business but otherwise I'm not sure he has much effect beyond the three- or four-week surge after a review. His ratings certainly don't have the impact two or three Michelin stars do.

                        He gave La Suite a very positive review because they snowed him. It failed within a year because the word of mouth was that the service and food were horribly inconsistent.

                        He didn't get what Commis was doing, gave it two and a half stars in 2009, and has ignored it since, but it succeeded anyway.

                        He gave Saison only three stars but they still charge more than any of the places he gave four stars.

                        17 Replies
                        1. re: Robert Lauriston

                          Well he's certainly not a "discoverer."

                          1. re: dunstable

                            Bauer does visit more undiscovered places as due dilligence then we realize, but the problem is he never finds merit to review them.

                            1. re: sugartoof

                              Bauer never goes anywhere that's off the Chowhound radar. He visits more places than he reviews, but if they don't make the cut he hands them off to one of his stringers (who aren't allowed to award more than three stars).

                              1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                Has any of his stringers ever awarded as much as three stars? I got the impression that if Bauer doesn't like a place, it will not get a review at all unless it's a high-profile enough place that a bad review would be in the interest of the general public. Bauer tends not to write bad reviews about smaller, local places, they will just not get a review, and I would say that's to his credit.

                                1. re: nocharge

                                  Bauer visits a lot of the places that the stringers eventually review. He occasionally alludes to them in his blog. People in the business know that because they see him come in once, he doesn't show up again, and eventually the review ends up being written by someone else.

                                  1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                    I guess the question is to what extent the stringer reviews are for places he visited, but didn't care for, or just places that he didn't bother to visit because he wouldn't consider them "major" enough.

                                    1. re: nocharge

                                      In his own words, Bauer reviews restaurants that "would likely attract diners from all over the Bay Area," that offer an "unusual concept," or that have "received a lot of publicity before opening."

                                      If he goes to a place thinking it might be a destination and decides it's a "two-star neighborhood spot," he hands it off to a stringer.

                                      1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                        I agree with that. The question is to what extent the stringer reviews are for places he even bothered to visit.

                                        1. re: nocharge

                                          It seems like the Chron is publishing fewer stringer reviews, so maybe moot.

                                          You know he's not eating at places like Guddu de Karahi or Champa Garden.

                                  2. re: nocharge

                                    "Bauer tends not to write bad reviews about smaller, local places, they will just not get a review, and I would say that's to his credit."

                                    Exactly this.

                                    Sadly, these places would probably benefit from even a bad Bauer review, but he doesn't see it that way, and he's right not to pick on the underdogs.

                                    1. re: sugartoof

                                      "Sadly, these places would probably benefit from even a bad Bauer review, but he doesn't see it that way, and he's right not to pick on the underdogs."

                                      Here is an anecdote about a place that doesn't exist anymore (due to landlord issues) and benefitting from a Bauer review:

                                      The place was modest and would likely fly under the radar. But the owner kept emailing Bauer suggesting that he should review it. Eventually, Bauer did and and gave it two stars. You could argue that two stars is not an awful lot, but the place was low-key enough that it couldn't conceivably have gotten a whole lot more stars than that. Moreover, the tone of the review was reasonably positive. The result: an upswing in revenue of about 30 percent, at least for a while.

                                      Here is the review:

                                      BTW, one of the chefs who worked there went on to open his own place, Bar Crudo.

                                      1. re: nocharge

                                        Thanks for the example. Any high profile PR is likely good. There's just so many places in SF, it's easy to get buried.

                                        If there's another thing about Bauer, he doesn't travel far and mostly to places that are within his comfort zone.

                                        To me it's the comfort zone thing that is an issue because it creates a feedback loop...many of the restaurants start looking, feeling and serving the same stuff because of the power a Chron review has.

                                        I wish someone would review the mom and pop and ethnic places for the Chron so those places would get some PR. It's probably better Bauer doesn't simply because it's beyond his palette or understanding.

                                  3. re: Robert Lauriston

                                    "Bauer never goes anywhere that's off the Chowhound radar. "

                                    He actually has.

                                    I'm not sure that's to his credit, or just a reflection of the current state of the CH radar.

                                    1. re: sugartoof

                                      Can you cite one place Bauer went that was off the Chowhound radar? In God we trust, all others bring data.

                                        1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                          Just a quick glimpse at Bauer's recent reviews turns up Stones Throw and Al Romana. They've both been name called here but no reports.

                                          1. re: sugartoof

                                            This board does have something of a blind spot for Nob Hill and Russian Hill.

                              2. This posting and topic has almost nothing to do with the bay area.

                                The business of reviewing requires balancing the amount of money made per article with the number of restaurants visited. While this seems obvious, the reality is that a professional can't simply eat all the restaurants, and must listen to friends, surf review sites. When I was writing, I'd always be asking friends about standouts in their area. Then I'd so a single visit, and see if I could craft a story arc around the experience.

                                Which brings us to the "restaurant review" in which 650 words is dedicated to a single restaurant and only 50 a year can be published. This form requires covering only restaurants where you have a strong opinion or position to write. This is simply from the perspective of the newspaper, which requires a number of viewers per dollars spent per review. In my opinion, simply describing the restaurant and food is not enough, I believe J Gold is a case in point. His ledes are exceptional.

                                I found that a board like CH could be a good feeder for article ideas, because enough people ate enough smaller and more unusual restaurants. I find more recently repeats of the same topics and same restaurants.

                                I find myself bored by the classic format, and found (in the SJ Metro) a willingness to step outside formula. Regrettably, support from the paper itself was poor ( I look at the poor editing and fact checking of those pieces and cringe ), as well as pay that didn't cover expenses. Lack of investment - non-monetary investment of training and mentor ship - would go a long way.

                                To discuss more would become a topic of the newspaper and media business, beyond the topic of this board.

                                I expect this topic and my response to be moderated pretty quickly, so anyone who wants to discuss can reach my via personal mail.

                                9 Replies
                                1. re: bbulkow

                                  I asked: 'I'd be interested to hear of any regular professional (current or past) around here who might fit the label "discoverer." ' And answers have come back. Luke Tsai, and stuff I didn't know about John Birdsall.

                                  I didn't start this to discuss the subject beyond the Bay Area. It's about Bay Area critics, including ones not everyone knows about. You yourself have added to it, in describing experience with the Metro.

                                  I was one of the people Stett Holbrook approached about taking over his old role there, by the way. This has happened with other local publications, and I've always refused it because of reasons similar to those you cited. I had some past serious journalistic experience on other topics, so knew some of the issues already.

                                  Several years ago, I did recruit a friend to take another such restaurant-critic position offered to me. He did a wonderful job, still locally remembered. With some class as a writer (not writing in clich├ęs like "didn't disappoint," misusing jargon like "four-top," and all that). And, privately reported back to me: pay barely covering expenses, bizarre wordcount constraints at times, editorial pressures to support the advertising side, etc etc. The usual stuff.

                                  1. re: eatzalot

                                    When I wrote reviews for the East Bay Express and SF Weekly I never got any pressure of any sort except to stay within my budget.

                                    The pay and expense budget were not adequate to cover the actual expenses of doing it the way I thought it should be done, so I lost money doing it.

                                  2. re: bbulkow

                                    Michael Bauer writes two reviews a week plus the annual the Top 100.

                                    He pretty much does eat at every "fine dining" restaurant in SF, Berkeley, Oakland, and the wine country.

                                    1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                      So, based on your experience, he must be losing a tremendous amount of money doing that?

                                      I guess he deserves some commendation for his public service.

                                      I wonder what his second job is that allows him to do that is?

                                      1. re: BacoMan

                                        I believe Bauer's expense account covers all of his review meals. None of the other critics have that kind of budget. According to Audrey Cooper, the managing editor, is reviews get higher page counts than anything else on sfgate.com.

                                        Bauer's also the executive editor of the food and wine section, which probably means he's in charge of his own expense account. Having that job allowed him to get rid of Unterman and Sesser so he could take their columns.

                                        1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                          No one in any organization that I've ever heard of, except the very top boss (maybe), gets to approve their own expense report. That's just silly.

                                          1. re: c oliver

                                            Ok, let's put it another way: as the managing editor of the food section he is responsible for both putting together the budget for his department and allocating the funds. Presumably he budgets and/or allocates enough to cover his expenses. As he should. It's his job, he needs to make a living at it!

                                          2. re: Robert Lauriston

                                            Sounds like a smart guy.

                                            But in general, I was just curious, do the majority of food critics come from independent wealth, and just do it for fun?

                                            It's incredible that a whole industry is built up out of such people.

                                            1. re: BacoMan

                                              It's hardly an industry. Even the newspaper business in general is evaporating.

                                              There aren't very many paid critics around here. At this point I think they're all full-time editorial staffers who spend most of their time doing other things or freelancers. Generally they stay within their budgets, which you can see by the limited number of dishes they report on.

                                    2. We're in an age where restaurants want to be found out before they even have investors or a menu set.

                                      There are blogs devoted to "discovery", and the roles have changed.

                                      What's left are the smaller, ethnic holes in the wall, and really off the beaten track stuff, not the high end dining with press releases - so the discussion is really, who still covers that? Not a lot is slipping through the cracks, but at the same time, there are more restaurants in the Bay Area, with more suburbs considered relevant, and more Chowhound types as an audience. There are people who make it their entire identity to go out and eat, and be in the know, or send in tips if they see a sign going up on a space, or a restaurant going dark, so of course that marginalizes the professionals. The technology has Democratized food writing, but in a way, we're left with mostly the "validators" as the OP puts it.

                                      Discussions on CH are increasingly "validator" in nature now. I can't think of a recent Bay Area discovery anyone in the CH community made - so if we're not doing it, how do we expect the food writers to do it?

                                      4 Replies
                                      1. re: sugartoof

                                        I think Chowhound with some regularity identifies standout places that get lost in the uncritical noise on Yelp.

                                        To name a few recent examples, I would likely not have tried Anjappar Chettinad, Cooking Papa, Mumbai Chowk, or Mediterranean Wraps without the posts I saw here.

                                        1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                          I appreciate the examples but they all have hundreds of reviews on Yelp. They also remind me why San Francisco should have been given it's own forum on CH.

                                          I'm not challenging the usefulness of Chowhound, I'm merely saying "Discoveries" aren't making up the bulk of activity like in the past. Mind you, I would also argue that outlets like this one have changed the role of the "off the beaten track" reviewers.

                                          1. re: sugartoof

                                            Here's a perfect example of how Chowhound can provide useful advice that you can't extrapolate from the sea of uninformed babble on Yelp:


                                            1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                              That has nothing to do with discoveries and everything to do with your preference for the babble.

                                      2. Re: Discovery - merely eating at a place doesn't in itself constitute discovery. Discovery is the recognition of greatness, be it in a single dish or the overall ability of a restaurant.

                                        3 Replies
                                        1. re: limster

                                          Or greatness in a chef, perhaps?

                                          1. re: eatzalot

                                            Sure, and in my mind that's usually measured outwardly by the quality of food.

                                          2. re: limster

                                            Well said.

                                            That recognition has traditionally come from knowledgeable critics with wide audiences. On forums such as chowhound, that recognition can emerge through The collective wisdom of the discussion.

                                          3. I find more value in a critic giving a negative review to a well-publicized restaurant (invalidating), and positive recognition of a lesser-known restaurant (discovery).

                                            Bauer almost exclusively covers restaurants with good publicists or high profile chefs--- I find it unlikely, 3 months after a place opens, he will be the first person to (publicly) recognize a place's greatness.

                                            1. The number of posters in this thread is about 12 and the number of regular posters to the SF Bay Area board is less than 100. Most of these are Semi-pro diners already and Bauer just is not talkng to you. He is talking to middle aged - middle class people who are looking for something new but not wanting to take a chance on the untried and unknown. None of the posters in this thread need the service that he provides so why bitch. Ive been reading this guy for 25+ years and he has never been the go-to for hole-in-the-wall, ethnic food, so why should we expect something different now?
                                              He is one of many sources of information and one I can rely on because I know where his tastes and mine agree and where they diverge.