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On Bauer’s Top 100 Restaurants

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Michael Bauer, the San Francisco Chronicle’s influential restaurant critic, is out with his Top 100 Restaurants list for 2016. A close reading of it provides some glimpses into dining and other trends affecting the Bay Area.

For one, we’re definitely out of the doldrums of the Great Recession. In the dismal years 2009-2012, there was a steady drumbeat of restaurant closures in San Francisco. My town, Oakland, was the beneficiary, because lots of chefs moved their restaurants here, thus helping to fuel Oakland’s growth, especially Uptown; but it was sad to see so many places close in S.F., and so many staff lose their jobs.

Now, San Francisco’s restaurant scene is livelier and more diverse than ever. Bauer pays homage to this diversity, featuring not only old standbys like Acquerello, Commonwealth, Piperade and Boulevard, but newer ones, including Al’s Place—an inexpensive, veggie-centric (but not vegetarian) spot in the Valencia Corridor, Belga, which as the name suggests stars Belgian food, and Comal, a Mexican eaterie that’s actually is in Berkeley (and is owned by Phish’s ex-manager). In fact, I can’t remember so many Mexican restaurants on previous lists as there are now on Bauer’s.

Bauer’s range of cuisines and restaurant styles is eclectic. As he writes in his introduction, among the “predominant trends we see today” are “shorter, more focused menus…increasing use of the prix fixe format…” and—importantly—“the elevation of casual-quick service to fine-dining standards.”

Each of these trends is noteworthy. Shorter menus (and wine lists) are a welcome development; people don’t want to wade through reams of data and then feel overwhelmed in making their choices. In complicated times like ours, we want simple pleasures when we dine out. It’s true, also, that a shorter menu means the kitchen can focus more on what they do best (instead of spreading their time and talents too broadly), and the chefs also can adhere more closely to farm-to-table and locovore standards. The prix fixe format is connected to this trend towards brevity: no fussing and mussing over who pays what (we’re all sharing everything today anyway, aren’t we?), no fussy deliberation over what entrée goes with what side dish, a more relaxed experience for the diner, just what-you-see-is-what-you-get. I like that Prix fixe also means the chef is doing food she loves and wants to concentrate on.

But it’s “the elevation of casual-quick” that I really like. We’ve seen this coming for years, with the increasing quality and interest value of bar food to the to-go cuisine of markets like Whole Foods and Wegman’s. When I moved to San Francisco in the late 1970s, there were “good” restaurants you had to dress up for, and “family style” restaurants you didn’t. I first noticed the change at the old Lulu, South of Market, where the food was incredible but it felt more like a block party than did Ernie’s stuffy atmosphere, and you could wear jeans, sneakers, whatever, and still dine like a king or (more appropriate to San Francisco, a queen). Lulu’s wine list also was revolutionary: it moved away from the standards to feature interesting, inexpensive wines by the glass from places around the world. In the last few years we’ve seen this repeated time and again; here in Oakland, Boot & Shoe Service and Pizzaiolo (also on the Top 100 list) were just such spots, catering to a tattooed hipster crowd, but with food that’s absolutely divine. Perhaps the poster child for this casual-but-upscale is Hawker Fare, also on Bauer’s list, and just a few blocks from my house.

The same trends we see in restaurants can be discerned in the wine scene. “Casual-quick” is what diners, especially Millennials, are looking for in wine, too: easy-drinking, interesting stuff that won’t cost an arm and a leg–generally lower in alcohol and oak, more streamlined, but no less “fancy”—wines that can elevate a meal, but that in turn can be elevated by the food.

One unfortunate trend that’s hit San Francisco and Bay Area restaurants, though, is rising prices, due not to the greed of owners but to mandated fees imposed on them by cities: a rise in the minimum wage is the latest example. Then again, of course, the local economy in the Bay Area (and wine country) is on fire: I’ve never seen people spending money so fast. It’s a carpe diem mentality out there, people are partying like it’s 2099, and the restaurant scene is explosive. Is this another bubble? Perish the thought.


A wine trip back east, to the D.C. metro area

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If you’ve been reading me for years, you know that I was arguing in 2009, 2010, 2011 that (a) print newspapers and magazines are NOT dead (as so many bloggers were predicting and hoping) and (b) social media was NOT the be-all and end all for wineries. Well, I was right on both scores! USA Today has an article out, “Why People and Companies Are Lining Up to Buy Newspapers” that explains how newspapers are hot-hot-hot, which is why the paper’s owner, Gannett, has offered to buy Tribune Publishing.

I’ve always subscribed to newspapers. I’m going on 30 years for the San Francisco Chronicle, and I’ll frequently pick up an Oakland paper and the New York Times as well. Yes, I’m a Boomer, and old habits die hard; everyone my age says they like to wake up in the morning and have their coffee and breakfast while reading the paper. But all those years when the bloggers were guaranteeing that “print journalism is dead, it’s all online now,” I was saying, Not so fast.

As for social media, I always had my doubts, especially about Twitter, which never appealed to me (although Lord knows I tried). I’m a huge Facebook fan, but Twitter’s abbreviated limits just didn’t allow me enough space to express what I want to say. Well, now we see the trouble Twitter’s in—and how fantastically well Facebook is doing. The same issue of USA Today has another article headlined “Facebook defies tech earnings gloom.”

Anyhow, I’m on an extended trip back east on behalf of Jackson Family Wines, and loving it. Washington D.C. is really one of the most beautiful cities in America, and yesterday I got an up-close-and-personal experience of Baltimore, a city I’d never been to but have read much about, particularly their downtown revitalization, and what a great sports town it is. Fantastic architecture: some of those buildings are showstoppers. We’ve been going to some great restaurants, and yesterday went to the Maryland Club, the kind of place that barely exists anymore: a private club for locals, where you have to be vetted to be admitted. There were some gray-hairs (like me) but also some Millennials, so the blood is being refreshed at this 1857-founded social institution. They are very serious about their wine, and we had a great seminar and tasting. I also have been meeting some of the most interesting people, including the leaders of the soon-to-be-opened Trump International Hotel, here in D.C., and a young guy, Jason Larkin, who is the wine expert for Secretary of State John Kerry, over at the Department of State. I hope to arrange a Q&A with Jason here on the blog, and to learn more about his fascinating job.

I am fascinated by Washington culture. I know little about it, except through movies and House of Cards and political thrillers. Coming from a very distinct culture myself (San Francisco and the Bay Area), I understand how easy it is for outsiders to have stereotyped views. As we walk and drive the streets of the District I look at all those other people and wonder what branch of government they work in and what secrets they hold. Probably they’re just normal people like everybody else. Someday, on my bucket list is to spend a week here in the nation’s capital and do all the usual sightseeing. Maybe next Spring.

Lots of rain today in D.C. but it isn’t dampening anyone’s spirits, especially mine. We have another big day and night planned. More tomorrow.


A pinky of wine for baby: Are you creating a future alcoholic?

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For yesterday’s flight from SFO to Reagan Washington Airport I bought a New York Times, which always gives me a couple hours of good reading when I have the time—and what else is there to do on a long flight?

So in the Science Times section (sorry, no link—firewall!) they had an article called “Alcohol’s Parental Gateway.” Some inflammatory words in that header: must read! It dealt with the question of whether parents who give their young children even “a token sip of wine at Passover” somehow contribute to their children’s later drinking problems.

This sort of “gateway” issue has worried parents for decades. No mom or dad wants to suffer the guilt and pain of thinking they somehow contributed to their child’s mental or behavioral aberrations. Once upon a time, I don’t think parents even worried about this sort of thing, but in our post-Dr. Spock era (Benjamin, not Star Wars), they do. Books, academic studies reported in the media, talk radio and pseudo-scientific T.V. shows like Dr. Phil’s provide endless fodder to make parents wonder if they’ve done a good job or a horrible one raising little Johnny or Susie. The very difficulty of determining precisely what leads to a teen’s or adult’s drinking problem means that the answer is largely unknowable; hence, the never-ending proliferation of studies of the type the Times article cites, which—it seems to this childless adult—only pile on the confusion ever thicker. (It is the pH.D’s full-employment act.)

The Times’ writer, Perri Klass, herself an M.D., asks a lot of questions of the “what does it all mean?” genre, without venturing her own opinions. What does “early sipping” do? Is there a connection to “high rates of alcohol use in adolescents”? Is childhood sipping “a risk factor for a lot of other problem behaviors”? Some psychiatrists and other professionals quoted seem to imply answers in the affirmative.

Now, someone once said that journalism—even the kind of even-handed journalism practiced by good newspapers like the New York Times—cannot by its nature be objective. The writer’s biases, sometimes unconscious, sometimes barely concealed, shape the narrative: what questions get raised, who is quoted, what direction the article seems to point in.

And so it is here. A reader who knows nothing about this particular epidemiological issue would not be faulted for coming away with the impression that parentally-sanctioned childhood sipping is, if not overtly dangerous, at least ill-conceived. Dr. Klass even seems to debunk the European theory that by “providing sips of alcohol to children, we are actually protecting them against problem drinking,” which is the theory I’ve long heard and believed (and which Thomas Jefferson apparently subscribed to, especially when wine is not expensive).

My own feeling is that some academicians, perhaps in the thrall of publish-or-perish, make too much of this childhood-sipping non-issue. We’re not talking about unfit parents who put vodka into baby’s bottle; we’re talking about civilized, responsible parents who believe that, starting with the lick of a finger dipped into wine, and graduating upwards to a full glass by, say, the age of thirteen, a growing child will learn to respect wine—and all alcoholic beverages—and therefore to drink responsibly. I think that is true: do we really need more studies to prove it?

* * *

By the way, on the drive from Reagan International to my Bethesda hotel, we passed the spotlit United States Capitol, Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial. Truly beautiful and awe-inspiring.


SF’s housing woes spread to wine country

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Picked up the latest issue of the Sonoma County Gazette at the Starbucks in Fulton, and came across this article, Healdsburg at a Crossroads, that underscores just how acute that tony town’s housing crisis has become.

It recalled an era that was just coming to a close when I first visited, some 35 years ago, when Healdsburg was “a rough farm and lumber town with more bars than churches.” But by the mid-1990s, things started turning fast, as Healdsburg got “a dose of Windsor-like development” and the area around the Town Square began to look like a smaller St. Helena, with posh restaurants and upscale boutiques and galleries. By the 2000s, my former magazine, Wine Enthusiast, was writing stories about this must-visit showplace of Sonoma County wine country. (I know, because I was writing them!)

Nowadays, the cost of housing is such that the town is in a bit of a quandary over what to do about it. As are the citizens of San Francisco and my own home town, Oakland. All over the Bay Area and wine country, the tech boom has ignited a housing frenzy, forcing the poor and middle class out and bringing in a new class of wealthy individuals. The question confronting Healdsburg, as posed in the Gazette article, is whether to “try to ‘manage’ growth” or conduct “an aggressive community building program.” Both of these present difficult choices, and both approaches have solid blocks of citizens for them and against them.

All this would not be happening in Healdsburg were it not for the fact that the town is so ideally located in wine country. It’s at the juxtaposition of Russian River Valley, Dry Creek Valley, Alexander Valley and Chalk Hill, making it a great place for tourists to stay. And man oh man, are the tourists showing up. That, in turn, is leading to quite a forceful little argument over how much tourism is too much. Just last Sunday, the Santa Rosa Press Democrat ran an op-ed piece whose writer warned Sonoma County officials that Tourism can only be sustainable if planning is carefully managed so that the financial benefits are not permitted to outweigh the negative impacts on the community.” People like the money that tourists bring to their regions, but they don’t like the traffic, litter, crime, increased housing costs and other impacts that can accompany tourism.

Nor is the issue just a California one. As I was writing this post, I got the e-issue of wineindustrynetwork.com which contained this article on Iowa’s burgeoning wine industry. Where before “mile upon mile of fields of corn and soybeans” dotted the land, increasingly the “Iowa Wine Trail” is marked by vineyards. And with the wineries come—you guessed it—tourists. Iowa, in contrast to California, is only in the earliest stages of developing a wine tourism culture; a few years ago, an Iowa State U. professor cited a study touting the “economic boom” the wine industry is bringing to the Hawkeye State. One wonders, though, how long it will be before the small towns impacted by the new tourism—Decorah, Fredricksburg, Waukon, Marquette—might find that unrestricted tourism is not an undiluted positive.


On that Prisoner deal: Brands without land? I don’t think so

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On the Sales road today in the midst of a busy week, but first I want to comment on the headline this morning that Constellation has purchased The Prisoner for $285 million.

I “get it” that some of these big wine companies are going after these mass brands, like Meiomi, which was scooped up by Constellation. [ED note: In a previous edition of this post I mistakenly said Meiomi was bought by Gallo. Mea culpa!] But here’s my question about this Prisoner thing: As the San Francisco Chronicle points out in their coverage of the deal, The Prisoner owns no vineyards; the way the Chron put it is that the sale “suggest[s] a significant departure from the model that has long dominated the wine industry, in which land carries the greatest capital. Now, it would seem, brand trumps land.”

I disagree. That’s an easy and fatuous conclusion for a reporter who doesn’t understand the wine industry to make. But guess what? Grapes don’t come from the sky. You don’t drive your pickup over to Grapes R Us and load up on Zinfandel fruit. You have to have vineyards, and, in the case of The Prisoner, if they don’t have the vineyard holdings to ensure quality fruit year after year, then the quality of The Prisoner has got to suffer, with the inevitable consequence that consumers sooner or later will figure out that the wine isn’t what it used to be.

I don’t mean to slam Constellation, but let’s face it, that company doesn’t have the greatest reputation for wine quality. All too often they seem content to let quality drift to a midpoint level, which they hope they can get away with for a long time. And perhaps they can. When it comes to these mass brands, consumers might not notice an ever-so-slight racheting down of quality. It’s the frog (or is it lobster?) in a saucepan of water on the stovetop: Gradually increase the heat and the poor thing doesn’t even known it’s being boiled until it’s too late.

Look: brands come and go. Mostly they go, because they lose their rationale and consumers then lose their reason for buying it. So, I wish Constellation good luck with this, but really, the conclusion that “land doesn’t matter anymore, brands do,” is dumb.

Anyhow, time to hit the road! Going down to Silicon Valley today for a wine lunch and talk about Jackson Family Wines Pinot Noir. Ciao until tomorrow.


Wine Country: gated communities?

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It comes as no surprise to me that Napa County is the seventh least affordable housing market in the country.

We know that places like San Francisco, Marin and Manhattan are unaffordable to all except the wealthiest of our citizens, but Napa? True, it’s never exactly been Motel 6 country, but in Napa City you didn’t used to need millions of dollars to afford a fixer-upper.

Now you do. The media price of a home in Napa just it $545,000, about one-half that of a house in San Francisco, but 2-1/2 times more than the average price of a U.S. home.

The reasons why are not hard to discern: Napa Valley, like all of California’s valleys, is visually beautiful. The weather is outstanding. San Francisco is only an hour away (depending on traffic). Ski country to the east, the Pacific to the west, lakes, mountains and wilderness all around, what more could you ask for? Throw in the glamor of wine, and the cost of entry suddenly shoots sky-high.

It wasn’t that long ago that Napa City was a dumpy place. The upper classes didn’t live there, or even visit; they went to St. Helena, or Calistoga, or the south valley to dine, or drove into the Bay Area. But in the 1990s and early 2000s the city began all that work along the riverfront. Hotels and posh resorts went in, along with expensive restaurants, and voila, Napa City became chic. And now, the French are invading Napa Valley: S.F. Eater reports that, “From Mount Veeder to Calistoga, Napa estates are selling fast to Bordelais vintners.” In other words, when it comes to real estate prices, you ain’t seen nothing yet.

The situation “on the other side of the hill” in Sonoma County is pretty much the same, at least in Healdsburg, which by the year 2005 had become so tony, it started topping the list of wine destinations to visit and spend a lot of money. Today, Healdsburg’s average home price is higher even than Napa’s: $699,600, although Sebastopol’s is even more, at $725,000. (I think that Healdsburg and Sebastpol are not populous enough to be considered “housing markets.”)

Funky $ebastopol! Where is the pot and patchouli crowd going to live? Maybe Guerneville, where the median home price is a comparative bargain, at $366,100.

Now consider Cloverdale. If you know it, it’s as the one-stoplight town, at the crossroads of Highway 101 and Route 128, in the center of the Alexander Valley. Entrepreneurs have tried for years to gussy up Cloverdale, but the farm town firmly resisted their efforts, remaining stubbornly rural and slightly shabby.

Until now.

Sonoma Magazine asks, “Could Cloverdale be the next Healdsburg?” They reference New restaurants and boutiques. A coffeehouse that’s a community gathering place. A burgeoning arts scene. Fresh ownership of tired businesses. Summer concerts on the plaza that draw 2,000 adults and kids. City slickers, drawn by the rustic beauty and calm, are relocating to Cloverdale — some bringing high-end businesses with them.”

It’s not really likely that Cloverdale will be the next Healdsburg. There’s not enough housing stock, and I think that local zoning laws would prohibit development from occurring. Still, Cloverdale might turn into a kind of Los Olivos of the north, a precious, expensive tourist mecca of galleries, cafés and upscale inns. (Cloverdale actually is the most centrally-located town from which to explore Alexander Valley’s many charms.)

As a homeowner myself, I am benefitting from this stupendous rise in coastal California real estate values. My city, Oakland, is “poised to be the Bay Area’s hottest [housing] market in 2016,” says the San Francisco Chronicle.

Still, I worry about the people who can’t afford to live here, or anywhere else along the coast. From San Diego and La Jolla up through Big Sur, Silicon Valley, San Francisco and northward into wine country, California is becoming a Disneyland for the privileged classes. I don’t know the answer, any more than anyone else. This trend may be unstoppable, except for one force stronger even than the market force of supply and demand: the San Andreas Fault.

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