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When is a review not a review?



The San Francisco Chronicle’s restaurant reviewer, Michael Bauer, really stirred up a dust storm with this post, “DNR: Three restaurants I’m not reviewing,” on his blog.

First, let me say that I’m a Bauer fan. If I’m checking out a restaurant in the Bay Area, I first want to know what Michael said about it. I might look at Yelp, but I don’t entirely trust Yelp. At least I know that Michael is independent and has no skin in the game.

I also trust the very concept of a trusted critic. Yes, I was one myself, so maybe that makes me more empathic about them and their jobs. A good critic actually works very hard; just as a wine critic doesn’t just sit around the house all day, sipping wine and snacking, a restaurant critic doesn’t just go out to eat. The research and writing are hard, and the critic has to know what he’s talking about, not only to land a prestigious job at a paper like the Chronicle, but to last as long as Michael has.

So what was so controversial about Michael’s post? Go ahead, read through the comments—they’re hilarious—and see. For the most part, people said that although Michael said he wasn’t reviewing the three restaurants he wrote about, he then went ahead and kinda-sorta did. As one commenter said, satirically rephrasing Michael’s post, I won’t write about these places. Let me write about them to tell you why.”

Well, let me come to Michael’s defense. First of all, he said upfront that he “decided not to move forward with a full-blown three-visit review.” (One of his rules is to eat at a place three times before he does the formal review, which makes a lot of sense to me.) But these are not full-blown reviews, they’re mini-takes. And keep in mind that they appear, not in the pages of the Chronicle itself, but in Michael’s blog. Michael’s blog is less formal, more easy-breezy than his full-blown reviews. So the readers who criticized Michael are a little off-base.

Plus, I think Michael is doing a great service to the three restaurants. It’s nice that he has some way of alerting them to his concerns, before he actually publishes the review. That way, the restaurateurs can fix the problems (which don’t seem to be major), so that when and if Michael does come in for a full review, it’s more likely to be a good one than a bad one.

Finally, the snarkiness of some of the commenters leaves something to be desired. It’s fine to say you don’t agree with his conclusions, but to resort to pique, like being mad at Michael because he doesn’t have to pay his own food bills (the Chronicle does), is just silly. Some others criticized Michael for not reviewing local places, but he does. He’s reviewed thousands of restaurants over the years, not just the famous, expensive ones but plenty of local joints. Just last week, he reviewed Hawker Fare, one of my faves, just a ten-minute walk from my house in downtown Oakland, where the most expensive item on the menu is about $13. So, yes, Michael does review local places.


  1. Bob Foster says:

    I’m more troubled that his face is well known. Does anyone think he gets the same treatment as the average customer? Famed SF restaurant critic Jack Shelton went to great links to keep his face hidden. Without this anonimity I don’t think he is a real professional reviewer.

  2. Dear Bob Foster, that is a concern, but what can we do about it? One hopes that Bauer can see through “special treatment” and perceive the restaurant as it really is.

  3. Bob Foster says:

    How can he see through it if the dishes the kitchen sends out are different from those the average customer gets? He should adhear to a higher standard.

  4. I suppose he is well-known to some, but I have been a follower of Mr. Bauer and have no idea what he looks like. I do, however, almost always concur with his reviews. That gives him enough credibility for me.

    Reviewing restaurants is different from reviewing wines. Most of us who review wines, save for Mr. Parker and a few others who taste at wineries, are rigourous about tasting blind and let the chips fall where they may.

    A restaurant reviewer never tastes blind. I like Bauer’s “taste three times” philosophy. And by the way, Jack Shelton was not exactly unknown around town back when his restaurant review newsletter was in existence (about 30 years ago or more).

    It was amusing, however, to see the “non-review” reviews that Michael posted. I get the point, but what I took away from those “non-reviews” was “don’t go there”, and that is review enough for me.

  5. Charlie, my takeaway was “don’t go there now. Wait a while.” But I think Michael also implied that, if you live in the hood near these places, fine. We can’t expect a 4 star meal everywhere especially if we’re not prepared to pay 4 star prices which most of us including me aren’t.

  6. Down here in La-La-Land, the Los Angeles Times restaurant critic’s identity was “outed” by a start-up restaurant that disagreed with her reviewing practices:

    “Food Critic Outed and Ousted from Restaurant” – Los Angeles Times


    First excerpt:

    “That whole scene, said San Francisco Chronicle restaurant critic Michael Bauer, sounds ‘very stupid. I think it’s very short-sighted [outing S. Irene Virbila’s identity on the Web]. If it was a good restaurant, they wouldn’t be afraid [of her review].’

    “But at the same time, Bauer said, ‘the whole idea of anonymity is almost a moot point these days. … After you’ve done it for any length of time, a year or more, your image gets out, especially now with camera phones.’ Virbila said she tries to keep a low profile, not appearing at food and wine events or establishing a Facebook page.”

    Presently, Virbila reviews restaurants and wines for The Times.

    Jonathan Gold has taken over from Virbila in handling newly-opened restaurant reviews.

    Second Times article excerpt:

    “Over a long history of cat-and-mouse games between high-end chefs and well-read critics, critics routinely have booked their reservations under other names, carried credit cards bearing pseudonyms and occasionally even worn disguises.

    “In more recent years, some have worried less about their anonymity. When LA Weekly [now Los Angeles Times] restaurant critic Jonathan Gold won a Pulitzer Prize in 2007 for a body of work celebrating street food and ethnic eateries, newspapers and websites around the world ran a photo of him drinking deeply from a champagne flute the size of a football. Gold told The Times in a later interview that he had ‘noticed absolutely no difference in being recognized in restaurants. None. Zero.’

    “Said Los Angeles Times Food Editor Russ Parsons, ‘at this point, we’re not planning any changes in the way we do our restaurant reviews. Virbila is far from the first major critic to have her picture published and I’m sure she won’t be the last.’ ”

    (“Full disclosure” — Irene and Jonathan and Russ are friendly acquaintances and gracious food and wine “pen pals.”)

  7. Harvey Steiman says:

    Sociologists and psychologists could write volumes on the cadre of snark that piles on for every, and I mean every, food- and wine-oriented blog on the Chronicle web site. There may be some smart and pertinent comments in there somewhere, but I long ago gave up trying to find that needle.

  8. Bob Henry says:

    Los Angeles Times restaurant critic Jonathan Gold addressed the question of anonymity on the front page of the newspaper on Saturday (January 24, 2015):

    “Jonathan Gold Drops Anonymous Restaurant Critic Mask”



    “Any real anonymity I may have once had ended in 2007 when an assistant at a publication I used to work for [L.A. Weekly] accidentally posted a photograph to the paper’s website [following the announcement of his Pulitzer Prize award for criticism? — Bob]. The pretense of anonymity ends today.”

    And see Jonathan’s video interview embedded in The Times article online.

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