The SF Chronicle's semi-anonymous restaurant critic, Michael Bauer, has been a staple in the Bay Area dining scene for almost three decades (!), which is a long run for any job, much less one focused on the constantly evolving restaurant industry.
The critic spoke out about what it's like to be a restaurant critic in San Francisco, sharing insights on a panel hosted by chef Tyler Florence at the Flavor! Napa Valley conference over the weekend. In a dramatic twist, Bauer gave his talk from behind a backlit screen in order to maintain his "anonymous" status, answering questions from Florence and the audience about how the critical sausage is made. Here are some of the highlights from the critic's discussion:
On why he's stuck it out as the Chron critic for so long:
It just happens that people cycle through because it's a very tough job. Mimi Sheraton gained 70 pounds on the job, and she was there for about 15 years. They've all moved on but I guess I'm not smart enough to do. Probably, on the detractor side, they say I'm not fresh, they need a younger palate...I always come down to the argument of experience.
On analyzing the credibility of a restaurant critic (including his own):
I think the credibility is built over time. But the real credibility comes, hopefully, in consistency. I can only be responsible for what I think— not for what you think. So, I have to be fair because if I like you but your food is not good, that only hurts me. I think that is the best compliment I can get, even if people hate me, is if they say "I always know I'm not going to like that restaurant if Michael Bauer goes there." If they do that, that's great. Because it means I'm consistent and they know that. And that's all you can ask.
On what makes his reviews different than Yelp reviews:
If you look at a Yelp review you'll see that 85 percent of time, what they're talking about is poor service, which reflects their whole meal. It's fine if you're a consumer to do that but as a restaurant critic I have to pull the elements apart—look at the atmosphere, look at the service, look at the food. Just because I hate the waiter, I can't let that influence what I think about the food.
On assigning stars as ratings, while simultaneously telling Tyler Florence that Wayfare Tavern will never get four stars:
Should a taqueria, even if it's the best, be a four star? I draw the line and say no. So those are reserved for the Saisons, the Benus, the French Laundrys. A restaurant like Wayfare Tavern, which I love and want to go to ten times for every time I go to The French Laundry, it's not eligible for four stars because there's not that type of technical skill of doing 12 courses. They lay a lot on the line.
You look at what they strive for. To me, if it's really great, a taqueria would be three stars, the height of what it could get. A restaurant at the level of a Rich Table or Wayfare Tavern or Ninebark here in Napa would be 3 1/2.
"I wish you didn't have to give stars, but in a way it keeps me honest as a reviewer."
On SF's fine dining scene and lamenting the death of the white tablecloth:
About seven or eight years ago I was lamenting the death of the white tablecloth restaurant. Then Benu opened, and Saison and Quince. Bill Addison at Eater said San Francisco is now the center of fine dining and I think that's true. I think they are reinventing that genre and it's not exactly the stuffy service and white tablecloths you had at Ernie's.The service is more relaxed but food is every bit as good and even more inventive.
On laying out a roadmap for the restaurants of the future:
If I could do that I'd be a millionaire! What has changed from 2006 to now is the chefs that have had the courage to follow their passion... If you're a chef and you're not doing it for money but because you love it, then I think you have 90 percent success rate.
On the most exciting time in San Francisco's dining scene over the past 30 years:
On balancing the tone of his reviews:
I'm there for the consumer. So I'd rather help that person. That restaurant that's struggling and deserves it, rather than one that doesn't. I try not to be mean, I try to be fair. I remember Ruth Reichl said "I'm not here to stroke the egos of the restaurants. I'm here to sell newspapers." You have to write in an interesting way, but I try to balance that.
Sometimes I wish I could be bitchy but I do pull back. You can't use hyperbole too much. I can have fun. I remember doing...what's that restaurant? [Audience shouts "Crystal Jade."] The guy putting on gloves to serve something was like a proctology exam. I can say that, because it's not about the food. Where I'll become meaner is if they're just really arrogant and don't really care.
"I've always said if I had my way I'd like to be anonymous twice and recognized once. So you'll see both ends of the spectrum."
On staying anonymous:
It used to be a lot easier. Now with OpenTable, where they track your phone number, I have probably 60 names. Ninety percent of the time I get seated before I get recognized.
On when he visits a new restaurant:
I wait at least a month. But by the time you get the three visits in, by the time it gets to the paper, it's two months later. It's not necessarily the best. I know restaurants that need a year to get good but there's also the argument you're not charging half price, so you need to be ready from the get go, though I realize that's also not realistic.
On his most memorable meal:
It goes back 15 years at The French laundry. The food was amazing. It was December 21st, for lunch. It was me, Michael Murphy, Marion Cunningham and Chuck Williams. The food, the company was great; it was one of these things that all came together.
On the rumors that he or his partner, Michael Murphy, are investors in local restaurants:
How stupid would I have to be if I or Michael were involved in a restaurant? It's absolutely false. It has been out there and we have decided not to dignify it with an answer. [Editor's note: Except this one.]
The final word on criticism:
It gets back to the integrity. It's not doing you [the chef] any favors if I don't write what I feel. If I say that I think I love your chicken (or don't), you know that's what I actually feel. And there's no animosity for me. It's a very slippery slope. It taught me what I have to do when I write a review is put on blinders and just deal with the consequences.
Browse Eater SF's past Week in Review recaps for the TL;DR of each week's reviews by Bauer and others.
Have a favorite Bauer review? Drop it in the comments below and discuss amongst yourselves.