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SF Magazine Scales Back As Local Food Criticism Dwindles

Publishing fewer reviews from its critic, Josh Sens

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After 15 years of monthly restaurant reviews in San Francisco magazine, readers will see less steady dining criticism from Josh Sens. The magazine will publish half as many reviews from the critic going forward, with one every other month. The change reflects declining budgets at print media publications, the rising costs of dining out in San Francisco, and a contemporary uncertainty as to the place of traditional restaurant criticism.

“It costs a huge sum of money to review restaurants in the traditional newspaper and city magazine manner, where every review means going two or three times to dine anonymously,” Jon Steinberg, SF magazine’s editor-in-chief, told Eater SF. In print media, despite awards like the magazine’s recent ASME for general excellence, “the economics have changed dramatically, and our approach has to change again.”

At the moment, Sens is San Francisco’s second longest-running restaurant critic, and he’s one of just a handful. There’s Peter Kane at SF Weekly, whose reviews also run in the Examiner (which previously had its own reviewer), Janelle Bitker, who reviews East Bay restaurants for the East Bay Express, and most recently, Rachel Levin, Eater SF’s first critic, who began reviewing restaurants “anonymously or as anonymously as possible” last June.

But in particular, with his years of experience, Sens has long provided a valuable counterpoint to Michael Bauer, whose reviews have appeared in the Chronicle for almost 30 years. And in contrast to Bauer, Sens is notable for his anonymity.

“I know he’s not the most famous critic in town,” Steinberg says of Sens, “but he’s the most lucid.”

While restaurants are on the lookout for Bauer, despite the critic’s efforts to avoid recognition, Sens has flown mostly below the radar. In one instance, he even recalls a server apologizing to him for the restaurant’s slow service — they were slammed, the server explained, because Michael Bauer had been spotted in the house.

“I wouldn’t present it as this high moral ground, but it’s made my job a lot easier” Sens says. “I’d rather not be recognized, because it just makes it harder to be objective.”

In 2014, New York magazine critic Adam Platt famously revealed his identity, giving up what he called a “dated charade” in the field. But for Sens, far less prominent than Platt, anonymity has provided some freedom: It keeps him from getting punched on the street by angry chefs, he jokes. And in some reviews, such as one of China Live, Sens notes if he’s been outed.

It’s midweek, midevening at China Live, the chef’s culinary megaplex in Chinatown. [Owner George] Chen is standing at our table, and it’s slightly awkward: He has figured out what I am up to. He grins and nods toward the restaurant critic from the San Francisco Chronicle, who is seated nearby and up to the same thing.

A decline in the quantity of restaurant reviewers and reviews “brings up a lot of questions,” according to Sens. “Is it valuable to have a reviewer who attempts to be anonymous versus a reporter or a blogger who goes to restaurants [and engages with the chef and staff], or a large quantity of Yelp reviews?”

“Of course I think a voice attempting to be objective is valuable, but I see a cultural shift where I think there’s no doubt that someone like Michael Bauer — his voice is less powerful than it once was, and I know that my voice, if it ever had any power, it’s less than it once was.”

Sens’ reviews will continue to appear in SF magazine, with Steinberg emphasizing they’ll be “hyper-selective” about his restaurant choices. And Sens doesn’t bemoan the change: “15 years is a long time to inflict anybody’s opinion [on the dining scene],” he says.

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