Esteemed newspaper critic and midwesterner-at-heart Michael Bauer spent part of his post-Top 100 denouement making an eye-opening visit to the American heartland. As he writes in this week’s Between Meals column, Bauer spent five days away from San Francisco in Independence, Kansas. There he discovered that the town of roughly 9,000 souls had a “thriving” fine-arts program despite the fact that its food scene is “far less sophisticated than the Bay Area’s.”
The result of his visit: A ponderous summation of his experience there that rivals the now famous Olive Garden review by the North Dakotan critic Marilyn Hagerty in the Grand Forks Herald. (“The chicken Alfredo was warm and comforting on a cold day. The portion was generous. My server was ready with Parmesan cheese.”)
And while it’s not exactly a starred review of the flattest state in the nation, always price-conscious Bauer raves as he feasts upon a pound of peel-and-eat shrimp (“with a salad and a side dish such as baked potato or asparagus”), at Brother’s Railroad Inn, for $16.99.
“I’m still processing that,” Bauer — a man with more than three decades of experience writing about restaurants — says, while simultaneously ignoring the past 100 years of advancements in fishing, shipping and refrigeration technology. “How can they serve those large shrimp at that price?”
At Brother’s (which has been run by the same family for decades and seems perfectly nice), the house wine is a $3.50 glass of Franzia and the most expensive bottle is a Kendall-Jackson Cabernet marked up to $34, Bauer can take six people to dinner for under $125. Back home, at the newly opened Che Fico on Divisadero, Bauer and a single dining companion couldn’t make it out for less than $166, though to be fair, it serves neither peel-and-eat shrimp, nor Franzia.
San Francisco’s exorbitant rents, high minimum wage, local-sourced ethos and HealthySF initiative — which Bauer himself has been railing against for years — are only a few of the conspirators that made his Chef Fico bill add up. But it’s his sudden realization that he’s been living in a bubble that should be most perturbing to readers:
“I’ve always claimed to know what’s outside of the San Francisco bubble,” the eternally tenured critic continues, calling on his family in Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas as his bonafides, “but this trip made me take a harder look at where I live.”
San Francisco’s beautiful vistas are worth the upcharge, Bauer explains, “But it also made me wonder: At what point do the negatives outweigh the positives?”
After over 30 years of dwelling and eating for a living in San Francisco, that’s a great question.