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Why California’s Food Critics Aren’t Yet Ready to Return to Restaurants

Also: The House votes to extend the deadline for federal small business loans, and more news to start your day

Diners seated at sidewalk picnic tables at Panchita’s #2 in the Mission Patricia Chang

As restaurants reopen for dine-in service, the state’s food critics, by and large, are staying home

Even given yesterday’s news that California has rolled back its reopening of bars and indoor dining in 19 counties around the state — citing the recent surge in COVID-19 cases — the fact remains that many restaurants in California, including here in the Bay Area, have reopened for some form of dine-in service, at least outdoors. But that doesn’t mean local food critics are ready to start reviewing restaurants again — or even dining out at all, even on a socially distanced patio.

In an extended essay on the topic published yesterday, titled “Why This Restaurant Critic Isn’t Dining Out Right Now,” one of Eater’s own critics, Ryan Sutton, cites his own harrowing experience with even a relatively mild case of the virus, and argues that, with COVID-19 cases continuing to spike, “being in a place where underpaid staffers are financially compelled to interact with unscreened and unprotected patrons seeking leisure is unacceptable to me on a very basic human level.”

Sutton was writing about dining in New York, but cites a number of other critics around the country who are taking a similar. Most prominently here in the Bay Area, SF Chronicle critic Soleil Ho has written that she’s still mostly just cooking at home, and has stated publicly that she isn’t ready to dine out. Tejal Rao, the New York Times’ California critic — whose beat, in pre-pandemic times, included reviewing Bay Area restaurants — cited among her reasons for not yet going back to restaurants the tremendous stress, and health risk, that restaurant workers face given that they’re often the ones tasked with upholding safety protocols. Over at the Los Angeles Times, former Eater critic Bill Addison recently went back for one restaurant meal — and felt so torn by the ethics of the situation that he’s decided to once again stick to takeout for now.

Sutton argues that by making these kinds of statements, local critics can make a difference by “setting the right example” for the general public. And, at least for him, “the low risk of sending a single uninsured waiter to an ICU bed, someone who isn’t really there by choice, in exchange for the pitcher of frozen margaritas you happen to be craving in the late afternoon, is a morally indefensible transaction.”

And in other news...

  • The House of Representatives unanimously passed an extension of the federal Paycheck Protection Program, which means that — pending President Trump’s signature — small businesses, including bars and restaurants in the Bay Area and beyond, would have until August 8 to apply for a forgivable loan. The program had been set to expire on June 30. [CNN]
  • The SF Chronicle’s Justin Phillips writes that the Bay Area’s much-vaunted tiki bar scene, with its dining rooms “designed to look like a jungle, or wooden skulls situated near what’s supposed to be a damaged airplane fuselage” is just another example of the Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben’s problem: brands that, by and large, aren’t run by Black people (or people from the South Pacific), but use caricatures of those cultures to sell their products. [SF Chron]
  • The Starry Plough, Berkeley’s beloved, 47-year-old Irish pub and arts and performance space, is only staying alive thanks to donations from the local community. [Daily Cal]
  • Mission Local’s burger columnists give their strong approval to the juicy burgers and the
    “crispy and killer” garlic fries at Double Decker. [Mission Local]
  • An SF Chronicle survey of Bay Area public officials found that COVID-19 safety protocols for outdoor dining are “largely being followed” by local restaurants in areas like San Francisco, Alameda, and Marin counties. [SF Chron]
  • In this time of increased food insecurity, KQED has a roundup — and handy map — of where people can go to find free meals. In a similar vein, Town Fridge, a new network in Oakland of refrigerators filled with free food, has set up its first pickup site in West Oakland. [KQED]