Thursday, March 09, 2006

Michael Bauer is Too Influential

Nothing against Michael Bauer of the San Francisco Chronicle, but he has far too much power for one man in an industry that is so subjective. The fault lies with the Chronicle, however, not the man.

San Francisco is a town known for its restaurants (among other things, of course), yet the Chronicle only invests in a single voice to review restaurants. While Bauer's technique for reviewing (three hopefully anonymous visits) is pretty good, he can't escape personal bias. When livelihoods are on the line, this is too much responsibility.

To give you an idea of his influence, when he first reviewed Range, he (very deservedly) gave it 3.5 stars which put it in rare company. He got this one right, which was great, but what followed was telling. The restaurant has now been in every possible local magazine and relevant website three times over and it has a reputation now of being one of the toughest resos in town.

When Roy's Restaurant came to town (around 2000 or so), the restaurant was very good, with a staff that was eager to please (in SF no less) and well executed food. Apparently during two of Bauer's visits that eager staff didn't recognize him when he dined and he got the same treatment everyone else did. He slammed the restaurant in the review and it has since barely recovered (even though it's gotten worse in recent years).

What's happened is that there's now a cottage industry of waitstaff who recognize Michael Bauer. I have no idea whether this is asked in interviews when a new restaurant is opening, but it might as well be. The obvious insinuation would be that a waiter could recognize him, give him and those sitting next to him immaculate service, and not let on that he's been recognized. I would assume Bauer recognizes that this is going on and makes some (likely flawed) attempt to compensate. However, this goes to show the make-or-break power he has.

This brings up the other issue of no-effort service in town, but that post is for another day. And for the record, I have no idea what type of experience Bauer had at Range to make him give 3.5.

And the last example, that many have highlighted in the past of this, is Hayes Street Grill. This restaurant, opened by Bauer's former Chron cohort, is/was unspectacular in every sense of the word. Muddled, sometimes even disgusting, seafood dishes, drab decor and listless service. This is not a place that anyone other that some old opera coot who eats with his gums and lost his sense of taste 20 years ago would go back to. Yet somehow, this restaurant got great reviews for years from Bauer, even making the vaunted Top 100 list for many years. I'm only sortof suggesting nepotism, as Bauer probably really did get that restaurant's absolute best effort every time, but it certainly highlights the potential conflict of interest inherence in a reviewer who has no checks and balances.

Worse yet, Bauer has little competition outside of the Chronicle. The Guardian only likes dirty taco joints. CitySearch is all ads and is so sold out I shouldn't even be mentioning it. Zagat, while very good in San Fran, is still beholden to the opinions of the masses. If you think that's not a problem, check out the LA Zagat where Cheesecake Factory holds literally every spot on the "Most Popular" list from 5-17. I'm not joking. It's worth buying the subscription just to see this.

My simple solution just requires investment from the Chronicle: hire two more reviewers that are placed as equals to Bauer and employ and Siskel and Ebert formula. With three reviewers rotating, no restaurant review goes out unless two of the three reviewed it, and the reviews would be published side by side.

This is only going to reinforce the reviews they're right on (Range) and will provide a more accurate checks-and-balances to weed out the anomalies. Plus, it will be harder for restaurants to recognize the reviewers, and readers will eventually find that there's one particular reviewer who's tastes theirs are most in line with. It's a win-win for everyone other than the Chronicle newsroom budgeteer and the restaurants that are terrible who count on a good review from their buddy Michael to keep them afloat. Unfortunately, this would be very expensive for the Chronicle and the only thing that would make them do it is if enough people like me rant about it. Such is life in essentially a one-paper town. I think this is enough of a restaurant city that we're worth it.

And yes, I know that through linking I just give Bauer and SFGate about 50 lbs of free advertising. Luckily no one reads this blog.

For the record, here's a similar viewpoint.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

The Breakfast Quandry

Are there not enough good breakfast places in San Francisco? I don't think San Francisco is alone in this, but really, why are the lines and waits so long for a top-notch breakfast? This seems like an obvious market opportunity.

The economics are simple - demand is outpacing supply. So if you open a great breakfast spot, spillover from the current group of breakfast eaters on any given day will fill up your restaurant without the need to even create more demand. This seems so obvious, that the only explanation must be that either the margins are terrible in that business, or it's a hell of a lot harder to make a good breakfast than you or I might think. I think it's margins, cause I make a great breakfast, if I say so myself.

Now here's the quandry the breakfast eater is faced with every weekend morning: "Is [Breakfast Place A] worth the wait?" Much goes into this quandry. Factors like the time of morning, the distance, your level of hunger, do you have to wait in line or can you put your name in, what else you have planned that day, and others all complicate the issue. But, strip most of those away, and it's a basic equation of Place A will take X minutes of misery to get seated and the breakfast experience will be of Y quality. If Y>X, you're probably going to go.

The most severe waits in town, which I think are Mama's on Washington Square and Dottie's True Blue in the Tenderloin, also have two of the best breakfasts around. For my money, Mama's is the absolute apex of breakfast food. However, these are the two places that make you wait in line and won't let you put your name in and walk around as you please. This is sadistic to do to hungry people.

The thinking behind doing this evil line idea probably has something to do with the theory of "moral hazard". This is basically the idea that people will over-indulge on a good thing unless they have some skin in the game. With breakfast, it's applied by raising the cost of entry in the form of physical misery so as to keep the crowds down. If you want a much better explanation of moral hazard, read this article by Malcolm Gladwell. Or don't, if you don't have 2 hours to spare. So it could be the moral hazard theory that's at work with breakfast places, but more likely is that these are truly mean-spirited people who run these places. As a result, I go to Mama's about once every six months even though I love their food. And for the record, the picture at right of Dottie's was taken on a Wednesday at 5pm.

Enough of that tangent. So let's take a typical Saturday morning at 10am. You're moderately hungry but not yet freaking out, and you want a top-notch breakfast experience. Here's where I think the following generally-popular breakfast places rank.

Worth the wait:
Tartine (Guerrero) - although I hate that they don't serve eggs
Polkers (Polk)
Ella's (Presidio and California)
Mama's - if you're wildly committed
It's Tops (Market)
Rex Cafe (Polk) and Perry's (Union) - rarely a wait at either place makes it worth it
Maverick (17th St) - don't tell anyone about this
The Grove

Not worth the wait:
Judy's (Chestnut)
Dottie's - a 2.5 hour wait at the situation I described
Boogaloo's (Valencia) - just disgusting
Pork Store (Haight) - another sadistic stand-in-line place
Savor (24th St.)

Monday, March 06, 2006

The San Francisco Non-Chain

As we all know, San Franciscans hate chain restaurants. I don't know the demographics of the Chevy's on Van Ness, or the CPK down by Union Square, but I'm guessing it's less than 5% locals. Most people have to really hunt to find an Applebee's, Chilis, or Outback within city limits.

However, having multiple locations for a restaurant creates obvious economies of scale that are very tempting to the savvy entrepreneur. Thus the birth of the "non-chain" chain in San Francisco. Go for the all the benefits of the chain but do everything you can to keep the independent street cred.

The classic San Francisco non-chain is Pasta Pomodoro. They started on Chestnut Street and have clearly achieved some serious financial success. I met the founder, who's a very, very nice guy and is now an investor in Pesce on Polk Street and Last Supper Club in the Mission, among others I'm sure. Curious about his business, I pried for information and found out that they have thousands of employees (THOUSANDS!) and a corporate headquarters South of Market replete with more than 50 full time HR, PR, Marketing, etc people that don't touch food on a normal workday. I was amused and impressed at the same time.

Separately, I knew that this non-chain had reached full chain status about the same time I saw that they had been featured on MTV's Laguna Beach as the show's primary date spot. I have no idea whether they paid for that placement, but if so it's a great move due to the price point of Pomodoro and the demographic that the show reaches.

Here's the distinction that interests me:

Once you reach the point of having two or three successful restaurants in San Francisco you're faced with a tough choice. You can decide to thumb your nose at the critics and grow rapidly, or you can try to hang onto your street cred by deliberately stunting your own growth. Thus, for the restaurants that still stay at the small chain level, or have even grown more but not necessarily reached their potential, I wonder whether the plan is deliberate.

Here's where I think the following non-chain chains fit (Deliberately Stunted/Hasn't Made it Yet):

(And of course, I'm no more of an expert than anyone else or I would have 10 Pasta Pomodoro chains of my own)

Zao - Hasn't Made it Yet - This always sounds like a good idea, and then when you go in there, nothing on their menu ever looks like it's worth ordering. You have a picture in your mind of some sort of tasty noodle/meat bowl, and it's somehow not there. Not even close.

Pluto's - Deliberately Stunted - With outlets now on various exits from here to Tahoe in addition to the San Fran locations, I've never seen a Pluto's that wasn't crowded at lunchtime. It seems like they could open 15 more of these and all would be crowded. And due to their very-cheesy-but-somewhat-charming Universal Rules sheet they post, I get the feeling that they haven't reached their capitalistic potential on purpose.

Squat & Gobble/Crepevine/etc - Deliberately Stunted - These are the 30-some-odd crepe places in San Francisco that all go by different names, yet all have the exact same menu written on the same chalkboard in the same handwriting. Even if they aren't owned by the same person, they may as well be. Besides the fact that I'm thoroughly bored of these places, I think they have great potential for success. The overhead must be incredibly low (not even a website), the food option feels slightly more exotic than a deli sandwich, they can do every meal and they do have a strong following. Considering they've opened so many in San Francisco, it seems like they could easily branch out North, East and South.

I just feel bad for Ti Couz, which seems like the only crepe place in San Francisco that isn't a chain. But then again, it's probably owned by the same guy and I got tricked on that one too.

Fuzio - Hasn't Made it Yet - This fits the category, but isn't worth writing about. Too inconsequential, and I don't really understand what food genre they serve. Is it pasta? Asian? Lunch or dinner? What the hell is it?

Watch out for the next non-chain chain - Pacific Catch. As far as I knew, they had one location right now that's the exact same spot where Pomodoro started on Chestnut, but apparently they're now in Corte Madera as well. They have an interesting concept (fresh fish for $10) and they're trying to see if they can expand more. I see the Pomodoro arc for this one.

Friday, March 03, 2006


Some time ago, I had a minor epiphany. Actually, to me it was major and I feel a deep civic responsibility to share it, but I really risk overselling this one, so let's leave it at "minor".

I was ordering a roast beef sandwich for lunch and verbally shortened it to the acronym "R-B sandwich". When it came out of my mouth, I realized that it's that phoenitic acronym that must've been the inspiration for the name of the fast-food chain Arby's. As you likely know, they focus heavily on the roast beef products there. It was a small connection, but a connection nonetheless, and I was very happy about it.

Then, a friend of mine who grew up in Cincinnati, where Arby's was hatched, said that I was the victim of a very common misconception. He said that Arby's actually was an acronym itself for "America's Roast Beef Yes Sir!". I found this implausible at the time and dismissed it.

Now recently, I went and did some quick research on the Arby's website and found that we were both wrong, and that Arby's does connote R-B, but not for roast beef. Instead, it's R-B for the Raffel Brothers who started the chain.

Oh, the disappointment of it all. I don't dare do any Easter Bunny internet research.

But in a spat of pure revenge, I give you this, which makes me feel much better about Arby's tricking me. I should've known that roast beef was never part of the equation.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

The Best Burger

We all know that there are at least 100 places in San Francisco that claim to make the city's best burger. Despite the fact that this is mathematically impossible, the most troubling part of this is that there are some truly BAD burgers out there who's creators make this claim.

When someone proudly and confidently says they have the best burger in town when I'm ordering, I see it as a dare. "Miss out if you want, but...", and thus it's my responsibility as a burger connoisseur to test these out. This is fine, and all part of the game of marketing your business, so long as the burger at least hits "pretty good" status. But when it's clear that only a miscreant could love said burger, now that offends me.

Obviously the value of a certain burger is highly subjective, and there are quite a few styles out there that all produce a fine product. Personally, I need VERY savory meat, very fresh produce, bread that doesn't get in the way, and a general consistency that doesn't fall apart. By fall apart, I mean those burgers that you're forced to keep eating once you pick it up because you're scared as to what might happen once you put it down. I'm not into that.

That said, here are three places that make burgers that I love:

Street: I'm convinced that this is the most impressive classic burger in town. The meat is superior to just about anything you'll find anywhere. The mix of ingredients is perfect - not too much of anything and great housemade pickles (a HUGE plus). The bread holds everything together yet doesn't become at all a focus of the burger - this is a very tough balance to achieve. I get it with the pepper jack cheese and bacon, which adds a little extra oomph to the flavor obviously. I'm getting a burger anyway, right?

(Although sometimes when you're ordering something terribly unhealthy, it occasionally feels good to forgo one partic
ularly unhealthy ingredient just to make yourself feel a bit better about it. It's like a sacrifice to the health gods. Something like ordering a huge pastrami reuben and then asking them to toast the bread with light butter. It makes no sense, but if you're like this, I understand. It's okay.)

Street definitely deserves its own conversation. John the chef is a world-class grillman. But I will stop here for purposes of the continuity of this post.

Balboa Cafe: As with above, I'm not going to get into all the side issues and discussion on Balboa. The fact is, if you're going to go the baguette-burger route, Balboa should be your model for excellence. Baguette burgers are typically made with poor baguette bread, the bread far overpowers the meat, the insides slide out, etc, etc. Balboa manages to sidestep all the regular pitfalls (and they have housemade pickles... yes, it's a soft-spot), and the resulting burger is a strong piece of work.

Like Street, Balboa is very consistent visit-to-visit. Also like Street, it deserves its own column because of its aforementioned side issues.

Olympic Club Starter Shack: This is a weird one, both because it's a weird burger and also because not everyone has had the opportunity to eat here. This is the shack that sits next to the driving range at the Olympic Club out on Great Highway. For the record, I'm not a member. The burger itself is in a hot dog bun, and the meat is shaped long and flat to fit it. The produce is very standard. The meat is very good but not spectacular. But somehow this strange approach and simple ingredients meld to form a truly incredible burger. When I'm invited to play one of the courses there, my first thought is not about the course or the golf, but about this burger, and I'm not alone. If you get the chance, don't miss out. For members and people who go there often, this post isn't for you because you already well know about this gem.

I have to say, though these are my choices, you wouldn't be wrong if you said that one of these places had SF's best burger.

Bill's Place - The place in the Richmond grinds their own meat, and it's an impressive burger

Houston's - Don't scoff, this place delivers... especially if you're okay with overpaying by 40%

Taylor's Refresher - See Houston's above

Burger Meister - A few locations here, this place makes a solid but unspectacular (IMO) burger
Home (Castro or Union) - Just kidding, you'd be wrong if you said this

You would definitely be wrong if you said Barney's on Steiner. In fact, you'd lose all burger credibility at that point. I refuse to link to them.

Anyway, that's my take on SF burgers. Enjoy and don't forget the pickles.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Work-Eat Cafes

I, like many others, have a pretty flexible work situation - work hard, be effective, and go ahead and do it your way. I love it, and so do most in my position. The obvious downside is that the old home office doesn't offer much in the way of socialization and general sensory stimulus (which sounds gross but really just means it's boring and nothing moves unless you move it yourself). For us "poor souls" the Work-Eat Cafe is vital. If you've never worked in this environment, don't read on as you'll just get angry and jealous.

There are quite a few options out there in a city like San Francisco. We practically invented the coffee-laptop spill here. At the very least, we definitely control that market space. For me, the priorities in a Work-Eat cafe are 1) decent coffee, 2) reliable internet access, 3) an adequate food option, and of course 4) decent people watching.

The standard, world-wide option for this is Starbucks. It's time-tested and reliable - you know just what you're getting. My friend Jim, with whom I work, loves Starbucks. He lives somewhere in the South Bay
and works EVERY DAY at the same Starbucks. The people who work there either hate him or love him at this point, but either way I really appreciate Jim's loyalty and simplicity. Of course he doesn't have as many options in the South Bay, but that's not his fault.

Starbucks doesn't quite do it for me. The Internet is T-Mobile and costs $10 a pop, the coffee barely meets the decent quotient (but it does, sadly) and the food options are atrocious. The Starbucks scone must be listed on the Periodic Table somewhere as one of the densest elements. It's inexcusable. The people-watching is the one saving grace of Starbucks because they generally move fast, come in steady droves, and are angry.

Here are the three options in San Francisco that I prefer, starting with the most obvious.

The Grove: Decent coffee, good food, reliable ($5) internet and great poople watching. This place was invented for my ilk. The breakfast food is very good, but literally deadly after a full week of it - they spare no bovine or grease monkey. The noise is a little rough if you get a work call. The fact that they install 6-foot long surge protectors on every wall and bench is pretty much the biggest clue that they're designed around people like me. The biggest problem with the Grove is that "working at the Grove" is now a wry-smile-inducing cliche. I blame this on the Chestnut location, however, which leads me to my only truly opinionated take on this place: The Fillmore Grove is the only real option (wow, stop the presses).

The Chestnut location has a clientele average age 5 years younger than Fillmore. That's fine in some respects (insert sexist joke here), but generally it's a crowd that's considerably more self-aware, is cultivating the casual look, and is usually fake-studying. I would define those last two phrases, but I think you can figure it out if you've been there. I'm not one to insult the Marina for no reason - I really like the place - but when people talk bad about the Marina, this is what they're talking about.

The Fillmore location has a more mature crowd and all the same benefits (even the sexist ones). Plus, I'm convinced that the people who work there are a tad nicer, though I have no proof. Thus, if one has only benefits over the other - this isn't a pro-con argument - why would you pick the lesser Grove?

Ritual Coffee: A friend called this place on Valencia "what you would create for a movie if you were trying to depict a hip, San Francisco coffee house". For this reason, and for the reason that it's in the Mission, if any of the regulars here knew that I mentioned it in the same blog as The Grove, they sneer at me and key my car. But the truth is, this place has the best coffee (french press) of any place I can think of. The coffee is not just fancy and strong, but truly, truly good. Pile onto that a very hip interior, great people watching, free internet, and these pastries called "dirt bombs" and you have a general winner.

The downside of Ritual - the people are mean
and the to-go lids leak. Mission people are definitely an angry sort, and this place has cornered the market on the priveleged/ultra-hip/angry crowd. It doesn't affect you much though because you're in a coffee shop where you can stare at anyone and ignore anyone.

The lids, however, are a major issue.
Peet's (which I love) has the occasionally leaky lid caused by the imperfect lid-cup match. Ritual has habitually leaky lids. I've never had a to-go lid there that HAS worked. I don't know if it's a weird, intentional Mission thing where the owner believes that people should sit and drink coffee and he's punishing the to-go people by staining their clothes, or whether it's just incompetence. I mentioned the lid problem to a girl at the counter the other day saying that I'd heard through friends that it had been fixed. Her hushed response: "I know what you're talking about, and no it hasn't been fixed." This was followed by some nervous glances, lending to my conspiracy theory. The synopsis - Ritual isn't for the to-go coffee drinker.

Nook: I won't spend much time on this little place on Jackson and Hyde, but I like it alot. It has the necessary ingredients I outlined above, and it has a certain nuance that i really like. Perhaps it's the cable cars, or the 8-table seating, or the entrepreneur feel of it, or maybe the fact that it has a good, interesting crowd while not being crowded (a feat rarely pulled off). The only time it got really crowded was right after it was featured in Daily Candy, which brought a whole other element to the place. Generally I like this place a lot.

Two final thoughts:

1) No, the Periodic Table is not a thought that regularly comes to mind.

2) Do grease monkeys actually produce grease?