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.

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