San Francisco Magazine Online

November issue

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Eathing in Michael Bauer's Town

Our world-class chefs have found themselves catering to the food critic. But more and more restaurant insiders are asking: Should this man have so much power?

Seasoned restaurant critics do their damnedest not to be recognized when they go out to eat. Ruth Reichl, the legendary New York Times reviewer and now editor-in-chief of Gourmet, had more getups and wigs than Eddie Murphy in The Klumps. William Grimes, her successor, is about to enter what he calls "phase three" of incognito dining. Don't ask; it's confidential. Tom Sietsema of the Washington Post has gone so far as to recruit friends in the CIA to help him alter his looks. • When Michael Bauer, the lead critic at the Chronicle, walked into Stars one night in April, the host welcomed him with a cheerful "Good evening! Good to see you again." The savvy greeter stopped just short of saying "Mr. Bauer," lest he ruin a good charade. He knew who Bauer was. Bauer knew he knew. But the gracious host smiled and pretended Bauer was a regular guy. Then with a wave of his hand, he led us to a grand corner table, where we were doted on by the wine director and treated to the best cuts of rib eye and pork loin in the house. • That little act in the entryway was for Bauer's sake, as it often is when he arrives at a restaurant to review it. See, restaurant critics are supposed to follow some ground rules. They're expected to disguise themselves because it's their job to sit in for readers and describe the dining experience. If they're recognized, they get the best of everything: the most attractive table, the most attentive server, and the freshest, most meticulously crafted dishes to come out of the kitchen. Accurate reporting is simply impossible. Which is why this note runs at the bottom of the paper's reviews: "Chronicle critics make every attempt to remain anonymous." Good critics also know to keep their distance from chefs. They don't go to restaurant openings or anniversary parties, wine tastings, or any other soirees that would put them in close contact with chefs. Bauer wrote this rule himself when he was president of the Association of Food Journalists, and it makes sense: If critics hobnob with chefs, they form personal alliances, and then, says Grimes, "it's harder to be honest."



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