I laughed out loud when I got a fax recently from a friend who wanted me to read an article that appeared in the August issue of San Francisco magazine. I laughed because the friend, who is normally the epitome of grace, goes nuts when she hears the name Michael Bauer. He’s the food critic for the San Francisco Chronicle and the subject of the article, which turns the tables on the reviewer and critiques him. Let’s put it this way: If Bauer were a restaurant, he’d get no stars after this critique.
I’ve met Bauer a couple of times and found him to be relatively charming. But for many who operate restaurants in the San Francisco area, according to the article and my friend, he’s anything but.
The gist of the piece, written by Maile Carpenter, is that Bauer has far too much power over the restaurant scene and he frequently abuses it. His critics have a laundry list of complaints against him, including his apparent refusal to disguise himself when he reviews restaurants. This is a small complaint if you operate a restaurant in San Francisco because, knowing that Bauer is in your restaurant, you can pay special attention to please him. That, says the article, is exactly what he wants.
Bauer addresses this complaint, saying he examines the surrounding tables during a meal to make sure other diners are getting the same level of service and portion sizes. Maitre d’ Michael Judge of Masa’s explains in the article that he counters Bauer by making sure all the tables surrounding the reviewer get the same high level of service.
Bauer, by the way, is a cookbook author who has sat at staged events to sign his books for the public, including any restaurateur who might want to meet him. If you don’t meet him there you might meet him at other high profile food-related events. Most reviewers adhere to a rule that they stay out of the public limelight so they won’t develop close relationships with the people who they’ll end up reviewing.
Bauer tends to review restaurants more favorably when he’s recognized, says one restaurateur in the article. Others say he’s driving chefs in town mad trying to figure out what he likes and dislikes. If Bauer likes what he sees, a restaurant’s reservations go through the roof; if he doesn’t, menus are revamped and chefs can lose their jobs. A restaurant operator in the article estimates that a bad review from Bauer can lead to a downturn in reservations that can last for months.
One restaurant, after a scathing review by Bauer, countered by launching a campaign to win back customers. It’s "Name Your Own Price For Dinner" promotion allowed diners to pay what they though each dish was worth at the end of the meal. The chef of that restaurant, by the way, was fired shortly after the review.
Okay, so Michael Bauer may not be the most loved guy in San Francisco. But I’m sure a lot of you have had your own troubles with less-than-fair or informed restaurant reviewers. The promotion just mentioned is just one (desperate) way to deal with the problem. What I’m looking for is other solutions you’ve used to counter bad reviewers and bad reviews. If you’ve got some ideas that will help, send me an e-mail (see below).
MICHAEL SANSON, Editor-in-Chief