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Food critic undercover in San Francisco

Michael Bauer, a food critic, keeps San Francisco chefs on their toes.

By Chuck Cohen/ correspondent / August 10, 2011

San Francisco

I enjoy – make that love – eating out. Discovering new restaurants. Revisiting favorites. And having an opinion on everything from the height of the soufflé to the lineage of the chicken. So when I had a chance to join a newspaper reviewer on his surreptitious rounds, I jumped, figuratively, into the stockpot with Michael Bauer, food editor and restaurant critic for the San Francisco Chronicle for the past 24 years.

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From the moment I knew where we were to dine and what made-up name his reservation would be under, I started worrying I would commit some gaffe that would blow his cover. Perhaps I would forget his pseudonym for the evening and blurt out, "Two for Michael Bauer."

Thankfully, before I could humiliate myself, he suggested we meet outside the restaurant.

Now my concern was how to recognize him. I didn't think he would go as far as Ruth Reichl who, when she reviewed for The New York Times, would on occasion don a wig and assume the persona "Brenda Rose." (At the other extreme, a restaurant reviewer for Chicago Magazine I dined with many years ago carried a tape recorder in his pocket and a microphone in the lapel hole of his jacket. Every few minutes he would lean over to talk to his lapel. It was like being in a "Saturday Night Live" sketch.)

But I had no need to worry about failing to recognize my dining partner. Mr. Bauer told me his disguise was apparently going to be ... Michael Bauer.

"Ninety percent of the time I will not be recognized," he insisted. "I sit at tables most people would reject." But that anonymity often doesn't last long as "usually a waiter or hostess will recognize me." Although, he added, being found out is not all bad. "Not being anonymous frees me up and I know they're doing the best they can do."

In fact, he would prefer visiting a new restaurant twice anonymously and once as Michael Bauer to see if there is any difference.

These days, however, the great majority of reviewers don't have a newspaper byline. They have an e-mail address at Yelp, Chowhound, or Urbanspoon to list just a few of the websites that attract millions of food writers and readers. Yelp, for example, reports that by mid-July this year it had published 20 million reviews over the past seven years. It now hosts 53 million unique viewers each month.

Although he believes "any review has validity," Bauer also feels that "the general public is much more critical than I am." And while he thinks that the stars he awards restaurants reflect the average ratings on most websites, he also believes there is a difference between how he reviews and how the online critics do it. "Generally on Yelp it's a service, not a food, issue," he maintains. And those service problems "color how they view the food."

Anna Weinberg, co-owner of the San Francisco restaurant Marlowe (three stars out of four from Bauer) says she uses these consumer websites "as a watchdog," an "unpaid secret shopper" to help her identify "immediate problems" she might otherwise not be aware of. Although she also says those same websites have created a group of self-appointed critics: customers who, when they make a reservation, announce, "We will be Yelping tonight."


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