Food critic undercover in San Francisco

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

By , / correspondent

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.

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.

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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."

Hidden or recognized, Bauer eats out almost every night. He skips breakfast and usually eats a light lunch. He makes three visits to a new restaurant before writing his review, returns to each of his annual 100 Best once a year, and goes back to check up on restaurants he has previously reviewed. He also spends 40 minutes on the treadmill each day and takes one vacation a year to a place where good dining is not even an option. Antarctica was a recent destination.

But there is a regret in his life. He knows he can't socialize with the people who own or work at the restaurants he reviews. Although he was friends with Wolfgang Puck and attended his wedding, once Mr. Puck opened a restaurant in San Francisco, their friendship had to end. "You give up a lot," he sighed. But it's not just losing friends that's a problem. As Bauer says, "The longer you do the job, the more enemies you make," he says. "I don't take it personally."

Tonight, in this half-filled French-like bistro (two stars in 2007) he was about to rereview a meal that could possibly increase that enemies list. It didn't take very long for us to realize that at least one of those stars was in danger of falling from the sky.

Unrecognized, we waited while they set our table, and then the staff proceeded to ignore our requests for everything from a soupspoon to the check. And yet Bauer never stepped out of the role of uncomplaining patron. He is a pleasant-looking Everyman and not a larger-than-life James Beard-type presence. Rather than making notes during the meal – or speaking into his lapel – he used his phone to take photos of the dishes to help him recall, for example, how the boeuf bourguignon was inexplicably covered in puff pastry.

And yet throughout dinner I never felt as if I was sitting across from a sneering critic such as Anton Ego, the animated character Peter O'Toole voiced in the Disney Pixar film "Ratatouille."

We took spoonfuls and forkfuls of each other's dishes – making few comments during the meal other than a couple raised eyebrows (mine) and questioning glances (mine again), at what was passing for French cuisine. The critic's barbs were saved for the one-star rereview he wrote two weeks later.

While most of Bauer's reviews are at least two stars (if a restaurant is terrible on his first visit he often doesn't return or write about it), his barbs can be sharper than any serpent's incisor. While I would have chosen "bland" to describe the weak onion soup, he went with the far more descriptive "tasted as if the kitchen had added water to stretch the broth." For me the pizza was just not worth taking home, while he thought it was "a limp margherita ... with a crust that had the spongy characteristic of a Boboli with a too-sweet tomato sauce." And while my Petrale sole was, to me, incredibly dry, he found it "two minutes away from becoming jerky." Ouch. But accurate.

Of course, being with a reviewer does make you think somewhat more critically. So when he handed me the specialty beverage to sip, I considered it an opportunity to follow in the footsteps, not to mention the taste buds, of critics such as Craig Claiborne, Mimi Sheraton, Frank Bruni, Jonathan Gold, and, of course, Michael Bauer. I sipped. Scrunched my face thoughtfully and then declared, slowly enough for him to recall the words so he could, if he chose, include them in his review, "It tastes like something I would have at my dentist's."

He nodded politely, as if to say, "these days everyone wants to be a critic."

And, of course, he is right.

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