9/28/2012 01:52:00 PM

SF Chronicle Critic Michael Bauer on LA vs. SF, the Relevance of Being a Newspaper Critic Today and More

SF Chronicle restaurant critic (and OG master of food journalism) Michael Bauer (whom we recently featured in a special SF food-centered Google+ Hangout) has been writing about food in the Bay Area for some 26 years. Bauer grew up in the biz - he worked at his father's meat market in college while studying journalism and then eventually completed a master's in mental health mass communications, becoming a journalist in that field before switching over to food. We jumped at the chance to pick the brain of one of the most widely read and highly respected food critics in the country.  Check out our chat with Michael about the relevance of traditional food criticism, his thoughts on why brothels helped SF became such a great food city and why food has become so darn trendy these days.

Zagat: How would you describe the food scene in San Francisco at this moment?
Right now it is kind of going away from clich├ęs into a very personal cuisine. You have chefs like Mourad Lahlou using his Moroccan heritage, you have Nick Balla who is doing the same with Hungarian food at Bar Tartine, there's a meshing of cuisines but it comes from a personal place rather than a trend.

Zagat: Why and how do you think San Francisco became such a great food city, you mentioned previously that you had a theory on it, potentially pertaining to early SF brothels?
I think that if you look at the history, or any history you can see how the different influences of various cultures have influenced the cuisine. By looking at foods you kind of get an idea of who the people are, what they can grow, why corn became the dominant grain in the US and all that.

Using that as a theory, you can look at SF in the 1850s during the Gold Rush - it was a very freewheeling society. People were here to get their riches, especially men, so it became very entrepreneurial. There were houses of prostitution on basically every block. And one of the ways they distinguished themselves was with the free lunch - basically the men would have their lunch and then they would go upstairs with the girls. To me it really linked food and pleasure unlike any other culture whereas on the East Coast - I still think that when you look at the East Coast it always had more of a Puritan ethic and the West Coast had a very pleasure ethic and I think that’s what led to the freedom to enjoy and love food. 

Zagat: LA seems to be getting a lot more attention lately in terms of hot chefs and restaurants - what are your thoughts on LA’s food scene vs. SF’s?
I don’t want to trash LA because I actually like it and I love going there, but I think they’re very different. I think back to the late 80s when the trends were coming from LA, you had Wolfgang Puck and Michael Roberts, so you had that whole cadre of chefs kind of eclipsing what was happening here. But I think frankly since that time it’s been SF that has had the upper hand.

I think where LA has always had strength was in its ethnic restaurants, where you get some food that you don't find here. I think because of the size of the city, it kind of negates the small neighborhood restaurant like you have here in the Mission. These places do very wonderful destination food very comfortably because we’re so compact. In LA just about every place has to be a destination because you have to drive there. While you do have neighborhood restaurants, I don’t know if it’s the same as the caliber of restaurants we have here. In LA it’s more of a "see and be seen" and in SF it's more of a "let’s see what’s on the plate." 

Zagat: How relevant do you think the opinion of a traditional restaurant critic is today - has it lost any value over the years?
Now there are a lot more ways to get information, we used to be the only source, now you have many sources. I think if you talk to restaurateurs and ask what happens when there’s a review in the Chronicle as opposed to any other type of media, and you do the same in Chicago or in NY for their traditional reviews, I think you’ll find that those are still the biggest drivers of getting people in the seats.

Maybe those of us that do it for a living have lost a little influence, we’ve also gained more in some ways. It used to be that no one else outside the Bay Area would read my reviews, now I’m continually getting emails from people in all 50 states who are coming here and want recommendations. I think it’s still almost too early to know how everything is going to shake out. It used to be that everyone was fearful of Yelp and now you’re hearing backlash on that. I mean, I would hate to be starting the job today but I’m lucky in that I’ve been doing it for long enough that I’ve developed a name, both good and bad.

Zagat: You've been in your role so much longer than most, in NY most critics only last a few years.
People say that these critics have had an imposed or self-imposed term limit which is not really true. If you don’t love it, it’s very easy to get burned out. Even if you do love it, it’s easy to get burned out. You have to continue to keep yourself fresh and you have to love it and once you stop, it’s time to stop. 

Zagat: Do you ever get sick of writing about food?
Um...no, I don’t. I used to be - it’s interesting, I had what people would think would be a much more interesting job. I have a master's degree in mental health so for the first five years maybe of my career, I wrote about  mental health and how people cope. I wrote features on being the other women, the psychological impact of that. I wrote stories on the psychological impact of suicide on families. I followed one child from diagnosis of leukemia to her death.

I did a lot of things like that and I felt like I did get burned out. Everything I was doing was the whole Kubler-Ross stages of dying or acceptance, it didn't matter if you're suffering from the loss of a fingernail or the loss of the spouse, the whole coping mechanism was the same. I felt like I was repeating the same story over and over again with different specifics. But once I started writing about food I never felt like that. Most people would think that food is much more limiting topic, but it’s not - it changes every day. I love the whole social aspect of it, I would be out every night even if I didn't get paid to do it. 

Zagat: How do you feel about fast food being covered by dining blogs (often for the sake of irony)?
I always say on  a blog you write about pizza, hamburgers or service - it’s because people can relate to it. Most people have been to McDonald’s or have at least seen the commercials or have been to Burger King and all those places. And you know, I’m not snobby about that. If I can’t have something really good, I would just as soon go pay a buck for a hamburger than to go somewhere and pay $8 for a mediocre hamburger. At least for a dollar you know what you are going to get. 

Zagat: Being from Kansas City, do you have any Midwestern guilty pleasures when it comes to food?
I love fried chicken. I remember growing up on - of course now we call them chicarrones, but we called them fried pig skins - I had those all the time. You know I still love that kind of Tex-Mex food that you get in the Midwest. So yeah I think a lot of those things stick with us. And I think now people are tapping into those memories. As we become disconnected in a lot of other ways, food connects us. Even as close as we are now because of communication, there is a still a distance and I think food bridges that distance.


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