Rebecca Flint Marx’s piece in San Francisco Magazine on “The Michaels” that came out today is the most thorough examination I’ve yet read of the dynamic of our region’s Michael-Bauer-driven restaurant scene.
“What this is really about.” Marx writes,
is a city whose impact on the nation’s—and arguably the world’s—culinary culture stands in direct contradiction to its innate provinciality. San Francisco is a village, one that’s full of chefs who have spent their entire career under a single critic and have been conditioned to please him and to not, with very few exceptions, ask any questions.
As an outsider who’s now been in the business here for a couple years, including spending part of that time working on a restaurant that aspired to be in the circle of places that are well-reviewed by the area’s top-tier restaurant critics, I have some, you know, observations and thoughts.
The first is that, as far as I can tell, Marx’s assertion above, if anything, understates how influential Bauer’s preferences are to the development of the restaurant industry here. Prior to the opening of nearly every restaurant here that will appear on his radar, all operations, menu, and media strategy are run through the filter of “What Will Bauer Think?” Every publicist has as their first priority a good Bauer review, because that is the primary way to attract national press (and James Beard Awards). Every GM, chef and sommelier is keenly aware of how their decisions will likely be perceived by Bauer. And yes, absolutely everybody reads the well-circulated documents with his and his partner’s photos and preferences finely delineated. Even many investors want to know from the operating team, how do you plan to get a good Bauer review?
It’s clear that there is a certain type of restaurant that Michael Bauer prefers, and I think that, not unrelatedly, our restaurants of that type are superior to any other city’s collection of same. There’s an argument to be made — and to a great degree, Bauer’s accumulated writing makes this argument well — that by keeping an entire city focused on a single type of restaurant experience, Bauer has helped this region to punch above its weight, and helped bring a lot of fame and financial success to our best practitioners. Much like a small French village might become world-renowned for a single type of cheese or wine, so is the inner Bay Area widely acknowledged as a world-class restaurant city, based principally on its excellence at producing one signature style of restaurant.
There’s also an argument to be made that this condition is not necessarily the best situation for the region’s community of diners. Relative to many other major cities, San Francisco’s group of well-regarded restaurants offers, in my experience, a somewhat startling lack of diversity. Even where the cuisine may vary to, say, French- or Japanese-inspired cooking instead of the more familiar “Cal-Ital” farm-to-table, our restaurants often feel as though they have a very similar soul — the guest experience, philosophy, approach, often even the ingredients themselves are very familiar from place to place. To spend even just a few days in a city like Boston or Los Angeles is to be reminded that there are lots of other ways to do restaurants, and those other approaches offer great and unique experiences that people love and that can also achieve excellence. The many of us who love cities and dining out would, surely, enjoy the development of a more eclectic, even chaotic, community of great restaurants.
Caveats. There’s a lot of them. Here’s some. 1) Despite what I perceive as a general lack of diversity in approach here, there are of course restaurants of the type I’m discussing — the type that make “best new restaurant” lists, for shorthand — that are clearly outside of the dominant paradigm. FuseBOX is one example that comes immediately to mind, and there are certainly others. Oakland seems to be growing more of them; this might be in part encouraged by the overtly egalitarian approach of the East Bay’s most prominent restaurant critic, Luke Tsai. 2) As restaurants mature (and over time become less influenced by reviews), they tend to develop their own unique being. A successful Bay Area restaurant that has 7 or 10 years under its belt is pretty far removed from its planning stages, and will more reflect the core intentions of its operators and team than the context in which it opened. 3) There are plenty of mom-and-pop shops, including many immigrant-owned places, that are delivering absolutely excellent cuisine and diverse experiences outside of the type we associate with Bauer reviews. 4) There are plenty of parts of the Bay Area, including East Oakland where we operate The Half Orange, where the vast majority of diners would not expect the area’s restaurants to have a Bauer review, and as a result his preferences are unlikely to be shaping these areas significantly. 5) Restaurants here, of all styles, are really good, and I’m glad to be living here. There’s not many places that have it this good, even if there are, perhaps, ways it could be better.