Michael Bauer. The name instills fear, respect and a whole lot of other emotions for restaurant owners and their staff, and really anyone who cares about dining out in the Bay Area. Yelp's own Nish N had the chance to have lunch with the enigmatic restaurant critic of the SF Chronicle at Chez Papa Resto. Our guy had the steak, Michael had the lamb. They split the bill. Here's what they chatted about:
Nish: Where would that last meal be? Our Mayor was big on Alice Waters.
It depends on what night you catch me; I’m kind of fickle in that
department. It might be the roast chicken at Zuni, the carpaccio at
Foreign Cinema; the soup dumplings at Yank Sing; the chocolate pot de
creme at Slow Club. Hey maybe it could be a progressive dinner and we
could hire a driver. Then I’d add the Corpse Reviver II from Fonda in
Oakland and the Rattlesnake from Beretta in San Francisco.
Nish: Any funny stories about being recognized at a restaurant?
MB: I once was threatened by an owner that I would be kicked out of his restaurant if he saw me. I put on a disguise and walked right past him. However the meal was so mediocre I decided not to review the place. It died without any help from me.
Nish: Are you a fan of Yelp? What are we doing right and wrong? Be critical, we know you’re good at that!
I think there’s a place for what I do and what Yelp does. In a perfect
world I’d like people to go to me first, and then to Yelp to see if my
review still holds. The problem with user generated sites, obviously,
is that there can be poorly researched or mean spirited comments. As
with a reviewer from newspapers and magazines, readers need to learn
who to trust and who to discount. One thing I don’t understand: Why are
some newer reviews buried while others are brought to the top. Why not
just keep them in the order they come in, newest to oldest. I think
that would be more helpful for everyone. [Nish explained to Michael that you could, in fact, sort by currency].
Nish: Any tips for yelpers when eating out?
MB: Go hungry and expect the best.
Nish: If you’re not on the clock, so to speak, any regular eateries you like?
MB: As I mentioned earlier, I love going to Foreign Cinema and Zuni. I’ve also loved my recent meals at Willi’s Wine Bar in Santa Rosa and Chez Papa Resto. However producing a review and Update each week, writing a daily blog and continually researching the Top 100 doesn’t leave me many free nights. When I’m not dining out for work, I’m generally out of town.
Nish: Where’s the last place your readers would expect to find you?
MB: Taco Bell.
Nish: Any up and coming chefs to keep an eye on?
Christopher Kostow from Meadowood is a true rising star. Jeremy Fox at
Ubuntu in Napa is rewriting the story on vegetarian cuisine.
Nish: Any bars that have surprised you with their level of food service?
MB: The first place that comes to mind is Beretta; great service for a casual environment.
Nish: Does Michael Bauer need a reservation? Any secrets to getting that perfect table?
I always make reservations in other names. Therefore I generally get
the worst times—either very early or late. It’s also surprising that
when you go early you often get the worst table. If you don’t like the
table and others are available that are better, simply ask for them.
Nish: When reviewing, would you prefer to eat alone or with companions? Why?
MB: I have other critic friends who love to eat alone at least one meal. I’ve done it when I’m out of town, but I don’t think I’ve ever dined by myself in the Bay Area. Dining is a social experience, and I need the extra mouths so I can order and taste more food.
Nish: Do you have a favorite neighborhood?
MB: The best part of the job is getting to explore many neighborhoods. However I still love the vibrancy of North Beach.
Nish: Last great book you read and where did you buy it - or enjoy it?
MB: Most of my reading is on the treadmill at 7 a.m. every morning trying to work off the calories I consumed the night before. I figure if I can get rid of at least 500 calories a day on the treadmill, it will allow me to eat more at night. Currently I’m reading Exile by Richard North Patterson.
Nish: Last time you bought something really outrageous (expensive or just plain weird) and where'd you find it?
MB: I’m pretty conservative with my purchases; my main indulgence is to go on a trip each year that’s not connected to food. That’s the reason I’ve gone to Antarctica, Iceland and on safari in Africa. This year I plan to go to Egypt.
Nish: If you didn’t have your current gig, what would you be doing for a living?
MB: I have a master’s degree in mental health mass communications and at one time I started back to school to become a therapist. However food is much more fun.
Nish: Do you do anything else besides eat?
MB: Monkey brains still warm from the just-slaughtered animal.
Nish: What’s the last meal you ate outside of San Francisco where you said, "I wish we had that"?
Nish: Last experience – culinary or otherwise - that made you think: "God, I love San Francisco"?
I think that every day because there’s a surprising view around every
corner. As for food, I’m always happy to see how seriously the chefs,
even at smaller restaurants, take their craft and their respect of our
environment. A couple of weeks ago I was in New York in 99 degree
weather; yet another reason I wanted to get back here. The climate, I
think is an important factor in why we’re such a great restaurant city.
Who wants to eat when it’s 100 degrees?
Nish: Where are you eating tonight?
MB: Bin 38