SAN FRANCISCO — Belmar Meat Market sits at the corner of Harrison and 24th streets in the Mission District, a historically Latino neighborhood that is fighting the relentless creep of gentrification. In the back of the market, there’s a small kitchen, where employees prepare and sell menudo, burritos and heavenly little tacos wrapped in freshly pressed and griddled tortillas.
Also known as La Gallinita, Belmar is a Mission institution, just the kind of place that the late Los Angeles Times food critic Jonathan Gold would have devoted body and soul to explain to readers. But in his 32 years as restaurant critic for the San Francisco Chronicle, Michael Bauer never wrote about Belmar/La Gallinita. Bauer, in fact, didn’t write much about the taquerias, panaderias and other Latino shops that populate this area. He tended to focus on the upper reaches of the famed San Francisco dining scene, which has produced seven three-Michelin-star restaurants, two more than New York .
Two critics, two destination food cities, two dramatically different approaches to reviewing restaurants. By design and by cruel fate, both jobs are now open to a new generation. Bauer, 66, announced his retirement in July. Later that same month, Gold died suddenly, unexpectedly, from pancreatic cancer at age 57.
The job openings have, in turn, opened a discussion on the future of American food criticism in the era of #MeToo, social justice and crowdsourced restaurant reviews. Editors at the Times and the Chronicle have an opportunity to rethink the job description and maybe even break from the tradition of hiring, by and large, white males to pass judgment on restaurants.
“Everything can and should be reassessed,” says Paolo Lucchesi, the Chronicle’s senior editor for lifestyle, which includes food coverage. “That’s kind of what we’ve done with our food journalism overall: reassess the conventions, and if they’re there for a reason, we can keep it. But don’t do them because that’s what we’ve done.”
The conventions and guidelines for food criticism had already been in flux since the dawn of the Information Age, which coincided with the decline of general-interest newspapers. As budgets have shrunk and pressures have increased for high-profile critics to take part in promotional events, editors have sometimes cut back the number of times a critic visits a restaurant or asked reviewers to drop their anonymity (which the Internet had pretty much destroyed anyway).
But as two of the most prominent food critic jobs in America are up for grabs, editors are grappling with larger cultural, ethical and financial questions: Should a single critic be responsible for an entire region? What kinds of restaurants should be reviewed? Should the criticism be limited to the food on the plate, the decor, the service? Or should it look at broader societal issues, since Yelp and other sites are already packed with amateur reviews? Should editors strive to hire men and women of color, who would bring fresh perspectives?
Complicating matters, San Francisco and Los Angeles have their own legacies to confront. For better or worse, chefs, restaurateurs and diners have been reading Bauer and Gold for decades. They have opinions on who should — and shouldn’t — succeed them. If there is one truism about each city’s hunt for a replacement, it’s this: San Francisco — flush with tech wealth and progressive values — seems ready for change. Los Angeles is still coping with the change forced upon it by the death of a beloved food critic, the only one to win a Pulitzer Prize.
Caleb Zigas pulls up a chair at D'Maize, a sunny Mission pupuseria run by Zenaida Merlin and Luis Estrada. Merlin is a graduate of La Cocina, which helps women of color grow their food businesses. Zigas is executive director of the organization, which has worked to launch 26 bricks-and-mortar restaurants.
Until this month, Bauer had never reviewed a single one of them. But on Aug. 3, he wrote a three-star rave about Dyafa, a partnership between Reem Assil, the Palestinian Syrian chef behind the touted Reem’s California bakery in Oakland, and Daniel Patterson, the innovative Bay Area chef and restaurateur behind the Michelin-three-star Coi.
“The reason he’s there is because of Daniel,” Zigas says about Bauer’s trips to Dyafa. “He’s not going to Reem’s. . . . It’s not the kind of place he reviews. It doesn’t have sit-down service.”
When discussing what kind of critic they want, people in the Bay Area restaurant community frequently cite qualities they perceive are absent in Bauer’s work, whether or not they understand how he fit into the paper’s overall coverage. “I only did reviews if it was something that I thought was really worth a wider audience, and you can debate what that is,” says Bauer, noting the Chronicle once had secondary critics focused on mom-and-pop restaurants.
Still, Bauer’s shadow looms large when industry folks talk about a successor. They want someone who will review immigrant restaurants. They want someone who will venture more frequently into the East Bay. They want someone without any alleged ethical conflicts. They want someone other than a white man.
Some of their wishes are rooted in seismic generational and economic shifts. Millennials have repeatedly expressed interest in dining convenience, customization, quality and experimentation. Combine that with the rising costs of running a restaurant in San Francisco, and you can understand why chefs and restaurateurs have been to turning to counter-service establishments, such as Media Noche and Sababa.
“There is some expectation that the local food critic would check those places out or bother to review them,” says Gwyneth Borden, executive director of the Golden Gate Restaurant Association.
In recent years, Patterson, a vocal critic of Bauer, has taken a more active role in creating opportunities for women and people of color, including Assil at Dyafa. He’s a firm believer in rooting out implicit bias, the attitudes that unconsciously affect actions.
After Bauer published this year’s list of the Top 100 Restaurants of 2018, Patterson took to Twitter: “I noticed that there are zero working black chefs on the list. Zero. How is this possible?” (According to the 2010 census, San Francisco is 6.1 percent African American.)
Major newspapers almost universally employ white critics, though some have been groundbreaking female voices such as Ruth Reichl’s at the Times (both Los Angeles and New York) and Mimi Sheraton’s at the New York Times. Patterson would like to see the Chronicle not just hire a critic of color but also put systems and people in place — editors and copy editors of color — to check for biases and cultural insensitivities. This, he says, would naturally widen the critic’s scope.
“White people trying to be sensitive about diversity isn’t as good as involving people of color,” Patterson says. “White people have a tendency to overestimate their ability to fix problems.”
The three people who will probably decide on Bauer’s replacement are white: Lucchesi; Kitty Morgan, assistant managing editor for features; and Audrey Cooper, editor in chief. Morgan says they’re not ruling out any candidates, including white men. “I think, though, that we’re going to look really hard at how can we change up the conversation,” Morgan adds.
Lucchesi, for one, wants someone who can talk about the Bay Area — its politics, its troubles, its culture — through the lens of a review, though he cautions that the new hire will help shape the job.
“This is the story of the Bay Area told through restaurants,” Lucchesi says. “That’s what our mission has been with our team, but also, it should be the mission of the critic.”
The moment Bauer announced his Sept. 17 retirement, the Internet lit up with speculation on a replacement. Some names repeatedly popped up, including Tejal Rao at the New York Times and Soleil Ho, the chef, author and co-host of the Racist Sandwich podcast. Patterson even threw out a few Twitter suggestions, including everyone listed on Equity at the Table, an industry database featuring "women/gender nonconforming individuals and focusing primarily on POC and the LGBTQ community."
Experience should not be the deciding factor, Patterson says, because it favors the white establishment. “All the people I listed, and so many more, they would learn,” he says.
With the near collapse of alternative newspapers, where rookie writers could pick up valuable experience, former OC Weekly editor and food critic Gustavo Arellano says that the burden now falls on major dailies to develop young voices.
“The dailies have to take risks,” Arellano says. “Of course, you can’t just give it to any person off the streets. There has to be something there. There has to be that spark that a genius editor says, ‘You know what? Your clippings are nothing. But I see something in you.’ ”
Sam Sifton, food editor at the New York Times, argues that the “best people” should be hired, regardless of gender or race. He says that means they’re not just critics who type up their opinions; they’re reporters who conduct interviews and doggedly research their subjects before expressing an opinion.
“Culture criticism requires a collection of skill sets and a desire to learn and a desire to report,” Sifton says. “That leads to good and accurate criticism about the restaurants at hand.”
Sifton made a surprise announcement on Aug. 10: Rao, an Indian American woman and a former critic at the Village Voice and Bloomberg News, would become the Times’s first restaurant critic for California. The news not only took Rao off the market but established her as fierce competition for the future new critics in Los Angeles and San Francisco.
Then again, many Angelenos can’t imagine anyone replacing Gold, so admired that Los Angeles lit several buildings in gold on what would have been his 58th birthday.
“You just face that fact that you can’t replace him, that you’ll hire a restaurant critic or two or five to cover the beats, but it will never be the same,” says Evan Kleiman, the chef and radio host of “Good Food,” which featured Gold.
Editors at the Los Angeles Times declined an interview, saying it was too soon after Gold’s death. But recently they sent a memo to staff announcing their efforts to rebuild the food team. They’re conducting a search for a new food editor as well as “new restaurant critics.” Plural.
The team approach may help the Times cover a large, diverse and congested city. It may also establish compelling voices across multiple cuisines rather than relying on the single voice of authority. But it will come at a cost, notes Russ Parsons, a retired Times food editor and columnist. “You lose the brand name,” he says.
You will also probably lose any chance to develop a singular voice that will forever live in the hearts of Angelenos. Wes Avila, the former fine-dining chef whose Guerrilla Tacos truck was blessed with a full Gold review in 2014, says he has placed a photo of the critic in his new bricks-and-mortar restaurant.
“I put it up in the kitchen, so it’s looking down on us,” Avila says. “It’s like the eye of Jonathan is looking right at the line. It’s like if you start trying to cut corners, there’s an aura right there.”