Today's "Ask the Critic" comes courtesy of J. B. at Grub Street SF, who writes in his weekly summary
of restaurant reviews around the city:
In a summer rife with so many notable openings, both large and small, we don't totally understand why Jonathan Kauffman is still reviewing things like La Torta Gorda (see also his reviews of two lackluster Vietnamese crawfish joints and his roundup of food trucks that may be better left to Birdsall on the blog). We get that he wants to give attention to the little guys, but we need him out there using his one weekly review to give us a second opinion on all the stuff Bauer's covering, and then some, and saving the call-outs for tiny ethnic joints for the truly marvelous, off-the-grid places, or posts on SFoodie.
Well, J. B., you raise a good point. While you didn't phrase it as a question, I'll take any excuse to grandstand about my approach to reviewing restaurants, especially since I've been at the SF Weekly
eight months and people may still be unfamiliar with what the hell I'm doing, week after week.
There has always been a big difference between the way daily-newspaper restaurant critics and alt-weekly critics see our roles. Many daily critics, from the hallowed 1960s New York Times
reviewer Craig Clairborne to the Chron
's Mr. Bauer, have seen their job as a reader service. They have approached restaurant reviewing with a journalist's dispassionate objectivity and a quest for thoroughness and accuracy. Many daily critics also survey their city's restaurant scene with an eye to how it is viewed nationally. Dailies from the East to West Coasts also divide restaurants into review-worthy places and fodder for "ethnic"/"cheap eats" boxes, price generally being a dividing line.
Alt-weeklies, by contrast, have always seen restaurant reviews as a form of cultural criticism as much as a reader service. These papers tend to hire writers based on their balls-out use of metaphor, not to mention their willingness to use the phrase "balls-out." Alt-weeklies tend to allocate less money to restaurant-review budgets, so we critics don't often hit the four-stars. We also tend to get all uppity about how we write for locals of all ages and all incomes. (Oh, and we're the Hampshire College
of reviewers ― we prefer essays to the star rating system.)
To be frank, I'm not interested in shadowing the Chronicle. I have huge respect for Bauer's approach, but I have my own, and sometimes our approaches intersect. Personally, I could never cover only the high end of the dining spectrum, as much as I love all of its little rituals and intricately composed dishes. To write week after week about bistros would turn criticism into a real slog for me. Conversely, if I only stuck to cheap eats, readers would damn the considerable pleasures I find there. (The other reason I hate the idea of cheap-eats columns is that too many non-white restaurateurs get shoved into that category, even when they're charging higher prices.) The high and low, the "ethnic" and the national-magazine-worthy, they all inform one another ― especially in a compact, occasionally insular city like San Francisco.
Besides, who rolls from one white-tablecloth restaurant to the next, night after night, sucking down an endless stream of pork bellies and $15 glasses of Syrah? Most of my fellow food-obsessives eat at bistros and street trucks and Thai restaurants and sweet shops. Why shouldn't a restaurant critic write about all ends of the spectrum, too, as long as there's something interesting to be learned from the food, some new pleasure worth chasing down?
I never want any reader to open the SF Weekly to the food section and sigh, well of course this week Kauffman's writing about X. If that means I sometimes rut around in the obscure when I should be at the high table, passing judgment on whatever foodistas are gossiping most loudly about, so be it. Fascination always trumps price, and sometimes good taste, too.