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Monday, September 05, 2005

San Francisco Chronicle: The Bay Area's Seven Four-Star Restaurants

The restaurant review cycle used by Michael Bauer, lead food critic for the San Francisco Chronicle, has always struck me as somewhat mysterious.   Sure, if a new restaurant opens up – or if an existing high-profile establishment hires a new chef or revamps its menu – Bauer will usually review it within a month or two.   But how does he decide that the time has come to revisit a previously-evaluated restaurant, even though the chef and menu remain the same?   I have no idea.

What is slightly more clear, however, is that Bauer has a separate schedule on which he periodically undertakes a comprehensive review of the Bay Area's fine dining scene.   In this process, Bauer revisits all of the restaurants that he believes to be in the upper-tier, including those to which he has previously awarded 4 stars (the highest rating in the Chronicle's system) and several to which he has given slightly fewer stars.   He then decides which of these restaurants should keep their existing 4-star ratings, which should lose them, and which should acquire 4 stars for the first time.   In the September 4, 2005 issue of the San Francisco Chronicle Magazine, Bauer presents the results of his latest reevaluation of our best restaurants.

Now, before proceeding any further, I should note – as I have in the past – that Michael Bauer and his restaurant reviews are never beyond critique.   Indeed, some have argued that he is known to play favorites and to be vindictive, that the criteria by which he evaluates a restaurant are not always consistent or rational, and that he makes very little effort to remain anonymous.   While I have no independent basis to evaluate the accuracy of most of these charges, I have certainly seen instances in which Bauer's overall rating of a given restaurant makes no sense in light of his earlier evaluations of that same establishment and/or its chef.   But the one thing that cannot be denied is that Bauer wields power, and his conclusions about a restaurant can play at least some role in determining whether it succeeds or fails.   And that alone makes Bauer's pronouncements worthy of mention, examination and discussion on this site – irrespective of their intrinsic merit.

Going into this year's reexamination, only four restaurants enjoyed 4-star status:   The French Laundry, Fleur de Lys, La Folie and Chez Panisse.   Bauer recently revisited not only these four establishments, but nine additional restaurants as well:   Aqua, Fifth Floor, The Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton, Gary Danko, Manresa, Acquerello, Campton Place, Michael Mina and Masa's.   Bauer's conclusion is that seven of the thirteen establishments that were considered are now deserving of 4-star ratings.   Here they are:

The Chronicle's Four-Star Restaurants
as of September 2005
(Restaurant/Executive Chef)
The French LaundryThomas Keller
Fleur de LysHubert Keller
La FolieRoland Passot
Chez PanisseAlice Waters
The Dining Room
at the Ritz-Carlton
Ron Siegel
ManresaDavid Kinch
Campton PlaceDaniel Humm

In short, the existing 4-star restaurants retain their positions, while The Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton, Manresa, and Campton Place join the elite club.

In posts later this week, I will share some of my initial thoughts about the restaurants that came out on top in Bauer's analysis, discuss some trend lines in his ratings of the top-tier restaurants and chefs, and examine how Bauer's conclusions compare to ratings from other sources.   For now, I will simply point out that the establishments on Bauer's 4-star list will undoubtedly benefit from being identified as the best in the Bay Area, especially those that are receiving the honor for the first time.   So, congratulations to all seven restaurants, and to Chefs Siegel, Kinch and Humm in particular!


Blogger Marc said...

Thanks for the analysis and opinions on the 4-star world in S.F.

While on the subject of the SF Chronicle reviews, is it just me, or does it seem that most of the restaurant reviewed by Bauer in the Sunday magazine are in Napa and Sonoma County? Does someone keep track somewhere? (I tried to keep a tally for a while, but kept losing it or going out of town) There might be a good reason: perhaps Bauer lives in Napa, or the magazine editor lives up there. But it doesn't make sense to me for a newspaper based in a city that has tremendous restaurant quality, quantity, and diversity within city limits or just a few miles away to focus reviews at the outer edge of the metro area. A few new restaurants probably open each week, giving plenty of review fodder.

September 21, 2005 10:18 PM  
Blogger NS said...

Marc: Thanks for stopping by, and thanks for the comment. I have not kept any statistics, but I share your impression that a disproportionately high percentage of the reviews in the Sunday magazine have been for establishments in the North Bay. This may be due to a feeling that Napa and Sonoma have seen an explosion over the past several years of good quality restaurants, such that the growth rate up there is probably greater than that in the city itself. Also, I have heard complaints from some readers outside the city that The Chronicle has historically been too focused on restaurants in SF, so maybe this is an attempt to address that imbalance. I'm not sure what is behind it, but I would definitely be interested in examining data regarding the location of the restaurants reviewed by the paper over the course of the year. Perhaps I'll have to investigate this for a future post!

September 24, 2005 9:34 AM  

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