A Career in Review

Patricia Unterman interviewed by Robert Lauriston

As a columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle's Sunday Datebook section, Patricia Unterman was for 15 years the highest-profile restaurant reviewer in the Bay Area. Unlike most of her colleagues, she's also been under the critic's microscope herself, as co-owner and chef of Hayes Street Grill, a popular Civic Center fish restaurant. She got her start in both careers in the early 70s, when she finished her graduate studies in journalism from UC Berkeley and found the job prospects in that field unappealing. Instead, on the strength of some cooking lessons with Josephine Araldo and with a copy of Julia Child under her arm, Unterman opened Beggar's Banquet, a tiny restaurant on Dwight Way in Berkeley. Around the same time, a friend who knew the editor of New West heard that the new magazine needed a restaurant critic, and encouraged Unterman to send in a sample (a review of the original Little Joe's, back when it was a hole in the wall on Columbus). Needless to say, she got the job. Impressed with her work for New West, the Chronicle hired her in 1979, just as Unterman and her partners were opening Hayes Street. When we heard that Unterman had left the Chron, we figured this was a unique opportunity to take a look behind the scenes at the life of a restaurant reviewer.

RL: Have your feelings about reviewing changed over the years?

PU: Very little. I always came to it with a kind of passion for eating. I always felt that my number one priority in life and in reviewing was to get an absolutely gorgeous meal, to have the food excite me and turn me on and be delicious and be a sensual treat. That's governed practically everything I've ever done.

I may be completely outdated at this point. Apparently decor and level of service and power--who's eating at the restaurant--mean a lot more these days. But I'll tell you, as far as I was concerned, it was what ended up on the plate--how it smelled, how it looked, how it felt, the graciousness in which it was served. If it were up to me, I would have given the best tacqueria in town the same four stars as Chez Panisse or Masa's, I felt that strongly about it.

RL: And your enthusiasm never flagged?

PU: Well, there were many, many moments in the weekly grind of having to find a restaurant that could bear scrutiny of that Sunday column. Having to eat out all the time, and eating at many restaurants that were trying really hard but weren't quite there--yeah, there was a tremendous amount of drudgery in that, but somehow I had a capacity for doing it.

RL: How did you deal with places where some dishes were great and others were lousy?

PU: That happens a lot--inconsistency is a problem that plagues a lot of restaurants. I'd look to the intention of the restaurant, to the freshness of the food, the quality of the ingredients. Because I have a restaurant, perhaps I have more insight than most restaurant critics about what can go wrong and why. There are various levels of inconsistency and you always have to be careful about judging solely by your own palate. You may be eating a style of cooking you don't like that other people do, and if it's executed with a kind of discipline and thought you have to give credit to the restaurant for that.

RL: There are universal standards for, say, cleanliness, for freshness of fish, but when it comes to things like salt or hot pepper, there's no such consensus. Some people like none, some people like a lot. How do you deal with that situation?

PU: I disagree--I think there is a kind of universal standard for salt and spicing. There's a certain balance that is central to cooking with a good palate. I've traveled all over the world, I've eaten on the street in India and Thailand and Mexico. Somehow, when food is well prepared and well seasoned, it shines no matter where you are. When it's too salty, it's always too salty, you know? If you undersalt, I think that's a bad cooking mistake. It shows either a political extremism in the kitchen or a lack of taste.

RL: Do those standards change over the years? Popular tastes have certainly evolved over the years you've been cooking and reviewing.

PU: The standards of good cooking are classic and have remained the same. The big changes are in the tremendous diversity and eclecticism of what people put in their mouths. We've become so international, it's expanded our range of what's tasty so profoundly. I find that very exciting.

What I don't find exciting is that kind hodge-podge cooking where many different flavors are thrown into a dish, where ingredients from different worlds are thrown together with no understanding of how they're used within the original culture. I've never really been wild about that "California" eclecticism, where a plate has seven or eight different ingredients on it, all going in different directions. That style of cooking has become very popular, but I've never liked it.

RL: Do you think that it's wrong conceptually or do people just go overboard? For example, when X. takes a classic French dish and throws in corn and Dungeness crab, that's--

PU: I love X. He's the most wonderful guy, and his restaurant is really wonderful. When I reviewed that restaurant, I gave him very high marks because he has such integrity, such artistic aptitude in presenting the food. But if I were to choose my last meal, it wouldn't be that.

RL: Owning a restaurant obviously creates a conflict of interest for a reviewer. Did the Chron restrict what you could review?

PU: I wasn't supposed to review other fish restaurants or other restaurants in my neighborhood. There were occasional exceptions. For example, when Bruce Cost had Monsoon a couple of blocks away, I thought that it was really a terrific restaurant and raved about it, and of course that was okay. The conflict of interest was a real problem for the newspaper, restaurants were really always looking at that.

RL: There were complaints?

PU: I'm told there were, but if the editors didn't think they were justified they didn't pass them along to me, and there weren't many of those. I was very conscious of the conflict and tried to keep my sense of integrity with me at all times.

RL: It's kind of ironic--a common complaint of restaurant owners is that anyone who doesn't own a restaurant isn't qualified to judge.

PU: There's some truth to that. My understanding of what goes on in restaurants enables me to evaluate them in a way that very, very few other restaurant critics can. I think that was a huge plus for the reader.

It's very tough to get scrutinized by the press. You're in a powerless position, you have no recourse, you can't defend yourself. If you think you've been reviewed unfairly, what can you do? You can write a letter to the editor, but there's been this tremendous negative exposure and it's a very hard thing to deal with. On the other hand, I know that the effect of negative reviews isn't lasting. It really isn't.

RL: When you ate someplace and had a bad impression, how did you decide whether to do a negative review or ignore it?

PU: When an obscure neighborhood place is bad, there's no reason to write a negative review. But let's say a restaurant had a very high profile, it's well known, people are eating there a lot. Then the readers deserve a closer look, a point of view about what could be improved.

RL: Was the restaurant's self-promotion ever a factor?

PU: Well, my gosh, yes. There's a huge PR mill now, you're just inundated with press releases. After a while you say okay, sure, I'll go try this, and it turns out no one's at home in the kitchen. You know all the energy has gone out into promotion or decor or whatnot and they've forgotten the most basic thing, which is the way the food tastes.

RL: What about the opposite--did you ever find a wonderful little place and keep it a secret?

PU: No. My first thought was always, this place deserves the publicity. In some cases it backfired, because they were little places and that Sunday column reaches a million people. I once wrote a glowing review of a little Indian restaurant on Valencia Street. As a result of the review and ensuing publicity, the owner and the cook got into a huge fight, and they closed the restaurant the day after the review came out. It was ridiculous.

All sorts of things happen in the limelight. I'll never forget the time I was at Flying Saucer. I may have reviewed the chef when he was cooking at another restaurant, maybe Auberge de Soleil, and maybe not too favorably. I can't really remember. At any rate, he had borne a grudge for a long time, and he had eventually opened this little place which I thought was very good, very charming, and the food was out of this world. You couldn't make reservations, so I waited for a table. I sat down, I started eating, I was taking notes. It was an open kitchen, and he's looking over at me taking notes, and I could see he was just getting more and more upset.

Finally he walked out of the kitchen with a 14-inch chef's knife in his hand, came right over to me--he was sweating, he was hot, he was pissed off--and he said "Are you Patricia Untermann?" And I looked him right in the eye and I said "No! I am not! I am not Patricia Untermann!" Then he just--it was a cathartic moment for him. He poured out all his beefs about critics and how little they knew and how they didn't understand what it took to be a chef and what kind of training was involved and how could all these shallow California chefs who had had no training be getting attention and getting good reviews, and Frenchmen who had studied and been cooking since they were 14 be discarded because they--I mean, he had some justification, to tell you the truth, but I don't think it was a good way to treat a guest in the restaurant, I really don't.

RL: Did the limits on what you could write about for the Chronicle push you in any particular direction toward stuff that you might not have done otherwise?

PU: I think it made me go out of my way to discover smaller restaurants and ethnic restaurants, which is the kind of cooking I've always loved. It was always exciting to find a place doing great Thai food or Salvadorean papusas or something like that. One that comes to mind is this little Mexican place called Mom is Cooking. There was just one woman in the kitchen, maybe 10 or 12 tables. I mean, it was kind of a dump, but if you really want to eat delicious food, sometimes that's part of it. You had to wait for them to take your order, then wait and wait and wait for that food to come out, but when it came out it was absolutely delicious, like eating home-cooked Mexican food. It was a wonderful discovery.

RL: Let's talk about dining incognito. I assume you never made reservations under your own name or paid with your own credit card?

PU: Never. Never.

RL: But didn't your running a restaurant mean you were known to people in the business?

PU: That's true. People did know me, though most of the people who would recognize me are chefs, and they're back in the kitchen trying to get the meal out. Hayes Street has done a lot of benefits, and in some of those situations I was visible. Often I would be there in a white outfit with three or four other cooks. People would go up to the pastry chef and say, "Oh, are you Patricia Untermann?" and she'd say "no" and no one would say anything and that was that.

I found that if I made a reservation at any busy restaurant in town at a peak hour and walked in there under an assumed name, they didn't pick me up very often. Once you're in there and eating and the meal's in progress, what are they going to do? Sometimes they recognize you partway through and pour on the service, and they can prepare your food extra carefully, but they can't redo the recipes. They can't re-buy the food.

RL: What about your "dining companion," as you used to put it? Who was that?

PU: Poor "dining companion." Most of the time it was my husband, Tim, but it got to a point where he couldn't stand it any more, so then I had this rotating group, mostly single people. I'd always go first with one other person to check it out, and if it was okay I would return a week or so later with a group. Four's the ideal number--six is too many, because you have to taste everything after 12 or 18 dishes your palate goes. I always went at least twice--at some of those little places, in two visits I could cover the whole menu. If it was inconsistent, I'd go back a third time, very rarely a fourth.

RL: Who decided what to order?

PU: There was this rule, whoever said the dish first got it. Some of my friends got to the point where they could scan the menu really, really fast, then shout out the dishes that they wanted. I always chose last, and would end up with the intestines and the grilled squid kind of thing. I liked people to pass me the whole plate--when they would take little pieces off here and there and pass me a separate plate, I always felt it lost something.

So there was always kind of a revolving table of plates and tastes. Sometimes by the end of the meal, after all those tastes, I felt like I hadn't eaten--and in fact, I hadn't. I had just had bites all throughout the meal, but I never was really satisfied. It was a strange phenomenon--for 15 years I was eating out all the time and but never really eating.

RL: Did you get many letters from readers?

PU: I got a lot of mail suggesting different restaurants, and I got angry mail. When you pan somebody's favorite restaurant it really pisses them off, and they would write and tell me what an idiot I was.

Once I reviewed a restaurant called Clark's by the Bay, which had been opened by Dwight Clark, who at the time was a big local football star. I went down there and there was Dwight Clark actually at the restaurant and he was really cute and boyish, you know, great physical specimen. He was just hanging out and putting things in the garbage and bussing tables. It was amazing. There wasn't much to say about the food, it was the usual sports bar food, so I wrote that it was just exciting to be there to see a football hero with an absolutely terrific rear end. And the Chronicle ran it! I got so many letters on that column that the paper ran a whole page of them.

Another time I was doing a column on fast food restaurants. I was there with Tim, and he was eating one of those hideous folded-over pies with that artificial fruit filling. I took a bite of it and it was so terrible that I pulled it out of his mouth and said, "You can't eat that! That's disgusting!" and I put that in the column. That brought a gigantic amount of mail. People said, "You're just a bitch. I can't believe that you would do that to your husband," and all these biker chicks wrote in and said, "If I did that to my old man, he'd shoot me in the head!"

RL: Bikers read restaurant reviews?

PU: They do! Another time I was reviewing some hip, trendy sushi bar on Divisadero. When you're eating Japanese food, you expect a certain amount of ritual and, particularly with sushi, you expect things to be really clean and the fish to be carefully handled. This place was so casual and sloppy, it went against every notion of what you'd want in a sushi restaurant. They were just kind of throwing the food onto damp plates, and it really got on my nerves. Something must have come through in the tone of the column, because people picked up on it and wrote in saying, "What's wrong? Were you having your period?" In fact I was pregnant, and I guess it had made me a little bit testy.

I'm convinced that the readers really like those personal moments, but the Chronicle usually bent over backwards to edit them out. I think that was a terrible mistake, because every time they were left in people loved it. It isn't exactly like the Chronicle is so high-tone.

RL: Have you been writing anything since leaving the Chron?

PU: Yes, I'm working on a book, "San Francisco for Food Lovers," inspired by Patricia Wells's "Food Lover's Guide to Paris." I talked to Pat when she was in town promoting her new book, "Trattoria Cooking," she said go for it. It's very much patterned on her model, neighborhood by neighborhood, just my favorites. Restaurants, bakeries, delicatessens, ice cream places, candy places, farmers' markets around the Bay Area, a produce chart, plus recipes that everyone has always wanted to know, like the one for that cheesecake they serve at Mario's. I'm going to get them if it kills me.

RL: Do you miss reviewing?

People imagine they'd like to be restaurant critics, but it takes away so much of the pleasure from dining out. When I stopped writing for the Chronicle and I started eating out again for the pleasure of it--God, it was great! Now I can actually go to my favorite restaurants, eat and drink what I want, and just enjoy myself.

But you know, in the whole country there are only three or four restaurant critics in the position I was--covering a huge metropolitan area, all expenses paid, and reaching over a million readers each week. It was a unique platform, and I feel lucky to have had it. Particularly during that period in the 80s when people were turning on to food in a new way, when they were really hungry to taste new things--it was the most wonderful time to do it.

Robert Lauriston is a computer journalist and wine snob who occasionally reviews restaurants for the East Bay Express.