I finally got to look at Michelin 2010 San Francisco restaurant guide and once again it is printed on the nicest paper I have touched in a long time. The packaging, the printing and the feel of the pages are exotic. The guide appears high end and very classy as always. Everything inside looks fabulous except for the information. The information is fine unless you are a local in San Francisco Bay Area. I like Michelin guide a lot because it has been in business forever and has helped the industry by promoting tens of thousands of restaurants. I really did not want to write anything critical that would have Michelin’s name and this essay is not about Michelin. Afterall, I am the one who writes 15000-word essays on how the rich and the corporations control and manipulate standards, such as restaurant review tools, in America to their benefit. How can I miss a huge TYPO in the Michelin 2010 guide? How does a restaurant, of dubious characteristics, and funded by a very large real estate company, in an unleaseable commercial space, appear in the Michelin 2010 guide while scores of better San Francisco restaurants are absent?
The legend page for Michelin 2010 guide claimed that all Michelin guides are “well researched” or something similar. Was it not Michelin who by mistake had reviewed a closed restaurant not too long ago? Mistakes do happen and I guess that is why Michelin now researches the restaurants well. Every restaurant has a story and if it is “well researched,” much of that information will surface before the review. I hope the Michelin researchers, for San Francisco, were not all French and the French-speaking Tunisian ownership, of this restaurant, did not have any influence on their judgments. But how can that be? The great Michelin guide making a mistake or something similar by promoting a not worthy restaurant? What did the research leave out about Sens Restaurant in San Francisco that brings the effectiveness of the review guides into question?
Once upon a time, in a city far far away named New York, there was a chef who was hired to come to San Francisco and re-open a ailing restaurant under a different name. The uprooted chef moved to San Francisco, and created a new restaurant – Sens Restaurant. One major problem that had led to the recruiting of this chef was the old restaurant could not get good reviews from local reviewers. Sens was the same as the previous restaurant only with a new menu and name. This chef had a history in the Bay Area and was known by local reviewers. The hard work and dedication to make Sens paid off. These efforts and the chef’s personal credibility brought good reviews and scores from local restaurant writers. The celebrations did not last long since the chef and the staff were replaced by a lower-cost team shortly after the reviews. That was the beginning of Sens. The great restaurant start, by the chef, turned into an ailing existence again, under the same ownership as the last restaurant. How did they survive after this? Sens is the brainchild of a huge real estate corporation with many unleaseable retail spaces in San Francisco. If no restaurant would start at that commercial space, why not start a restaurant of your own? Sens would survive regardless of any events because it was created to “appear” as a great restaurant and to lower retail vacancies. It survives because it has to remain open and appear functional to maintain commercial attractiveness. Sens is not an “inspired” restaurant. It is a front to keep overall lease prices up for other spaces. How does it maintain the facade? PR-managed restaurant reviews are not unusual and are the way to go for many restaurants. PR can get good reviews into many local review guides.
Zagat is a fraternal brother or sister of Michelin and shares some of the same problems Michelin has with its business model. We don’t know how strong Michelin is but Zagat can be infiltrated and unlikely restaurants get surprise scores! Sens did well in Zagat and so does almost every restaurant listed in Zagat. And almost every restaurant does get listed in Zagat anyway! That means most restaurants are listed in Zagat and always get good reviews! What kind of a review guide is that? Michelin is a travel book restaurant guide written by professional reviewers and Zagat is written by local shoppers. Can PR manage a good review in Zagat or other guides for Sens? It is an easy one.
Citysearch.com is an independent review web site and most business travelers write or read the Citysearch.com reviews. A restaurant can have a free or paid account and Citysearch.com team can write an editorial review for the paid accounts. I remember Sens having a few bad reviews long time ago but they somehow disappeared! Sens has been in business for two years and yet has not one review by a guest in Citysearch.com. It does have a paid editorial review (which is an advertisement in the form of a review). I am surprised Michelin’s research did not turn this questionable fact up. If you do the math, you can see how questionable: Let’s find the smallest number for guests that have visited Sens in the past two years. Sens can seat more than 200 people. If Sens is only open Monday through Friday for lunch and dinner and we pick 100 for lunch and 50 for dinner (since lunch is bigger in Financial District), we would have 78000 guests visiting. This number does not include the happy hour guests, the special events guests, the holiday season guests and the nightclub guests. We are counting the lowest possible number. How can not even one of 78000 people write a review on Citysearch.com? I don’t know. I do know, from my restaurant experience, a paid account at Citysearch.com gets much support. That should have appeared in Michelin research.
Yelp.com is the generation Y online review site and carries many reviews by the younger people. I monitor many restaurants, for professional reasons, and Sens is the only one I have noticed that lowers the number of its reviews on a regular basis. I would say that over the period of two years, Sens has “lost” no less than 200 reviews. It only has 185 reviews left for that 78000 guests. Yelp.com is used by local people and mostly the young. That means the happy hour guests, the nightclub guests and so on. Their reviews appear in Yelp.com and that would mean more than 78000 guests (our arbitary number) could have posted reviews on Yelp.com. There is only 185 reviews after two years of service and Sens still gets a mediocre 3.5 stars on a 5 scale! And Yelp is famous for its stars! (Being ironic) That should have appeared in Michelin research.
Zagat.com also has reviews for Sens. After two years, Sens has about 30 reviews and most are only one liners. That should have appeared in Michelin research.
How does a restaurant such as Sens get into Michelin while hundreds of potentials are left out? Can Michelin make a mistake? It probably did. But do Citysearch, Yelp and Zagat also make similar mistakes? Citysearch and Yelp are extremely friendly to business clients: Both “edit” suspicious reviews and at least Yelp.com has been publicly criticized on numerous occasions for credibility and integrity. Michelin is not a local American business and safe from the local issues. How can Michelin research restaurants well and publish Sens? We know the other companies are local, insignificant and are not ashamed to get paid to “help” Sens. But what happened with Michelin? If Michelin research did not fail, I wonder what made them print about Sens? The French connection? The other guys get paid to lie for a living and this is a danger for better publications also. But anyway, what kind of research is this? I honestly don’t think Michelin did anything wrong because everyone from the original chef and crew to the local writers and review web sites got manipulated by Sens ownership once. Michelin gave someone the benefit a doubt and should have been careful.
I thought more about how and why of this situation. I couldn’t find an answer except for the obvious but I figured a new entrepneurship scheme based on the Michelin approach: Starting a business that evaluates things from a distance and only for people who are in a distance. Michelin is a great guide but is written by folks with a mindset far from San Francisco. And I realized today, Michelin guide is also written to be READ by folks with a mindset far from San Francisco. They don’t write Michelin guide for the locals. So who is the primary reader for Michelin? I would say the perfect reader for Michelin 2010 San Francisco Restaurant Guide is from out-of-town, has little local knowledge, has little time to explore and has no way of comparing Michelin recommendations against personal experiences. The pretty shiny pages of Michelin impress them into some of the better restaurants in San Francisco and even into surprises such as Sens! I just hope Michelin continues doing a good job in the future with a little extra care when in America.