Sunday, May 22, 2005

The Chowhound's Guide to the San Francisco Bay Area

Published by Penguin, $18. Tonight there is a Book Signing Event in Berkeley with Jim Leff. Details at the bottom of this post.
photograph picture of the cover of the book called The Chowhound's Guide to the Bay Area

I am not quite sure why the thought popped into my head, but the very first thing that struck me when I flicked through my copy of The Chowhound's Guide to the San Francisco Bay was that it didn't include A16. There isn't a Best Pizza argument in town without mention of this well-loved Campanian spot in the Marina. That, despite the rave reviews A16 receives regularly on the Chowhound boards, it wasn't included perplexed me. My biggest fear, that the guide would be seriously dated, before it was even published, has not been allayed by what I have found in the book so far. A16 opened on Valentines Day 2004, over a year before the book's publication. So could it be that the every tip on its pages is well over a year old? Patricia Unterman's San Francisco Food Lover's Guide published earlier in the year managed to include A16, why then did The Chowhound Guide fail to do so?

Jim Leff, Chowhound's creator, includes a long disclaimer covering this kind of question in the book's introduction. "Don't trust this book", he says. He even describes all of the food tips themselves as "iffy". This is one point on which I agree with him and it leads me to wonder if this book has much use or value at all to the casual user.

The format of the book is a visual mess and difficult to navigate, just like the Chowhound website itself. I did discover some real gems of information like Melanie Wong's important message about duck juice but more often than not I was just confused.

Boulangeries de Cole and Polk, don't get a mention in the book's Monster Bakery Crawl although they pop up briefly under a heading about homemade potato chips. I have been to Russian Hill branch of this French-style bakery dozens of times and not once seen a potato chip. They are often recommended on Chowhound, particularly for their macarons, their cannelles and their madeleines. Why on earth were they left out of the bakery section?

21st Ammendment is a Brewpub that gets good feedback on Chowhound. It still didn't make it to the list under that heading, despite the fact Rosamunde's Sausage Grill did. Funny that, because the only alcohol you might find in this great little hot dog take-out spot would probably be in the form of vinegar.

Chowhounding in Bernal Heights misses out one of the area's darlings, The Blue Plate (although it does get a brief nod in the Eating at the Bar section instead). Mi Lindo Peru and Emmy's don't get a mention either, despite being two good reasons to visit the Bernal area. The Good Life Grocery, a good 5 or more minute drive away in Potrero Hill inexplicably does make it to the list, however. The Chowhound editors need a lesson in geography.

In another section inaccurately titled Chowhounding in Sausalito which only has two entries, one of the mentions is in fact miles away at Muir Beach.

The complimentary adjectives chosen to describe Chowhound's Crepe section are fragile and chewy. At this point, I have to confess I haven't got a clue what they are talking about. If they had included some good words, here, about Ti Couz I may have given them the benefit of the doubt. But since the best creperie in town only makes it under the Best Salad and French Bistro headings I am beginning to think the Chowhound editors must have a screw loose.

Why even bother mentioning Fish & Chips? It's hard enough getting a good version in Britain, let alone in San Francisco. But the Chowhound Guide manages to find no less than eight places they deem worthy of a mention, even though there seems to be little confidence that any of them actually serve really good food. Good food is the only thing that Chowhound purports to be interested in so why waste space on places that don't make the mark.

The book contains more discrepancies, anomalies and strange choices, you get the idea. But I think the main problem is the layout. Aside from the most loyal of Chowhounders, I think the more general public just won't get it. I don't think people will be prepared to make the investment (time or money) needed to find the good bits amongst the chaos.

Guide books are of less use in an internet age when you can find many, more recently updated, opinions on food and restaurants online. Citysearch, Yelp, Evite, Chowhound, Egullet and personal food blogs like this one are all online forums where any computer-savvy member of the public can register their opinons about food as well as read those of other people. Travellers who are obsessed with food will check their dining choices online before they travel, using Chowhound if they are really savvy. Tourists will continue to use Zagat or a general City Guide and I bet you they will still have a good time in San Francisco. Locals will more likely use Unterman's book which seems to capture the spirit of San Francisco and, in contrast, is a joy to read and navigate.

The Chowhound Guide book was published in order to try and make money to pay for Chowhound's dinasour website which is danger of collapsing under the weight of its own success. After studying the mish mash of entries I fear its appeal is so limited that the book might be a precursor to its demise instead. Perhaps the party is drawing to a close and it's time to go home and reflect on what a good time we all had whilst it lasted.

If you want to meet the "Big Dog" Jim Leff in person and ask him about some of the questions I've raised you can do so tonight where he will be signing copies of the guide at Cody's on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley at 7:30 PM.

Read another local blogger's opinion about the Chowhound and Unterman guides. *Including bonus comments by Jim Leff himself.*

posted in and and and and
The Chowhound's Guide to the San Francisco Bay Area


  • At 23/5/05 07:25, Blogger Amy Sherman said…

    I'm actually supposed to be interviewing Leff today! Will let you know how it goes. I too was disapointed by the layout and found 3 restaurants listed that I know to be out of business. Oops, what happened to fact-checking?

  • At 23/5/05 08:07, Anonymous Teri said…

    I share your sentiments, Sam. I was very excited for the book to come out and cannot for the life of me figure out why they chose to present the information the way they did. The book is an utter disaster, organization-wise. Like the website, there's some great information in here, but also like the website, it's often impossible to find it. A real disappointment.

  • At 23/5/05 09:04, Blogger cedichou said…


    There is a good life in Bernal at the corner of andover and cortland. I was there yesterday! Used to live around the corner 5 years ago, it has been there forever. (blue plate and emmy's technically are in the outer mission rather than in bernal heights).

    Yes, there are a bunch of places that are out of business, but it is not something that they can do something about. Clock starts kicking as soon as they freeze the content. I am sure Jim Leff agrees that penguin should get the book to the stores faster. Unterman's guide too has a few of those expired entries. Bizou for instance eventually made it into her 4th edition, just too late!

  • At 23/5/05 09:20, Blogger Sam said…

    thanks ced, i havent got the book in front of me so I can't double check, but i thought the address they put for the Good Life in the book was the one in Protrero on 20th street.

    I did try and do some research into whether blue plate was really in BH. My conclusion from other reviews online was that BH is where it is generally perceived to be, even it strictly is not.

    I appreciate the problems with publishing times, which is why I think the website version of CH is invaluable, whilst the book is too dated to be of any great advantage , to me at least.

  • At 23/5/05 09:25, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    I have always thought the Chowhound boards were hard to follow and the general feeling there a touch, well, chip-on-my-shoulder-ish. (Just my opinion, but it really can get zealous) so it stands to reason the book would be too. Thank you for your honest evaluations.

    I admit, I had a sad (email) run-in with Jeff about a year ago, and after reading a few articles confirming he is a little bit of a pill decided to dismiss the whole operation.

    On another note...did Bizou close?

  • At 23/5/05 09:38, Blogger cedichou said…

    Bizou is undergoing some changes, has closed in April for 6 month, will re-open as a (yet another?) small plate place.

    Sam: it's very possible the address was in potrero, the way they collect the tips is pretty screwed up. When I wrote on CH that I liked el castillito burrito across the safeway, the comment made it into the 'weekly digest'. But they listed the address for the 18th st. castillito. The person whose job is to cull the addresses might not be very knowledgeable about SF geography. Which makes the guide even less useful.

    My BH take: if it's on the hill, it is. If it's in the flats, it's not. But as I said, I used to live on that hill, so I am being a snob about it.

  • At 23/5/05 12:27, Anonymous sarah said…

    thanks, sam, for such honest words about their book. not sure what they plan to do with l.a....but maybe they should take some of these comments to heart first.

  • At 23/5/05 16:02, Blogger Alda said…

    This is worlds removed from where I live, but interesting all the same. I'm over via Michele. Hi. :)

  • At 23/5/05 22:00, Anonymous chowhound with no vested interest said…

    Why so negative?

    Chowhound’s Guide to San Francisco is hardly perfect but it’s not that bad. It has something like a thousand places mentioned and you’re concerned about a few that are missing or that have mistakes. The lead time at most large publishers is as much as a year, all you “writers” should know that.

    How should it be organized – alphabetically like zagats. Whatever the layout lacks in organization is more than made up for in the index.

    It’s one thing to voice your opinions on your blog but why slam it on Amazon. What’s the “vested interest” that you think the reviewers have – do you honestly think anyone’s going to make money off this book. If you have so much disdain for the book and some of the people on the site why do you post so often – you must be getting something out of it. I believe the future of the site is truly dependent on the success of the book or some other “miracle”. Do you support the site in any way other than your posts?

    I think everyone involved with Chowhound and most of the posters know of it’s limitation and would love to change it but it’s not self supporting and may never be. It’s easy to criticize but give me an example of something better – it’s sure isn’t schizophrenic web sites like egullet.

    Seems to me you’ve got an axe to grind.

  • At 23/5/05 22:14, Blogger shuna fish lydon said…


    wow, some heated words in the comments section here. I think that you bring up some good points and with some of the CH contoversy lately I have shied away from it a bit. I haven't seen the book but it seems starnge that a site with so many authors should have a book written about it by one man.

    I wish that CH was owned by the contributors instead of one snarky fellow.

    It's difficult in SF/Ca. to have strong opinions. People think you are mean and feelings get hurt and "boundaries" made. But really those closest to the source are the best critics. Especailly those of us who are the people who make up CH.

  • At 23/5/05 22:35, Anonymous Anonymous said…


    I see you have not been posting on Chowhound lately and I can guess why. I think you broke the rules, got into a tiff with Ch and are now carrying a grudge.

    Let's see how fair you are in leaving this comment on your blog.

    I see this posting and your Amazon review as only a way to voice your anger.

    I don't agree with the way that Chowhound responds to posters. I myself got into a major fight with them about it.

    In my opinion, it would be better if they would tell people why their posts get deleted instead of those cryptic 'because we said so' posts.

    However, in their favor, they treat everyone the same.

    You can nit pick about the book. Every book has some errors. The book clearly states it will not be comprehensive.

    However, they did give you a very public formum to promote your blog.

    If you have a personal problem with Chowhound, at least be honest enough to let readers know that. I thought more of you then this.

  • At 23/5/05 23:18, Blogger Sam said…

    When writing this post, I guess I had to accept it would perhaps be controversial.

    I would like to address some criticisms made of me both here, anonymously and on Amazon. The suggestion that "Samantha Breach's website "Becks and Posh" made use of Chowhound to promote her own site. I suspect she has been to to stop that and her review is the result of a grudge" is simply not true. But I have no recourse on Amazon, it is not a discussion forum.

    Although it is not really anyone's business, in the 9 or so months I was part of chowhound I conributed to Chowhound in monetary terms, by subscribing to the news letter twice, making an extra donation and supporting the picnic. My last donation was in March 2005.

    No one has ever asked me to leave Chowhound. No one has asked me to stop posting links to my blog on Chowhound either.

    I know that the lead time is long on a hard copy publication and I believe this is a major draw back of the book. Twice I asked Jim Leff about this on Chowhound's Site board before the publication and both times he chose to ignore or brush over my queries.

    I was really excited about the prospects of the book when I read the descriptions of it by Chowhounders I respect on Amazon. When I received my own copy, my own reaction to it was was so different from theirs I could hardly believe we had been reading the same publication.

    I loved Chowhound, I was an addict, in fact, I gave myself to it heart and soul. The intention was not to promote my blog (which actually has no commercial value and never asks anyone to part with their money unless it is for charity) but to share my love of information about food and mainly my pictures which I wasn't able to link to directly from CH. Mostly I began linking to my blog after the Chowhound picnic last fall when people wanted to see the pictures of the food. There was meant to be an official website but despite fulfilling my part of the process, it never actually transpired as promised. I tried to link to the pictures directly in the CH posts, but people might remember that didn't work so I had post a link to my blog instead.

    I have rarely linked to my blog on CH unless there was an extra reason (picture) to do so, or if someone wanted a recommendation which I had posted on CH before, but could not actually find on CH to quickly relink to.

    I absolutely try to be as honest and truthful and fair with my blog as I can be. I totally respected the CH rules designed to stop shilling. But when I witnessed Jim Leff openly asking people to publicise the book on Amazon without disclaimers I was shocked and disappointed by the double standards he was displaying. The Chowhound I loved, which I had given so much to had suddenly sold its soul. That hurt, I can tell you. What hurt even more was coming to the decision I would have to leave the board because of it. I did that quietly, without announcement or ceremony a couple of weeks ago. So no, I don't post often anymore, you won't have seen me around for a while.

    Add to that the fact that I actually don't care for Jim Leff much, I don't like his attitude and I don't like the way he treats people. I don't want him to be the person who dictates the way I should or should not behave. Therefore I have left Chowhound. I am sad to leave all of the wonderful friends I made there. I miss them already. If it wasn't for Jim I would probably still be there partying with all of them.

    Fortunately, I know enough good and great people who feel the same way about Mr Leff as I do, so I know I will still be in the company of some very fine people who share an acute passion for food even though I will no longer post on the board. I miss my readers from Chowhound, but I had to put my morals way ahead of any vain desires to have more readers of my blog.

    I have nothing against the ordinary honest people on Chowhound, it is really a stand against the rude and unscrupulous actions of Mr Leff. I am not happy about this situation either, believe me, but I just have to let go, and here I go...

  • At 23/5/05 23:30, Blogger Sam said…

    I was in the middle of posting my comment when somebody else left one.

    The consensus from commentors seems to be

    "I think you broke the rules, got into a tiff with Ch and are now carrying a grudge. "

    This is absolutely not true. Jim Leff and the Chowhound will be able to verify this for you. I have not been accused of breaking any rules and neither have I been reprimanded by the team.

    I have had email discussions with Jim Leff and I personally do not like his attitude. Those discussions have swayed my decision to leave the board.

  • At 23/5/05 23:46, Blogger Sam said…

    By the way everyone, I had planned another future post about my dissatisfaction with Chowhound. I just didn't want to mix it up with my book review which i had already started to prepare prior to my decision to leave.
    It looks like I probably won't need to finish that post now as I am mostly trying to explain myself here in the comments section.

  • At 24/5/05 08:19, Blogger molly said…

    You clearly are not alone Sam, you just have the balls to say it loud, and in your own name, and so you attract cowardly anonymous comments.

    Sad that just because you aren't drooling of the CH guide, people assume that you've an axe to grind. Keep it up girl.

  • At 24/5/05 10:48, Anonymous Krys said…

    Just as people have different, passionate opinions about what they like to eat, the same is true about books.

    You didn't like the book. Fine. Write that.

    However, you crossed the line when you accuse others of shilling the book. You can not know what my motives are and to project your beliefs is not right.

    I was checking an order for the Chowhound Guide that I was sending to some friends when I caught some of the new reviews on Amazon. I was a little shocked and decided to comment.

    I like the book, I use it. I have sent it to friends who are not Chowhounds and they use it and love it.

    As I have said on Chowhound, it is not just cheerleading. Just as I may hate Slanted Door and you might love it, I would never accuse people of shilling because they had a different opinion of a place than I did.

    You have said a number of times in these comments that you do not care for Jim Leff. That some emails you had with him swayed your decision to leave the board.

    If it were my site, I'd run it differently. But what I do or don't feel about specific people doesn't color my appreciation for a great resource, or a great book.

    There are some restaurants that you go to despite the rude service. In fact, sometimes the service is so bad it becomes a part of the charm of the place. It is just the way people are, you laugh it off and enjoy the good chow.

    IMO, given many peoples comments, Chowhound is sort of like that. And if you disagree the way things are run you can choose to leave or put up with it. Certainly nothing is going to change.

    The only thing Jim has said on the site is that if you like the book let other people know on Amazon. I don't see that being any different than being at a restaurant where the owner tells you to tell your friends about the place.

    Nowhere ... NOWHERE ... did he say not to put a disclaimer in the reviews. In fact, almost everyone did.

    If you find something to the contrary please publish the link to that. I know you wont find it.

    I was the first person to post a review and I really didn't think about it. I used my Chowhound name though and a sentence that implies I was familiar with the site. However, I didn't have any other examples and it didn't occur to me.

    Also, I don't get a penny out of this which is where the issue of shilling comes in.

    You said "If it wasn't for Jim I would probably still be there partying with all of them"

    So, there's no reason for you to cross paths with Jim. Just post about food with others, like myself, who like sharing information. I hope you'll reconsider someday and rejoin the party.

  • At 24/5/05 12:24, Blogger Sam said…

    Krys - I have emailed you privately as I won't be able to respond to this comment on the blog properly until much later tonight or tomorrow.


  • At 25/5/05 07:03, Blogger Rachael said…

    OH. MY. GOD. I just read that review on Amazon that Richard wrote. I was shocked and dismayed. Enough so that I (being the geek I am) wrote to the Amazon admin and asked them to review the comments he made, since I dont think they relevant to the book, and really act as a personal attack. It has nothing to do with the book, so its not needed. I was just amazed at how nasty he was. I stopped using Chowhound some time ago, after a little run in of my own, and am glad I did.

    Then again, a little controversy can be fun too, right? Too bad it's over such a lame book.

  • At 25/5/05 07:23, Blogger Sam said…

    Hi Rachel, I think my own original AMazoon review was a bit snarky too and I edited it yesterday to take out the snarkier aspects. It took Amazon a long time to update it after I edited. To be fair to him, Richard was probably responding to my original snarkiness, not to the more objective, calmer review you see there now.
    I want to thank Krys for an email conversation we had privately, and thank Rachel for her private email too.
    I do plan to write a post of why I left Chowhound, but it won't be for a week or two at the earliest. That should clear up a few questions people have and be a response to the accusations.

    Thanks everyone supportive for all the support you have snet me.

  • At 26/5/05 17:17, Blogger Bacon Press said…

    This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  • At 26/5/05 17:18, Blogger Bacon Press said…

    I too quit posting regularly to Chowhound long ago for the very same reasons mentioned above.

    Occasionally I will read it and will post if I truly believe I am helping someone.

    But gone are the days I gave a crap about it. In fact, a few times I got so incensed at the so-called Chowhound Bolshevik Team's censorship and wanky, hypocritical post rearranging that I had to walk away from my computer.

    I also think it's rather crude for Leff to profit personally from a community forum.

    And Krys, I seem to remember a couple of times you swore up and down Restaurant Row that you would never post on Chowhound again. I mostly remember it had to do with episodes like this:

    Obviously you're finding it hard to move on. To each his or her own.


  • At 26/5/05 23:10, Blogger Jane said…

    I love Chowhound with my heart and soul, but it is much too structured for me, so now I am in its outer orbit. I think it is a great thing and I am glad it exists, but there are just way too many rules that I can't get too involved. Keep it at a distance and do your own thing. Don't waste all your writing to a message board.

  • At 26/5/05 23:10, Blogger Jane said…

    I love Chowhound with my heart and soul, but it is much too structured for me, so now I am in its outer orbit. I think it is a great thing and I am glad it exists, but there are just way too many rules that I can't get too involved. Keep it at a distance and do your own thing. Don't waste all your writing to a message board.

  • At 29/5/05 17:31, Anonymous Krys said…

    To Bacon Press,

    I left Chowhound once because I was angry about a post. I was wrong. I apologized.

    Looking back at my emails to Chowhound on that issue, actually Chowhound was pretty reasonable in their responses.

    That was the only time in all the years I've participated on Chowhound that I have had a serious issue with them.

    As far as the link you provided, it was just asking where my Thanksgiving post was and they found it for me.

    I am on and off the board for any number of reasons. I probably won't be posting for quite a while, but it has nothing to do with how I do or do not feel about Chowhound.

    Do I agree with everthing Chowhound does? Nope.

    However, I just try to cut them some slack. Chowhound was a great distraction in a horrible time in my life. Sometimes it was the only laugh I had that day.

    For heavens sake, Chowhound does give the average person a chance to voice their food likes and dislikes. That is pretty cool. Your local paper usually round files letters to the editor.

    I think it's a bit sad that so many people get so ticked off. In my brief ticked off period, I tried a number of other food forums and they just were not as informative as Chowhound.

    Chowhound is what it is. Either you go along with the program or you don't. I mean, it's just about burgers and pie after all. Certainly a discussion of Chowhound on a public forum isn't going to change anything.

    If Chowhound ever wants my pearls of wisdom, they can always ask. I won't hold my breath.

    So my opinion is that Chowhournd is a good source in SF for food tips. I find the same thing true of the guide.

    If anyone read my original review and enthusiastic posts about the book and were disappointed, well, that makes me feel as bad as my recommending a restaurant someone doesn't like.

    I try to be honest in my evalutations. People just have different likes and dislikes. In terms of Chinese food, I find the book invaluable. And it really does help me avoid fast food because there is usually a hint for a better place to try in the area I am in.

    That was my only issue here. I did like and use the book and wasn't shilling. I want to thank Sam for changing that Amazon review.


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