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.
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.*