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Food critic undercover in San Francisco

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"Ninety percent of the time I will not be recognized," he insisted. "I sit at tables most people would reject." But that anonymity often doesn't last long as "usually a waiter or hostess will recognize me." Although, he added, being found out is not all bad. "Not being anonymous frees me up and I know they're doing the best they can do."

In fact, he would prefer visiting a new restaurant twice anonymously and once as Michael Bauer to see if there is any difference.

These days, however, the great majority of reviewers don't have a newspaper byline. They have an e-mail address at Yelp, Chowhound, or Urbanspoon to list just a few of the websites that attract millions of food writers and readers. Yelp, for example, reports that by mid-July this year it had published 20 million reviews over the past seven years. It now hosts 53 million unique viewers each month.

Although he believes "any review has validity," Bauer also feels that "the general public is much more critical than I am." And while he thinks that the stars he awards restaurants reflect the average ratings on most websites, he also believes there is a difference between how he reviews and how the online critics do it. "Generally on Yelp it's a service, not a food, issue," he maintains. And those service problems "color how they view the food."

Anna Weinberg, co-owner of the San Francisco restaurant Marlowe (three stars out of four from Bauer) says she uses these consumer websites "as a watchdog," an "unpaid secret shopper" to help her identify "immediate problems" she might otherwise not be aware of. Although she also says those same websites have created a group of self-appointed critics: customers who, when they make a reservation, announce, "We will be Yelping tonight."

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