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Bye-Bye Bruni: Should Critics Have Term Limits?

The food world is all abuzz this morning with the news that Frank Bruni, restaurant critic for the New York Times, will be stepping down from his post following the release of his memoir in late August. (The food critic memoir: Everyone's doing it.) It's probably not an overstatement to say that Bruni has had the single-most powerful restaurant reviewing job out there, so bets are already being placed on his likely replacement. I like Bruni, but judging from some of the responses to his departure, there are plenty who are happy to see him go.

But notable (to us, at least) is Bruni's relatively short tenure as critic; he took the job in April of 2004. Looking back further, there seems to be a five-year itch. Prior to Bruni, William Grimes held the post (from April 1999 until April 2004); before that, Ruth Reichl, with her legendary disguises, held the position (from 1993 to 1999). During this time, San Francisco has had one main critic. Every critic has a style, a voice—and more importantly, inevitable biases and a myriad of preferences. Because of this, should there be a limit to a critic's reign?

Last week Ruth Reichl was in town promoting her latest book at Herbst Theatre, and eventually the moderator, Steve Winn, asked her the inevitable question: How has the Internet changed restaurant criticism? I liked her answer—she basically recognized that restaurant critics no longer have the make-or-break power they once did (the only critic who does, in her opinion, is a theatre critic), and that unvetted opinion (you know, the kind you find on blogs and Yelp) has indeed eroded the authority of the one all-knowing critic. But Reichl insisted that city restaurant critics still have the opportunity to be the voice of a city, to be a touchstone for a large group of people. She also said that now, more than ever, professional food writers have a responsibility to be great writers and great storytellers. And with that in mind, should Michael Bauer step down one day, who would make a good replacement for him? Before you nominate Tyler Florence, remember that technically this person shouldn't have a conflict of interest or be a visible character in the food community; they have to be truly anonymous. Bauer might be recognized by most every chef in town, but I'm not sure he's ever been tossed into a pool by Fleur de Lys' Hubert Keller like this guy.