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food I’m a Restaurant Critic. Am I Fueling Gentrification?

Restaurant critics don’t talk about gentrification--a process whereby longtime residents of underserved neighborhoods are displaced in favor of more affluent ones, new businesses and amenities-but this critic discusses their possible role in it.

Every new coffee shop may feel like a move toward displacement.,Victor Bizar Gómez/Special to The Chronicle

In real estate ads in the Mission District, restaurants are often mentioned as an amenity. A $1.7 million condo listing cites Californian-Italian landmark restaurant Flour + Water and Corey Lee’s upscale Korean San Ho Won by name.

In recent months, I’ve been writing a lot about restaurants in this San Francisco neighborhood, with reviews of newer spots like Italian crudo hot spot Itria, modern French tasting menu restaurant Mijoté and the food waste-oriented Shuggie’s; at the same time, I’ve heard from many locals about the struggles of surviving in one of the world’s most expensive cities.

According to UC Berkeley’s Urban Displacement Project, the Mission District is experiencing advanced gentrification. With housing prices, food insecurity and displacement exacerbated by the tech boom and the pandemic, it has been both a vibrant cultural neighborhood and a contested space for long-term, mostly working-class Latin American residents and affluent newcomers. Data from the 2020 U.S. Census shows that since 2000, the Mission’s Latino population has decreased from 50% to about 35% of the neighborhood’s residents. 

In my embrace of the new blood that’s come into the neighborhood, have I been actively complicit in normalizing its gentrification?

Restaurant critics don’t talk about gentrification much, even though we’re inevitable participants of it. Sometimes we kick that can down the road, passively casting the surroundings of the restaurants we review as “changing” or “up-and-coming”; rarely, we might try to fit in explainers on the concept that are so condensed, you could produce diamonds with them. Because man, is it complicated.

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As a refresher: Gentrification is a process whereby the longtime residents of an underserved neighborhood are displaced in favor of more affluent ones, with new businesses and amenities arriving to serve the newer residents. Because of the historically unequal distribution of wealth in this country, this pattern often correlates to displacement along racial lines: neighborhoods get whiter in addition to more affluent.

While it’s tempting to talk about it like a weather pattern — the inevitability of rational actors existing in a rational system — it’s not beyond human control. Rather, gentrification is an outcome of high-level divestment and neglect of a region, including neoliberal policies that prioritize more lucrative land use and endless growth over policies that might ensure existing residents’ right to shelter. For instance, former San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee’s controversial 2011 “Twitter tax break” has been roundly criticized for exacerbating wealth inequality and housing cost increases in the city, paving the way for gentrification and displacement.

Gentrification is part of what scholars of urban studies call the “urban growth machine,” the complex network of actors — people like Lee, for instance — who shape city policies and land development in the quest to maximize profit. When public officials align with whatever entities have the most wealth at the time, gentrification is the result.

To put it in concrete terms, a “hot” neighborhood with gyms, specialty coffee shops and exciting restaurants advances the interests of the urban growth machine, including landlords who set the prices of retail rents, investors who have interest in certain chefs or restaurateurs, and politicians who benefit from shifts in their districts’ demographics. In our constant, algorithmically informed searches for news hits and splashy opening announcements, critics and food reporters have a part to play in the urban growth machine, too.

Gentrification has taken on a more colloquial meaning in recent years as well — one that stretches into cultural and psychological realms.

Food gentrification, a concept coined by cultural critic Mikki Kendall in 2013, isn’t explicitly about housing, but it was used as a way to describe how working-class communities could be priced out of culinary staples like collard greens and oxtails once those ingredients became trendy. Restaurants and similar food businesses exist at the nexus of both of those theories, which is probably why they take up so much rhetorical space in conversations about gentrification.

After talking to sociologists, real estate developers, community activists and other reporters about this, I’ve come to think of gentrification as something that functions a lot like mushrooms. (Sorry, I’m definitely doing a food writer thing right now, but stay with me here.) When you think about a mushroom, you might imagine that little fungus that you chop up and put into shabu shabu is the totality of it, right? But what most people don’t realize is that the bulk of that organism is an extensive mass of thread-like growths that exist underneath the forest floor: the mycelium. The ’shrooms are just the part we see.

But because we are, in the end, animals, we rely on what’s in front of us to better understand abstract concepts like this. Any random person you talk to might not know exactly how gentrification works, but they can probably talk about what it sounds and tastes like.

Restaurants don’t cause gentrification themselves, but when you live in a neighborhood that’s on the cusp of it, every new coffee shop feels like a jump forward on the doomsday clock of your eventual displacement. This past June, anti-gentrification activists picketed a restaurant in a Los Angeles working-class Latino neighborhood on opening night. Last year, plans to relocate the Creamery, a tech-focused coffee shop, from SoMa to the Mission District generated heated opposition from neighborhood activists and organizers.

In Chicago’s historically working-class, immigrant Pilsen neighborhood in 2017, S.K.Y. Restaurant became embroiled in a confrontation with anti-gentrification activists. One activist group, ChiResists, laid out the issue in a Facebook post: “(W)e believe that anyone that participates in the process of gentrification and displacement of working-class people — such as restaurants that aim to have a clientele not based in the community, like … S.K.Y. — are guilty of using those very systems of oppression to establish their businesses.”

When I was a teen living in the Williamsburg area of Brooklyn in the 2000s, I experienced the kind of gentrification that set the tone for many disparate instances that came after it. It was palpable in the smell of roasting coffee beans wafting up from the Norway-inspired cafe that opened on the ground floor of the building where my family lived. In the rolling trash bins in the neighborhood’s art galleries, repurposed as receptacles for chilled cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon. I remember being so excited when a gourmet hotdog shop opened a few blocks away, complete with vegan ice cream sandwiches and wieners made with grass-fed beef that you could get for $2.50 a pop. Eventually, my family left when rent got too expensive.

As I moved to other cities as an adult, I saw these things happen again and again, as if these smells and sights were a set of patterns being stamped around the world. In a 2015 story for Conde Nast Traveler, writer Peter Jon Lindberg called this phenomenon the “Brooklynization of the world.”

As a restaurant critic, I see part of my job as sniffing out the “real”: relying on experience and know-how to highlight what is sublime and singular in the world around me. But the real has started to feel more and more elusive as the urban growth machine has facilitated culinary landscapes entrenched in an endless configuration of white walls, salad bars and food halls. Yet I’ve struggled with finding a productive way to talk about that in my work.

Recently, I was in a workshop by progressive culinary think tank Studio ATAO. Participants were asked to discuss ways in which the food world — writers, restaurateurs, organizers — could engage with gentrification in our work. Though there was some discussion about what better questions writers could ask of restaurants in gentrifying areas, I still came away unsatisfied.

There are obvious connections between food and gentrification, but the particulars of that relationship make it difficult to understand the whole picture. The “hipster” coffee shop and upscale restaurant are popularly understood to be markers of gentrification, but how do we talk about the forces that enabled them to arrive in a neighborhood in the first place?

Restaurants and similar food businesses are uniquely situated as symbolic flashpoints of gentrification, regardless of their material impact on their neighborhoods, according to urban sociologists Allison Alkon, Yuki Kato and Josh Sbicca, who edited the 2020 book, “A Recipe for Gentrification.” Food is a powerful focal point because of how mundane it is, they argue, and trendy food in particular has immense value to the urban growth machine. In their case studies of gentrifying neighborhoods in places like Oakland, Denver and San Diego, the authors found that “authentic and cosmopolitan” food was often used as an enticement by the restaurant industry, developers, neighborhood organizations and local governments to draw more affluent people to those places.

“We think of gentrification as white yuppies with their lattes and not necessarily about boosters and planners and developers,” said Alkon. “Plans get layered long before they infuse into the popular imagination,” she added, guided by the “man behind the curtain” who rarely gets included in conversations about gentrification and restaurants.

James Ellis, co-founder of Ellis Partners, the commercial real estate investor and developer who has worked on projects like Jack London Square and Town and Country Village in Palo Alto, told me that courting restaurants can be integral to setting the pace of a development project.

“If it’s a really impactful restaurant, it could lead to other co-tenancies,” he said. “In some cases, they can be the pioneer, if you will, in a new neighborhood or a new project.”

Jack London Square is full of trendy spots like Farmhouse Kitchen Thai Cuisine, and a food hall has long been in the works. Developers are like the conductors of an orchestra, he said, who use data (like restaurant reviews and accolades) and public policy to put together profitable projects. But he disagrees that developers are specifically the spark of gentrification.

“I think what developers are certainly good at doing is identifying that activity of others at an early stage,” he said. They’re looking at neighborhoods that are popular with artists, who might open small shops or cafes where they live. “If a developer sees a change occurring in the neighborhood and there’s a mismatch between who’s living there and the services and amenities offered, they might think, maybe I can buy this old building and renovate it, put a restaurant, or do something upstairs and make loft space.”

Ellis mentioned that my reporting is one of his company’s sources for finding out what’s new and interesting in local food — a fact that circles back to my question about how my work fits into the urban growth machine. In fact, it seems, it fits quite nicely. Though public policy is the spark of gentrification, the flames can be fanned from many directions.

We are, so many of us, caught up in a machine that guides us to a destination that we didn’t necessarily choose. And we still struggle with even describing how the machine works. It’s also difficult to acknowledge that restaurant critics’ praise for the establishments we cover could add to the displacement of vulnerable people.

But I want to believe that by all of us better understanding gentrification, seeing it with clearer eyes, we can get to a point where we can redirect it. The actors in the machine, including myself, could do more to acknowledge our roles in this process, our placement in its intricate webbing.

I hope that this may be a start.

Soleil Ho is The San Francisco Chronicle’s restaurant critic. Email: