Leslie Sbrocco hosts KQED’s “Check Please, Bay Area.”
Finding a consistently decent restaurant is often a hit-or-miss proposition that, for better or worse, relies heavily on word-of-mouth—the places Uncle Morty frequents because “they have ample parking and the rolls, oy—simply to die for.” Greatly expanding this pool of dining knowledge is the KQED show “Check Please, Bay Area.” There, ordinary mokes of all stripes serve up freshly baked reviews of everything from haute cuisine to taco-truck fare. Presiding over this weekly confab is the charming and beautiful Leslie Sbrocco, a globetrotting wine writer and consultant who has worked on both sides of the camera. I cornered her recently, after she finished taping the latest season of shows, to see if she couldn’t broaden my culinary horizons.
Paul Kilduff: So, you’re heading out back on the road soon. Is “Check Please, Bay Area” a labor of love?
Leslie Sbrocco: Yes, it’s definitely a labor of love. It’s PBS.
PK: Were you doing the weather in Fresno when you were tapped to do the show?
LS: No. Never did the weather. I always thought maybe I missed my boat.
PK: You would have been good at the weather. Or traffic. What was your first TV gig?
LS: Actually when I moved out to California I was going to go to law school. I had a panic moment and I said, “Oh God, I don’t really want to be a lawyer. Oh now what do I do?” I had always been involved in theater and acting, so I just pursued that for quite a while in the Bay Area and I ended up saying, “Forget it. I want to get a little bit more behind the scenes.” And wine had been a passion.
PK: You were a wino?
LS: I still am a wino.
PK: In a good way.
LS: In a very good way. And when you get paid to eat and drink—what can be wrong with that?
PK: So you weren’t just plucked from obscurity?
LS: No, I was not. Would that have been a better story if I had?
PK: It would have been a better story if it were like, “Hey, we saw her in a wine bar. She looked good.”
LS: No, I had the credentials.
PK: As far as restaurants go, though, is ambience critical?
LS: You cannot separate the experience from the food. I can tell you that the first five minutes that you walk into a restaurant, from the feel of the place to the service—do I have to wait here? Do I have to stand here?—certainly makes a hell of a difference.
PK: And is that the case for the folks who come on your show?
LS: Absolutely. And some people can just say, “Hey, listen, we’re looking past the fact that this is a hole-in-the-wall—it’s got the best fried chicken ever.”
PK: What about waitstaff? How important are these graduate students?
LS: Waitstaff is big. Again, the food can be amazing but if you don’t get it for 45 minutes after you order it, you get a bad taste in your mouth. If I’m getting rubbed the wrong way by waitstaff or a maître d’ or whoever it is, it’s hard to overlook that and just focus on the food.
PK: Newspaper restaurant critics often wear disguises so they won’t get recognized and catered to, undermining their critique. Do you get recognized? Do they kiss your ass when you walk in the door?
LS: Yes, I get recognized a lot now. And the difficult thing about my role on the show is that, as the host and moderator, I’m not allowed to express my opinion.
PK: So I guess it doesn’t matter if you’re fawned over because you’re not reviewing the place. You drink real wine on the show—do people ever get sloppy?
LS: We’ve only had a couple of people, but that was only because they were kind of quiet at the beginning and I was plying them to get them loose so they would talk.
PK: Do you have to pay for meals at restaurants featured on the show?
LS: Yes. Absolutely. Now that’s not to say that the chef doesn’t bring out an extra glass of wine for me.
PK: There’s nothing wrong with some perks in life, so you go, girl. What kind of people do you recruit for the show? Do you make the decision?
LS: I can recommend [people] to my producer, but I am absolutely not the ultimate arbitrator.
PK: Could you put in a word for me?
LS: I can put in a word for you. We have a huge cross-section of people and number one is, are they articulate about food? That doesn’t mean we’re not going to have a cab driver next to a CEO, a complete food geek next to somebody who just likes to eat fried chicken. It’s the combination of passion for food, ability to talk about it and frankly, the restaurant they’re picking. We had on one show an extremely high-end restaurant and a submarine sandwich place. We are looking for the contrast because if you get just three high-end restaurants people are going to go, “Well, God I’m never going to go there.”
PK: I know you’re not supposed to give opinions, but do you have a favorite restaurant?
LS: Oh, I have lots of favorite ones—I can give opinions to you. I picked three restaurants that had been on last season that I particularly enjoyed and one of them was Da Flora, which is a small place in North Beach. And I just love this place. I’m dreaming about the pistachio cake right now.
PK: When you go out to eat, do you do the whole I-must-inspect-the-kitchen thing? Take cell-phone photos of the inside of the dishwasher?
LS: No, I don’t. To me it’s about the atmosphere, the service, the whole package. It’s about the food, the comfort level. Do you enjoy being there? With wine I always tell people it’s not about the price . . . the best wines are balanced. Nothing stands out. It’s just seamless. And that’s really what you should experience with a restaurant as well. It should be balanced.
Age: 42 | Astrological sign: Scorpio
Birthplace: Denver, CO
First real job: Cotton-candy maker at a theme park
Favorite pizza topping: Mushrooms
Best bar trick: No-handed tequila shots
Words to live by: There are no unrealistic goals, only unrealistic deadlines.
Mideast peace plan: Get around the dining table and use the clashing-cultures commonalities (including culinary heritage) as a springboard to discussion.