Pete Tittl was the most feared journalist in Bakersfield. Just who is this Pete Tittl, those of you not from our town might ask? Was he a crack investigative reporter, a master at tracking how public monies are obtained, allocated, distributed and potentially abused? Nope. Was he a columnist keeping tabs on the city’s movers and shakers, ever on the lookout for the slightest hint of hypocrisy or impropriety? Nope. Pete Tittl was, and still is, The Bakersfield Californian’s restaurant reviewer. The mere thought of having Pete Tittl and his always unnamed “companion” visit a restaurant had owners quivering like a bowl of Jello and shaking like the earth under the San Andreas fault. And I had two encounters with restaurant owners regarding Pete Tittl that I have been delightfully sharing for three decades now.
First I should point out that Pete Tittl caused me many an aggravating photo shoot. You see, the restaurant owners never knew when Tittl was in their establishment, but every now and then, The Californian would want some pictures of the place, and the food, for the upcoming review. They would call the restaurant, tell the owner it was the subject of a review and arrange a photo shoot, and while Pete and his companion happily ate somewhere else, I would have to deal with the nervous restaurant owner, asking me, sometimes begging me, to tell him or her what was in the review. I never knew, and told them so, but that didn’t help matters any. So many times I would tell these owners that it really didn’t matter what the review said, it was going to be good for business. If Tittl gave a good review, people would flock to the restaurant to see if they agreed. If Tittl gave an unfavorable review, people would flock to the restaurant to see if they agreed. It did little to comfort the owners. I bring this up only because Pete Tittl reads this blog, just in case he wants to feel sorry for all the angst he has caused me over the years.
Now, back to my stories. In the early 1980s, just after I joined The Californian staff, we had a company-sponsored softball team. One day, after a game, we went to a popular local bar and grill for some food and drink. We were wearing uniforms with the company’s name on them, and I had my camera and was taking pictures, so it was no secret to the owner who we were. He came up and began talking about Pete Tittl and how he really wanted to know what he looked like in case he ever came to visit his restaurant, a place on California Avenue. Then he made me an offer: he would pay $300 for a photo of Pete Tittl. What the poor fool didn’t know was that Pete Tittl was on The Californian’s softball team and was sitting right there, right under his nose. At the time, I found nothing funny about the offer, and immediately reported it to the editors. I was young, right out of journalism school and full of that youthful journalistic righteousness and exuberance. I saw the offer as an attempt to subvert the journalistic process. I was a defender of truth, a believer of the importance of independent reporting and its role in keeping its citizenry informed. I was a regular freaking Jimmy Olsen, a guardian of blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. If I had it to do over again, I would have taken the guy’s $300 and given him a picture of my dad, then told my dad about this great restaurant he and my mom needed to go try.
In the fall of that year, or maybe the next, I would have an even more bizarre Pete Tittl experience. Californian sports writer Mike Griffith and I were sent to Tehachapi, a small mountain town east of Bakersfield, to cover a high school football game. We had heard about a pretty good steak house in the town, so we headed there early to try it out before the game. After placing our order and as we waited for our food, Mike pulled his notebook out of his pocket and began flipping through it. Mike was not a prep football reporter. His primary beats were auto racing and hunting and fishing, and his duties included producing the newspaper’s wildly popular weekly racing and outdoors pages. As he’s flipping through his notes, a woman shrieks, “Oh my God, you’re Pete Tittl!” I look up, stupidly expecting to see Pete standing inside the restaurant’s entrance. But she is staring right at Mike. Now she’s at the table, and she’s repeating herself. “Oh my God, you’re Pete Tittl. You’re here to review my restaurant.” No, we’re not, Mike explains. We’re here to cover the high school football game. I’m a sports reporter, he’s the photographer. We’re just having something to eat before the game. But she’s not buying it. She’s on to us. That’s obviously our cover story, in case we’re found out. Mike is Pete Tittl, and I’m his companion. And don’t you try to fool me. Again, we tell her we are in Tehachapi to cover a football game, and this time we show her our Bakersfield Californian IDs. But that too, she’s convinced, is part of the ruse, all an elaborate cover story to protect the mysterious Pete Tittl from discovery.
And then the food starts coming. And coming. And coming. Here, I want you to try this. OK, but we’re not Pete Tittl. Now I want you to try this. OK, but we’re not Pete Tittl. She’s at the table constantly, fussing, moving utensils as we eat. Try this steak. OK, but we’re not Pete Tittl. Try this chicken. OK, but we’re not Pete Tittl. Try these potatoes. OK, but we’re not Pete Tittl. Try this pork. OK, but we’re not Pete Tittl. More bread? OK, but we’re not Pete Tittl. And so it goes for the entire meal.
Now Mike and I have a little bit of a dilemma. The Californian, like all newspapers, has strict guidelines regarding the acceptance of gratuities, and we take our ethics policy seriously. Freebies are absolutely forbidden, a crucial component to responsible journalism. Your reporting cannot be trusted if you take anything from the people you are covering. Cash, food, alcohol, gifts. It’s all forbidden. So we had to figure out what to do about this very weird encounter. We were not in this woman’s restaurant to do a review. We were not in her restaurant in any capacity related to The Bakersfield Californian. We told her repeatedly that we were not Pete Tittl and offered her proof. Yet she unloaded on us a volume of food far beyond what our bill totaled. We decided we were not in violation of the newspaper’s ethics policy. We paid our bill, and just to be safe, we left a very sizable tip for our server. I did not have a particularly good shoot that night. I was lethargic and did not feel like moving around to get into position for my shots. I think I may have eaten a little too much.
Nowadays, more than 30 years later, people still ask me about Pete Tittl. Is he a real person? Yes. Is that his real name? Yes. Who is his “companion.” I really don’t know, but I assume it alternates between friends, coworkers, his wife and his now-grown children. What I haven’t been asked again is if I would be willing to provide a picture of Pete Tittl for $300. If it happens, this time I’ll be ready. Hey, Dad, smile for the camera!