Michael Bauer has been covering San Francisco’s dining scene as the Chronicle’s restaurant critic for the last 30 years. In other words, if Bauer’s gig were a human being, it would be an Old Millennial, already forgetful of the joys of youth and cynical to the realities of modern life. An increasing number of gourmands in one of America's most important food cities are wondering if 30 years is maybe too long for a journalist to keep the same beat — more and more, it seems people in the Bay Area are clamoring for a new voice to define their cuisine.
Most recently, a feature story in Edible San Francisco brings together several serious players in the food world, to answer the question "What do we want from our city's top tastemaker?" Bauer isn’t the only critic in town, but with his tenure at the Chronicle spanning three decades, his opinion is viewed as the be-all and end-all. This is a problem for those who find serious flaws in his work (complaints include that he isn't very open-minded, he only reviews fine dining, and he isn't — gasp — a good writer) — and also in his methods, with the powerful critic coming under fire for what many perceive as serious conflicts of interest. His reviews will make or break an establishment.
There is, of course, the Bauer bump: a favorable review by the Chronicle critic can lead to a spike in business, long waits for reservations, lines out the door and interest from national media, who watch the San Francisco dining scene hungrily for innovative newcomers and culinary trends. Likewise, a negative review or withdrawal of stars can help hasten the demise of a place or its top people. As [San Francisco Magazine editor Rebecca Flint Marx] told me, "Everyone is terrified of pissing off Bauer."
Critics in cities everywhere carry the potential to be kingmaker or grim reaper for a restaurant, but San Francisco chefs and restaurateurs may face more pressure than those elsewhere. "I do think San Francisco falls into that situation," LA Weekly critic Besha Rodell tells Edible SF's Sarah Henry. "Michael Bauer is a huge voice. Other cities, like New York and LA, have more of a community of restaurant critics so there’s a conversation going on. Everyone has a different take and tastes."
If Bauer’s particular tastes are cause for concern, his relationship with the industry is alarming to his detractors. In July, Marx took an in-depth look at the critic, his partner Michael Murphy, and their dealings within the industry. Murphy serves as culinary directory for IfOnly, an organization that offers wealthy people lavish experiences for exorbitant prices. Marx took specific issue with one of IfOnly’s recent bucket-list ideas, a meal with Bauer at a high-end San Francisco restaurant, where the diner would be "lavished with kindness and treated like a royal as Michael is respected, beloved, and sometimes feared in some circles." If the restaurant knows he’s there, doesn’t that make Bauer’s supposed veil of anonymity a sham? And just what does his close connection to someone in Murphy’s position mean?
Among the notable lines from Marx’s piece:
The upshot, adds one industry insider, is that "at the end of the day it's a bigger offense to offend Michael Murphy than Michael Bauer. That's what's so frustrating: It's not one person you have to watch out for, it's two."
And so here is what it all comes down to: There are individuals within the San Francisco restaurant community who feel pressured and manipulated by Michael Murphy and his connection to the most powerful restaurant critic in town, and there are individuals who don't.
This would never fly at the New York Times ... can you imagine any of the paper's all-powerful restaurant or theater critics getting away with such clear, and long-standing, conflicts of interest?
The individuals Henry interviewed alluded to the view of restaurant criticism as a literary public service. It sorts out the basic facts of food, service, and atmosphere, but it also tells a story. The critic’s opinions help to shape a city’s idea of what, exactly, dining is supposed to be. In San Francisco, the balance of power appears to be out of whack.
• Critical Mass: What Do We Want From Our City's Top Tastemaker? [Edible SF]
• The Trouble with the Michaels [SF]
• SF Chron Critic and His Partner Become the Subject of a Major Takedown [ESF]
• All Critics Coverage [E]