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SF Chron Critic and His Partner Become the Subject of a Major Takedown

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San Francisco Magazine has questions (and answers) about the city's chief critic

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Today San Francisco Magazine came out with an in-depth feature that shines a spotlight on the power that Michael Murphy, the longtime partner of SF Chronicle critic Michael Bauer, wields over the local restaurant scene.

For those not already indoctrinated in the gossipy annals of the SF food world, it's long been rumored that Murphy has been an investor in restaurants, influences his partner's reviews, and/or holds sway with restaurateurs. Now, Rebecca Flint Marx, food editor of SF Magazine, has finally put all of the questions, fears, and concerns of the San Francisco hospitality industry into print, with the publication of her article "The Trouble With the Michaels."

The article stems from Murphy's involvement with IfOnly, the "Make-A-Wish for rich people," that puts together culinary experiences with local chefs. Given his position, it could be considered an unethical role, wherein chefs feel pressure to sign on to create a $1,000 per person private dinner based on the idea that saying no to Murphy is like saying no to Bauer.

Here are some of the top zingers from Marx's piece:

— "As Bauer's boyfriend of 25 years, [Murphy] is as much a fixture of San Francisco's restaurant scene as the critic himself. "It's kind of like Billary," says one acquaintance of both men. Like the Clintons, "they're a machine, and they've always been a machine."

— "When Michael Bauer's life partner approaches you with a business opportunity, it becomes an offer you can't refuse."

"You can make fun of his writing or his taste, but the reality is that Michael Bauer still matters."

— "'Bauer is "the biggest game in town, period,' says La Toque's Ken Frank. 'There's the Chronicle and everything else.'"

— "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."

— "...while Bauer is relatively shy and affable in public, Murphy is 'the pit bull, the enforcer,' known to lash out publicly at those who have criticized Bauer. In 2013, after then-Eater SF editor Allie Pape wrote a post on the site mentioning that Fog City Diner owner Bruce Hill had had to turn down a request to cook dinner for Kanye West and Kim Kardashian because he was expecting Bauer at the restaurant, Murphy took to Twitter to slam 'resident ‘idiot editor' Allie Papp-smear.' (The tweet was subsequently deleted, but it can still be found online.)"

"During my interviews for this story, I heard [Murphy] referred to variously as "Voldemort," "the Godfather," and "Keyser Söze."

—"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."

—"What this is really about is a city whose impact on the nation's—and arguably the world's—culinary culture stands in direct contradiction to its innate provinciality.San Francisco is a village, one that's full of chefs who have spent their entire career under a single critic and have been conditioned to please him and to not, with very few exceptions, ask any questions."

—"This would never fly at the New York Times, they said—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?"

— "'Everyone plays the game. Everyone talks shit on the side, but there they are, playing up to [Bauer] when it comes to be their turn' to be reviewed by him, [said Richie Nakano]."

— "Before [Marx] began reporting this story, plenty of people were happy to tell [her] their misgivings about Bauer and Murphy. But once those idle musings were met with formal interview requests, the tune didn't so much change as go eerily quiet."

— "Fear does funny things in a village, particularly where money is concerned. It makes you think about what a community is, where its fault lines lie, and what its members owe to one another and to themselves."

According to the Association of Food Journalism's Food Critics Guidelines, "Restaurant criticism is not an objective pursuit, yet readers expect a measure of objectivity from critics." Is such a thing possible when 30 years of sightings, mingling, and personal relationship forming are an integral part of the process? Though Bauer's knowledge is deep (and it better be, after 30 years on the job), San Francisco deserves fresh writing, big ideas, and diversity. Will we ever get it?

What do you think? Is it time for fresh blood at the Chronicle? Tell us in the comments.

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