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Zuni Cafe Calls Out the SF Chronicle for ‘Racist and Anti-Poverty’ Reporting

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The longstanding restaurant is using its widely-followed Instagram account to take reporter Phil Matier to task

The dining room of iconic SF restaurant Zuni is dark for now, but chef Nate Norris is keeping its patrons busy with a sharp and political social media presence.
Bill Addison

“It’s easy to post a photo of Donald Trump and say he’s an asshole, but we’re interested in having a more complicated conversation,” Nate Norris says. For the better part of 16 years, Norris has been a chef at Zuni, Market Street’s 41-year-old see-and-be-seen California dining destination, a spot that Eater SF once described as the “fraternal twin of Chez Panisse.” Norris also controls the restaurant’s “social media messaging,” as he puts it — and lately, that means that in addition to posting delicious photos of takeout dishes, Zuni’s widely followed Instagram account has been a platform against police use of tear gas against protesters, the reelection of Mitch McConnell, and — perhaps its riskiest tactic — against one of the San Francisco Chronicle’s longest-standing columnists, as well as its editorial board.

His concerns lie with the “racist and anti-poverty” attitudes expressed by some of the folks at the city’s largest newspaper, Norris says. He notes that the “Chronicle has done a good good job of cleaning house in the last few years,” and cites the newspaper’s food critic, Soleil Ho, as “a great example of the Chron going out of its way to make different hiring decisions,” even if those writers might pen controversial pieces that are bound to upset its largely older and white subscriber base.

“But Phil Matier is still there,” Norris says, “cloaking opinion in the news” and employing terminology that “is designed to stoke fears of Black and Brown people.” Phil Matier is a longtime reporter at the paper, with a wide-ranging, conversationally written bi-weekly column that covers city hall, politics, transit, crime, and anything else one might think of as “hard news,” with an arguable focus on urban disfunction.

Matier’s Sunday column, on Tenderloin drug dealing, is just one example over the “decades that I’ve been disgusted by his columns,” Norris says, spurring an Instagram post from Zuni’s account in which Norris says that Matier “takes little time to inform us of who is responsible for the supply side of this equation, other than to tell us they are Honduran criminals who live in Oakland. This sentence from Mr. Matier is nakedly racist, anti-immigrant, and lazy journalism.”

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@sfchronicle has published an article from Phil Matier with the clickbait headline: "Shopping in SF's Tenderloin is wide open- for illegal drugs, that is" Mr. Matier goes on to site @sfdph statistics, explaining that drug overdoses are a public health crisis, which is certainly accurate. He then makes an effort to convince his readers that more enforcement of street level drug sales crime and lengthier prison sentences for those convicted as the answer to the public health crisis directly impacting the least privileged and empowered in our city. He takes little time to inform us of who is responsible for the supply side of this equation, other than to tell us they are Honduran criminals who live in Oakland. This sentence from Mr. Matier is nakedly racist, anti-immigrant, and lazy journalism. He also quotes our newly elected DA, @chesaboudin, who paints a more complex picture without low hanging fruit solutions, although Mr. Matier chooses not to delve into these complexities in his editorializing. Mr. Matier and the editorial board of @sfchronicle, if you are genuinely concerned about those directly impacted by the public health crisis of drug overdoses in San Francisco: • Why publish an article that discusses the issue so flippantly? • Why do you suggest unsubstantiated and overly simple solutions to a decades long crisis? @sfchronicle we will kindly take your response in the comments and Mr. Matier’s if you can get him to stop watching Fox New long enough to get on instagram.

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It’s certainly not the first time Matier or any other reporter has faced public disagreement — in fact, stirring discussion is the goal of most columnists. What is rare is to see that criticism coming from a restaurant, especially one as established as Zuni.

“Since social media began, restaurants have been famous for never taking any sort of stand and avoiding controversy, they were so afraid of alienating guests,” says local chef and social media manager Richie Nakano. Nakano, a veteran of Nopa and the founder of Hapa Ramen, a wildly popular pop-up restaurant turned abortive brick-and-mortar, has always been a prolific and outspoken user of platforms like Twitter and Instagram, a habit he turned into a job as social media manager (among other roles) for food-and-drink focused website ChefsFeed. That avoidance of controversy, Nakano says, “is fucking chickenshit. They have these huge platforms they could use to influence their staff or their guests, and for years, they’ve said nothing. Chickenshit!”

According to Norris, it just makes sense to speak out. “Matier has this broad platform” (the reporter is also a fixture at ABC7 and on local radio) but “so does Zuni, so if we can and should use that to encourage people to think critically about poverty or the unhoused population ... instead of accepting Matier’s dumbed-down message that appeals to their baser natures.”

Norris notes that Zuni is also well-positioned to advocate for the vulnerable, given its Market Street location near tent cities there and in Hayes Valley. “We have a front row seat for the massive unhoused population in San Francisco, and all the pieces that come with that,” Norris says. “Speaking from a business perspective, I want solutions that will work.” But “I’m not just going to vilify people for being impoverished, the way Matier does.”

It’s an interesting risk to take, especially since Zuni’s dining room (back when dining rooms were open) largely looks like a Chron subscriber convention: white, economically comfortable, and well over 40. But when asked if he worried about losing diners, Norris says he isn’t. “I’m not going to say that Zuni is OK, because no one is OK right now,” given the ongoing pandemic and the destruction it’s wrought across the restaurant industry. “Just because we are expensive and relatively fancy does not mean that our customers are not interested in having a more complicated and nuanced conversation about harm reduction, addiction, and homelessness than just ‘let’s fill up the prisons.’”

That said, Norris noted that since the restaurant added the line “immigrants make American great” to Zuni’s receipts, they will get the occasional nasty note — and the comments on Instagram posts like the one Norris wrote about Matier’s column “can be horrible.” “But if you don’t like us, don’t follow us,” he says. “You don’t have to come here.”

Nakano says, especially with the new wave of support for social justice and racial equity seen after the police slaying of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and many others, that it’s possible that more restaurants will follow Zuni’s lead. “There is a risk to doing that,” Nakano warns. “You will lose guests. You will lose investors.” But, even so, “there are things that chefs need to speak up about, especially when it doesn’t directly affect them.” Nakano says it’s important for “this moment to continue.”

It will if Norris remains at Zuni’s social media helm. “San Francisco is full of informed, educated, thoughtful people who are capable of having opinions on a variety of topics,” he says. “Challenging people to think differently and have more conversations is something we all should be doing, especially in this city, and in this time.”