Three years out from the end of his 32-year tenure as the San Francisco Chronicle's resident restaurant critic and de facto chief of the food department, Michael Bauer has given his first interview from semi-retirement. And among the takeaways are that he says he would not have done reviews during the pandemic, and he says that dining out is a lot more fun now.
Michael Bauer was a frequently uttered name for decades in the food world of the Bay Area, and his power to make or break a new restaurant grew with his lengthy tenure, even as traditional food criticism began to lose its cachet. Since his departure, the Chronicle — like many publications — has dropped star ratings in favor of descriptive reviews. And Bauer's replacement, Soleil Ho, has been settling into the job, even doing a sub-region-divided version of his old Top 100 in recent months.
In a new interview with SFGate (an affiliate of his former employer, Hearst), Bauer doesn't comment on his successor. But he does still insist, as he did for many years, that he went unrecognized when he was out reviewing a restaurant "about 90% of the time" — and that he tended to know when his cover was blown. "You just feel a little different energy in the room," he says, and he'd notice eyes peering out from the kitchen, or maybe a sudden change of server.
90% seems to be a wildly inflated number, given that he served as critic for 32 years, his photo was published multiple times on Eater and even SFGate once (whoops), and restaurant publicists around town would basically be committing malpractice if they didn't post photos of him in their clients' kitchens and know all of his common pseudonyms. Also, his very frequent dining companion was his partner, Michael Murphy, who was also easily recognized and well known as a demanding diner.
Bauer tells the story again, though, of his 100+ pseudonyms, and his multiple credit cards under different names — how many credit card bills could the Chronicle have realistically been keeping track of? And he tells of a night back when Michael Mina opened his eponymous restaurant in its first location at the Westin St. Francis, and Bauer went in with newly dyed hair and a dark-dyed beard (he is naturally blond). He admits he was still recognized that night by someone he knew in the dining room.
Anyway, he seems glad to emerge for a moment from the quietude of freelance life to share some war stories. SFGate lobbed mostly softball questions like these, about disguises and such, and didn't ask if he'd changed his mind at all about how to handle rating restaurants where well known chefs were accused of sexual harassment or misconduct. And though it's mentioned in the article, there were no questions about the 2016 SF Mag piece that led to ethics questions about his and Murphy's dealings with restaurants and a for-profit venture Murphy was involved in at the time. Or about some of the downright gleeful and barbed coverage of his retirement. And does he at all regret telling the New York Times in 2017 that Dominique Crenn "cooks the way the men are cooking"??
Bauer did say that if he had still been a critic during the pandemic he would have suspended doing reviews, as his successor did. And he still believes there is a place for negative reviews (as Soleil Ho does), if they are done "with compassion."
He says he's surprised that so many chefs and restaurateurs are still nice to him — even after he may have pissed some of them off over the years. "[It's] actually a surprise that the restaurants still haven't forgotten about me," he says.
And, Bauer says, he's allowed to be a lot more forgiving and just enjoy a dining experience with friends — and he's still going out to eat around two to three times a week, because he never burned out on the pleasure of it.
"It's nice just to go out for fun,” Bauer said. “I never got tired of going out. I never felt jaded in that way and it always felt like going to a restaurant was always a new experience; even at bad restaurants, I love going out. ... The other thing I learned is not being a critic is more [about] the fun of dining than it is about the food, and you can forgive a lot when you're with people you like. But as a critic, you can't consider that stuff, you have to just focus on what's on the plate and what the service is like, so you can't give the restaurants a break. I can do that now.”
One final takeaway: He says he gets in 30,000 steps a day lately! That's one way to keep the pounds off and still eat what you want. (He always was a fan of the treadmill back in the eat-out-every-night days.)