Much like her predecessor in the job, Soleil Ho, newly installed Chronicle restaurant critic MacKenzie Chung Fegan took on a Bay Area sacred cow for her first review at the paper, Zuni Café.

Ho famously wrote a not-that-great review of Chez Panisse in their opening set of columns back in 2019, calling Alice Waters's beloved bastion of California cuisine "stale." And they wrapped up their tenure at the paper with a soft pan of The French Laundry in 2022, a few months before stepping down from the job.

But essentially, save for those and a couple of capsule reviews, the Chronicle has not done any update reviews of the Bay Area's most prominent restaurants since Michael Bauer's tenure ended in 2018. Bauer was always a stalwart about making return visits to update his Top 100 each year — though he might have complained a bit about the task. But that process has not continued after him. And the paper has taken to publishing many smaller lists instead of his one big one — and their recent Bay Area-wide roundups of best restaurants have been unhelpful at best, and incoherent at worst, given how poorly they actually represent the region's food scene.

Chung Fegan enters this void with a pretty daunting list of things to cover — and though she grew up in San Francisco, and her family owns the Henry's Hunan mini-chain, she has not lived here in a long while, and her food-writing career was centered in New York.

So, before beginning to check off the list of newer restaurants that have yet to receive their Chronicle due, Chung Fegan decided to listen to the many readers who wrote in to suggest that a Zuni Café review would be a good litmus test.

"It’s a benchmark," wrote one Chronicle reader, "and will tell a lot about her as a critic."

And, as Chung Fegan herself writes, quoting some others, "For those scryers eager to divine whether I’m a 'well-rounded food critic' or a feckless Millennial only interested in 'restaurants with one syllable names,' this one’s for you."

The review is now out, and I assume it was in the Sunday paper. (Does anyone still get the Sunday paper? Just wondering.) It is neither disrespectful nor glowing, but it leans toward the positive when it comes to the food under chef de cuisine Anne Alvero. Chung Fegan admits that the restaurant is not the touchstone for her that it is for many readers of the Chronicle food section, but it will likely become one.

Does she rave wildly about the famous wood-roasted chicken with bread salad? No! But she does call it "good," and adds, "I would argue that no earthly chicken can live up to the reputation" of Zuni's much-vaunted chicken. And she says it's a pretty good value, even at the current price of $75, since it feeds two.

Chung Fegan was a bigger fan of Judy Rodgers's famed omelet, which is apparently back on the menu at dinner sometimes — it comes filled with Cowgirl Creamery Wagon Wheel cheese and mustard croutons. And a special citrus risotto with seafood that was on the menu in January was a "joy."

She also writes a whole special column devoted to the Gâteau Victoire, a throwback to the 90s flourless chocolate cake craze — though it actually predates that trend, as Chung Fegan discovers. "It’s been on Zuni’s menu for about 40 years, predating Judy Rodgers’ tenure, and may it be there for 40 more."

It's a simple, soufflé-like affair with only six ingredients, and remains a masterpiece. "It’s in your mouth, and then it’s not," Chung Fegan writes, like "chocolate foam."

The only thing that gets a ding, besides a few less stellar dishes, is the service at Zuni, which Chung Fegan says is uneven. Many Chronicle readers are likely quick to blame this on the fact that a crew of experienced servers left Zuni after they instituted greater pay equity, moving away from the traditional tipping model that had front-of-house staff making a much better living wage than those in the kitchen. But, Chung Fegan writes, "if the trade-off for [losing] that level of hospitality is that cooks and dishwashers are able to save for retirement, that’s a no-brainer for me."

As for how regular Chung Fegan's reviews will be, or what will be coming next, we'll have to see! She wrote earlier this month that she does not plan to keep up the anonymity charade, and much like Ho before her, the internet is full of pictures of her — and she allowed the Chronicle to publish a new one as well.

It is certainly a practical impossibility to be completely anonymous these days if you've had any internet presence at all during your civilian days, but Chung Fegan says she had a taste of pure anonymity for a few weeks while restaurants were still figuring out that she had finally landed in town. (Her hiring happened nearly a year ago, but there appeared to be some sort of maternity leave agreement that delayed things, per her Instagram.)

And, Chung Fegan points out another factor, which is that the treatment an "average" diner receives in, say, a fancy restaurant, varies based on who that person appears to be, society being what it is. So what's the point of grasping at anonymity to receive treatment that may not be "average" anyway?

"Am I, a multiracial queer Millennial, the average diner at Tadich Grill? Daytrip? King of Noodles? If you and I were to walk into the same restaurant, would we be treated identically?" she writes.

So, she is bound to get more special treatment as she's recognized more, but she won't be doing the dance of pretending she's not who she is — though she will book tables under aliases, which the restaurants with PR budgets will quickly learn to spot.

We do know that a "clubby tasting menu spot" and an "eye-wateringly expensive" restaurant both gave her less than stellar treatment when she was not recognized. So, stay tuned.

Top image: ZuniCafe/Instagram