Life's too short to eat bad food - Me

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic - Arthur C. Clarke

Friday, March 29, 2013

Reviewing the Situation

The highway is replete with culinary land mines disguised as quaint local restaurants that carry such reassuring names as Millie's, Pop's and Capt'n Dick's. - Bryan Miller

On Thursday, March 21, 2013 a restaurant review under the byline of Andrew Z. Galarneau, Food Editor of The Buffalo News, appeared in the weekly Gusto section of the paper. That review was of a local outpost of a national chain.

The food world did not burst into flames.

I thought the review was a hoot.

Others disagreed.

Let’s get this out of the way.  I have made my feelings about restaurant reviews plain here and elsewhere. Also, Andrew is a friend. Whatever limited insights that may have given me have been overtaken his recent writings in the News. He has let us know his thinking about the job of a restaurant reviewer, and his job in particular.

When a friend asked me what I thought about this review I said that I found it quite humorous. He did not share that sentiment and apparently others agreed. His objections were centered, on the fact that a national chain is not a local restaurant and should not be given what amounts to free advertising. My response was simply “it is here, and it is a restaurant”. That response seems a bit trite in hindsight. So I will attempt to address my thoughts on this matter in an open letter to that friend.

For the sake of this letter let’s call him “Arthur”.

Dear Arthur:

Thank you for our discussion of the other night. Upon reflection, I think that my answer deserves some more explanation. You will find no one as committed to buying local and eating local then I, but like so many food issues it is not simply a matter of black and white.

Your primary objection to this review seems to be that it is not of a local restaurant. Not to obscure the point of this discussion, but no restaurant is completely local. After all, Feed Your Soul will not be hosting tours of our local coffee plantations or banana groves.  No matter how committed they are to utilizing locally raised or grown product, they still have a delivery truck pulling up to their restaurant and dropping off the same or similar items as those national chains. This is true even if the foodservice distributor is local.

One can’t really complain merely because the restaurant in question is part of a chain. There are local chains as well, if one defines a chain as multiple units. Was Sea Bar a chain when it had two locations serving the same menu? Even if not, Ted’s and Bill Gray’s are certainly chains – local chains (unless you don’t consider Rochester local). Please don’t get between me and my dog or my dose of Rochester style hot sauce though.

But that’s not really the point.

If your focus is on the fact that a local restaurant is a local business, whereas the restaurant reviewed is headquartered elsewhere – the profits therefrom flowing to corporate employees and shareholders, I would ask you to think in broader terms. Setting aside for the moment the possibility that some of those shareholders may be local residents, consider this:

Each of those restaurants has either purchased property or is paying rent for property locally. They are paying taxes locally. If it’s a franchise, the owner may be local.

Of most import, their employees are local. The people who sweat in the kitchens, wait on the tables, and mop the floors are our neighbors and friends. They are inherently no different from the employees of any other restaurant. The money that they earn is spent here on food and clothing and shelter, just like everybody else who lives here.

I may not be a fan of their employers, but I certainly cannot begrudge them their employment.

Ultimately though the question of whether a local reviewer should pay attention to such an establishment comes down to my original statement, no matter how trite. It is here. It is a restaurant.

One charged by the only paper of record to review restaurants would be doing a disservice to the community to ignore restaurants like this. To pretend they don’t exist.

If you look at it realistically, you can no more ignore national chains as a restaurant reporter then you could ignore a national chain of hardware stores in discussing where to get tools in Western New York. You wouldn’t expect someone writing about the availability of fresh produce in the area to limit themselves to farmers markets, CSAs and the co-op. You would have to mention Tops, Wegmans and those people from Arkansas.

People eat there. They dine there with friends. They save up to celebrate special occasions there. You cannot just tell them to “eat local” or that they can eat better at our finer local restaurants. Well you can, but you’ll come off sounding like an elitist prat.

The problem is that the atmosphere is welcoming – it’s designed that way. And the food doesn’t suck. It’s insipid. Boring. Designed by central planning or computer to appeal to baser instincts and our taste buds, and lacking in any semblance of creativity, it is nonetheless palatable.

The argument against dining at such locations is best framed in the most basic terms of value. Is dining at a national chain giving you the best bang for your buck? This is where I found the review so refreshing. “It was not a terrible steak. But I’ve met better $25 steaks around here”. 6 Plates out of 10. The lowest in recent memory, and he won't likely go below 5.

Compare that to the previous week's review: “If you’re feeding a family on a budget in Buffalo, you can’t do much better than Polish Villa II”. 9 out of 10. That's bang for the buck.

Remember the old Syms motto: an educated consumer is our best customer? We are not going to get people to understand that this type of restaurant is not providing them the best value by pretending that these restaurants don’t exist. We have to go there, and tell them you can get a better steak at a local steakhouse.  Seafood doesn’t have to taste like that all-you-can-eat place. You can certainly get a better plate of pasta for a better price at the myriad local red sauce houses than you can at those famous national franchises.

And every once in a while, you may you find that there are one or two national chains that are worth your money.

Great, now you have me craving of Five Guys burger during Passover.

With kind personal regards, I remain

Your humble servant

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Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
- Arthur C. Clarke

Life's too short to eat bad food -