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Fixing the Ballot

January 23, 2012

Does the Albany Times Union matter? It’s a fair question.

What does it matter what Cheryl Clark says about a restaurant, or Ruth Fantasia, or Steve Barnes? They are just individuals. Thanks to the wonders of the Internet, one can call upon Yelp, Urban Spoon, Trip Advisor, Open Table, or simply Google a restaurant to read countless reviews and see how it stacks up.

These online reviews capture multiple dining experiences over many nights from many different perspectives. The information that can be gleaned from these sources is invaluable. Sure, sometimes there may be conflicting reports, but when you find a place that is almost unanimously loved, you know it’s a winner.

Like when you search for the highest rated sandwich under the Delis category Cardona’s Market pops up to the top of the list with 4.5 stars on 36 reviews. That’s phenomenal, and even if your heart belongs to another Italian deli, surely you can agree that Cardona’s is indeed one of the best sandwich makers in the Capital District.

But the newspaper does indeed matter. It matters a lot. Especially when it conducts a broad poll of our populace and makes pronouncements about what things are The Best of The Capital Region. You know, like Subway.

Every year this survey kills me. Instead of instilling a sense of pride, the results widely elicit a feeling of shame. This year I’m being proactive, and I’d like your help.

You may be wondering, what’s the big deal? The poll is simply a popularity contest. Of course Subway would win. There are more of them than any other sandwich shop, so naturally they will get more votes.

Here’s the problem.

This poll affects not only how the region sees itself, but also how those outside the region see us. When people consider relocating to the area or take the next step and move here, among other things, this annual poll is a resource for information. Even established residents use the results to help them make purchasing decisions. This is why businesses campaign for votes and try to maintain their reputation as The Best Whatever in the Capital Region.

For the past several years the poll results have not painted a flattering picture of the region. And frankly, it infuriates me. The area may not be the most cosmopolitan in the country, but a lot of our best stuff is never recognized by the survey.

And I’m starting to realize that part of the problem is the ballot itself.

Take Chinese restaurants for example. Ala Shanghai does not even get a mention in the Times Union poll despite being far and away the most highly rated Chinese restaurant on Yelp with 4.5 stars on 49 reviews. Why? Well, because it is competing in a category called, Best Chinese/Japanese/Korean restaurant and we happen to live in a place that loves its teppanyaki.

We actually have a handful of decent Chinese restaurants, which include Shining Rainbow, CCK, Hong Kong Bakery, Taiwan Noodle and Emperor’s. Don’t even dare try to tell me that Tai Pan in Clifton Park should be on that list. But that’s beside the point.

What we don’t have is a ton of Indonesian or Vietnamese restaurants. Still, that’s no excuse to merge these separate and distinct regional cuisines with Thai to form the dreaded Best Indonesian / Thai / Vietnamese restaurant category. Kinnarree, which I believe to be the best Thai in the area, doesn’t even get mentioned, since it’s squeezed out by the fine dining Indonesian restaurant Yono’s.

And those are only some of the worst offenders, I could go on.

Other categories could be made more specific in order to hone in on local businesses that are truly special and less on generic chains that mar our culinary landscape. Take the Best Sandwich category for example. If that were changed to Best Italian Deli (of which there are countless in the region) Subway would fall off the list, and we might be treated to a sampling of truly delicious sandwich choices.

This isn’t just about complaining. Did I mention that I have a plan?

Don’t tell anyone, but I did a little digging and found out that Michael Janairo at the Times Union is responsible for putting together the poll this year. And he has asked me for my thoughts and suggestions in writing so that they can be shared with the team over there.

But I want you involved. Yes, you. Last year, I took on a similar campaign a bit further downstream, and did not get your input early on. That was a mistake. In the months ahead, I’m going to ask for your support in pushing this agenda forward, and am looking forward to many conversations about what places are truly the best in the region.

For now, please tell me what else you think can be done to improve the survey. Be as specific as you wish. With your input I will cobble together an open letter to the Times Union that I hope I can get many of you to sign (or at least leave a comment with your support). We may or may not be able to get the changes on the ballot, but it’s a worthwhile effort to try.

You can see the results of last year’s Best of the Capital Region here. The section that pertains to dining is here. Although there are some food related entries in the goods and services section too.

The categories that really concern us are:
1)    Best local grocery store
2)    Best wine store
3)    Best beer store
4)    Best bakery
5)    Best ethnic market
6)    Best farmers market
7)    Best health food store (single location)
8)    Best restaurant to open in the past year
9)    Best restaurant for kids
10)  Best hamburger
11)   Best pizza
12)  Best sandwich shop
13)  Best Chinese/Japanese/Korean restaurant
14)  Best Indonesian/Thai/Vietnamese restaurant
15)  Best Indian/Pakistani restaurant
16)  Best Mexican/Central/South American restaurant
17)  Best Italian restaurant
18)  Best ice cream
19)  Best hot dogs
20)  Best sports bar
21)  Best coffee joint (single location)
22)  Best diner

I have some very strong feelings for improving most of these. And there are notable categories that are conspicuously absent. Seriously, how can there be no Best fish fry? And it’s absolutely criminal that there is no category for Best apple orchard.

You’ve seen a few of my thoughts above. Now it’s time to add your own below, or forever hold your peace.

16 Comments leave one →
  1. January 23, 2012 11:14 am

    I totally agree that the best Best Indonesian / Thai / Vietnamese restaurant category needs to be broken up, but really, Kinnarree is excellent for Korean food. Their thai food is above average, but not nearly as good as Blue Spice. It’s criminal that Van’s (and my linh) do not get a nod in the Vietnamese “category.”

    Also, “Best ethnic market” should be broken up into at least two categories:
    Best Italian Imports Store
    Best Asian Market

    We have so many excellent little shops that could use the exposure in this field.

  2. January 23, 2012 11:22 am

    Break the strangle-hold of the chains by making people specify a particular location for every category.

  3. January 23, 2012 11:48 am

    I’m not a fan of the link bomb, but it’s appropriate here. I actually had a discussion with Michael Huber at the Tablehopping anniversary party, and apparently, some of my thoughts rang through to him. I think the biggest issue with the process is the intentional ambiguity of the header “Best of.”

    Only when quality is placed ahead of personal convenience and preference will the results reflect reality.

  4. Awesomedude permalink
    January 23, 2012 12:11 pm

    as much as i would like to see a reader’s poll conducted where ‘Red Robin’ doesn’t place much less win best burger…the same with Subway in the best sandwich category…take a drive down midtown and downtown Albany and then Wolf Road any night…and you see why the results are what they are…

    unless you distinctly separate chain/large corporate owned restaurants out of the mix I say Subway has a good chance of winning best Italian Deli with the residents here in the Capital District…its sad…

  5. January 23, 2012 1:02 pm

    That Chinese/Japanese thing always drives me nuts, ’cause you’re totally right, they’re two different cuisines and there are too many of both to lump them together. (Though I would disagree that CCK was any good… and thankfully, they’re closed now, anyway.)

    I would say that even “Best Deli” would improve that category, ’cause when you think of a deli, you don’t really think of Subway. Me, I think of the Halfmoon Salad and Sub Shop, which is a pretty good deli indeed. (I haven’t tried Cardona’s or a lot of those other Albany ones people post about, so I can’t comment on those.)

  6. -R. permalink
    January 23, 2012 1:21 pm

    I’m not sure how far you’ll get with your efforts, though I applaud them. In general, the only “Best Of” I read is Metroland’s as it addresses your issue of specificity. Yes, they can get a little cute in some of their categories, but overall I find it much more rewarding and convincing than the bland effort proffered by the TU; perhaps this is simply an expression of demographics. Unfortunately, the TU, being the largest print media outlet in the area is hampered by what de Tocqueville described as the “tyranny of the majority”. Much like trying to help the ‘average’ human being understand things like quality of ingredients and preparation in food and drink, we are hampered by the Subway and Bud drinkers of the world – they are the majority despite being foolishly, ignorantly wrong – yet they prevail. Best Italian Restaurant? Why, Olive Garden, of course! Best coffee shop? DUH – Dunkin!!! We live in an age of self-indulgent convenience in everything we do. Digital cameras are grossly inferior to film; MP3s are an abomination to the auditory senses; and Subway isn’t fit for a dog. Why do the masses utilize them all? Cheap, fast, convenient, simple and ubiquitous; they “feel” full, but are empty. Until we alter the mindset of gross consumerism and instant gratification entrenched in our culture on every level, I see little chance of the masses making informed, sensible, quality driven decisions. Since the masses ‘vote’ in such polls, all hope is lost. I think the best bet is for the TU to publish a ‘Best Of’ (alongside the reader picks) composed of informed opinions from erudite staff members, and vetted observers (such as yourself) who can perhaps chide the masses away from the trough of banality. Until then, good luck with apologies for my undying cynicism.

  7. January 23, 2012 1:31 pm

    Here’s what gets me:
    The word best is extremely limiting in describing some of these categories. For instance, I have many wine shops that I frequent depending on what i wan’t to buy. More specifically, I go to a certain wine shop when I want a wholesale wine and another when I want a more refined, regional wine. In the end I have a wine store that I like to go to for the best price (“Most valuable wine store”) and a wine store that I like to go to for selection (“Best inventory wine store”). Unfortunately, it would be pointless to divide each category up into even two or three subcategories; I doubt people would have the time to make their opinion heard on each.

    I think a more effective solution to weed out biased voting, such as in the Subway case, is to use a weighted average voting system.

    Instead of using the aggregate number of votes make it possible to “thumbs up” an establishment, or “thumbs down” an establishment for each category. Then divide the total number of thumbs up by the total number of votes for that establishment to get it’s “score.” What you’re left with is a normalized estimator of how much people like a place if they walk in instead of an estimator based purely on how many people go there and like it.

    There’s actually an even better estimate called the true bayesian estimator that would be superior in many ways, but that’s a little far fetched for this operation.

  8. January 23, 2012 1:43 pm

    Disregard polls, acquire firsthand knowledge, form own opinions.

  9. Mirdreams permalink
    January 24, 2012 1:11 pm

    I think the basic question is whether the TU wants the poll to expose people to some of the great stuff that’s (a little) hidden in our area or just confirm what is by the numbers the most popular. It sounds like they might be interested shifting the focus to the former which is great. I know that I use AOA and your site to find things I want to go check out, but if I’m voting in a poll I’m limited to things I’ve actually tried. I also agree that specificity of category would change my answers. I think Empire has the best prices for wine in the area (though All Star and Exit 9 can beat them on certain bottles) but I think For Love of Wine in Crossgates and Purdy’s have well curated selections.

  10. Awesomedude permalink
    January 24, 2012 3:35 pm

    how about a category for restaurant with the worst name?…thought of this category driving down Madison Ave. this morning going past “Asian Place”

    I think that would win…with runner up “Mr. Wasabi” in Niskayuna…

  11. January 24, 2012 5:12 pm

    I have too been disappointed by the best of survey.It reads like a survey of what is mediocre at best We can do better. And, as pointed out, it is damaging to the region. Someone looking for a window into capital district goodness will be turned off! Perhaps if the survey excluded chain type stores. Really – are there any examples of chain stores outdoing a strong independently owned small business (with the exception of Chipotle of course). The new survey could be: “Best of independent capital district.”

  12. January 24, 2012 8:58 pm

    If the TU wants to get more FSI coupon business from the likes of McDonald’s, they should leave the ballot as it is. If they want to bring more locally-owned restaurants into the spotlight, then they should split out non-local chains and put them in a separate sandbox. I’m thinking of new categories like “best national chain Italian” as well as an overall “best national chain restaurant” so Popeye’s and Olive Garden could go mano-a-mano.

    Ted’s Fish Fry and Roma have multiple locations, but they’re local. They get a free pass. Moe’s and Five Guys don’t and neither does Chipotle, sorry Profusser. Rules are rules.

    As to categories like “Best Indonesian/Viet/Thai” I agree they are embarrassing and make us look like hillbillies standing next to the outhouse with a straw between our teeth. Each cuisine should get its own category and when a restaurant serves multiple cuisines (as many Asian places do, out of a desire to hedge their bets because they don’t trust us to know what we want) then voters should put them in the category they think is most appropriate.

  13. January 25, 2012 3:10 pm

    > This poll affects not only how the region sees itself, but also how those outside
    > the region see us. When people consider relocating to the area or take the next
    > step and move here, among other things, this annual poll is a resource for information.

    Why is it? You mention Yelp, UrbanSpoon, etc, why are you assuming people relocating wouldn’t have heard of these resources where they come from, and wouldn’t trust them as well here? I think you are putting way too much emphasis on (and credit to) the TU poll. The TU poll is a joke, it is here to help one and only one entity: the TU. A metric of mine: a media that consider *itself* in any of its best-of category is a sham. The best thing to do is to boycott it, ignore it, not mention it. It can’t be help, it needs a fire and die in it. Damn, I’m out of overly dramatic comparisons.

  14. January 25, 2012 6:59 pm

    You know, the end of the world, there is no way to change the results sort of vibe that is sitting in most of the responses is like apathy wrapped in synthetic bread. Also blaming the landscape of “corporate chains” is pretty easy, except guess what, take a stroll through a city like Boston, New York City, Seattle and there are the same run of chain restaurants and fast food joints. And not surprisingly often times these mythological wonderlands of higher class always are touted as meccas to behold in the food and beverage pantheon of excellence. There are good new local options popping up all over the region, north of the Mohawk, south of the Mohawk, east of the Hudson and west of the Hudson. Many have been here for a while, and despite the rather boring mashup of incoherent styles and charm lacking winners that mostly win in this TU survey it doesn’t mean it couldn’t or shouldn’t afford the effort of change.

    The worst case outcome if more people participated would be some possible recognition of changing the scope of what the categories should be and how a particular establishment should qualify.

  15. chezjake permalink
    January 25, 2012 8:03 pm

    Besides best local grocer, let’s also ask for a “best local butcher” category. (And the over-marinated, over-priced Meat House is a chain from out of state, so they aren’t eligible.)

  16. Lindsey permalink
    January 28, 2012 3:24 pm

    Chains/corporations should not be allowed at all, and any write-in votes for them should be discarded. Those polls really should be about local businesses. Everyone around here knows what “Subway” is and the quality of that food.

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