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The Last of the Dinosaurs

April 11, 2013

Twitter isn’t my medium. Short form kills me. I can barely communicate my ideas in 140 words much less 140 characters. Intentions have been misconstrued, complements have been misread, and tone has been lost.

My favorite ongoing twitter punchline has been when I say something critical and Zack Hutchins falsely accuses me of trying to publicly shame someone. That has never been my intent. Well, at least not until this past Monday.

I’m going to blame Zack for putting the idea of public shaming into my impressionable mind.

But all of a sudden, Twitter seemed like the perfect way to call attention to an astonishing admission from the Times Union. Somehow, the newspaper saw fit to consider a $120+ dinner for a family of four (including one kid’s meal) as “cheap eats” in last Sunday’s issue.

Still, I was planning to let the whole thing drop until I found myself awash in tweets from Kristi Barlette yesterday. Really, she just had a question. And you know how I feel about questions.

Just in case you missed it, here’s what she asked:

If it brings you so much grief, why do you continue to read? dont get me wrong, im glad you care enough to follow, but it seems you are dissatisfied and complaining more often than you celebrate or compliment.

When Kristi asked this, I was in a meeting and unable to answer. But Zack jumped in on the conversation and the two went back and forth for a while.

ZH: Kristi, that’s his whole shtick. And it seems to work, for him anyway.
KB: it’s just … odd. ex: there are things I REALLY dislike (reality tv) so I pretty much avoid it. granted, ill see the kardashians from time-to-time but i know what to expect, and what theyre about. i dont watch daily, then complain.
ZH: Daniel is the Capital Region’s foodie Blues Brother. I genuinely believe he feels he is on a “Mission from God”
KB: OK, bc I ask that question out of genuine curiosity, not to be rude. It just doesnt … make sense.

Making sense of my position is going to take more than 140 words. But let me start first by challenging her premise on its face.

I’m actually reminded of two Shakespearean soliloquies.
1) “‘Seems,’ madam? Nay, it is; I know not seems”
2) “The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones.”

In some ways I think Kristi’s observation stems from sampling error. I do say good things about the Times Union from time to time. Just a few weeks ago I wrote the following,

I completely forgot to mention the big news from the weekend. The highlight was Steve Barnes including the FLB in his Sunday column suggesting that restaurants should reduce their portion sizes and increase the quality of their ingredients.

I am thrilled, positively thrilled, that he’s come forward as an advocate for a position I’ve held for a long time. The more people we have banging the drum, the more likely we’ll be to change people’s minds.

Even in a story that I wrote recently criticizing a different review I had positive things to say. Like, “Cheryl Clark has been an improvement over Ruth Fantasia.” And there was also, “I enjoy Steve’s writing style.”

And last year around this time I was pleased as punch about the changes the Times Union made to their annual Best of the Capital Region poll,

I’m excited because we are starting out on the right foot. After a fair bit of nudging from our Open Letter to the Times Union and the dozens of co-signers, the paper made some significant structural changes to the 2012 Best of the Capital Region questionnaire. It just goes to show, that sometimes when you participate in a crazy grass-roots campaign things happen.

Going even further back you may recall my enthusiasm for the paper extending starred reviews to less expensive restaurants. But let’s table that for just a moment.

Despite this small handful of positive things I’ve said about the paper, I don’t think it’s prudent to start indexing and tracking my comments. Suffice it to say I’ve been both complementary and critical of the Times Union.

Now let’s assume for a moment that I do criticize more than I complement. It is true that when the food editorial doesn’t achieve the standards I would expect from a Hearst publication, it brings me grief.

So why do I continue to read?

Bear with me, because this is where it gets a little crazy. You see, I’m under the mistaken notion that newspapers still matter. I know. Call me a dinosaur. Call me out of touch. But I’m an old media guy, and I actually believe in newspapers. I believe they are an important resource for the community. Even more, I think they are absolutely critical for the effective functioning of a democracy. Granted, the food section is exempt from that last statement.

I’m also a romantic, and on rare occasions when I can make the time, I’ll still sit down with the morning paper and a cup of coffee to catch up with what’s going on in my community, the nation and the world. It’s actually one of my favorite activities, and one that I hope to do more of when Little Miss Fussy finally is old enough for kindergarten.

Disagreeing with the paper isn’t the same as being annoyed with reality television. One provides news and information, while the other is base entertainment. There are plenty of other reality television shows to choose from that may be slightly less annoying. But in most metropolitan areas, there is only one major daily newspaper.

Some might dismiss the food section as entertainment too. But I would argue that food news is important on many levels. However, let’s save that manifesto for another time.

The sad thing is that I do believe that I’m wrong. I’m pretty sure that the Times Union has squandered its influence and isn’t the stalwart of the community it might once have been. But I’m a prisoner of hope, and I’m not prepared to give up on my local paper quite yet.

By the way, this is not a schtick. While I smile at the notion of being a Blues Brother of food, I don’t believe I’m not on a mission from God. I am however, compelled to share my honest and heartfelt criticism with those who will listen.

The bottom line in this case is that Sunday’s Times Union review should have awarded stars to the restaurant. At over $120 it can hardly qualify as “cheap eats.” And when the owner describes his establishment as an “upscale Irish pub” one would be hard pressed to argue it’s casual dining. Especially when the reviewer writes, “Each of our starters was far more elegantly done and interesting in execution than one would expect.”

Then consider that the Times Union has awarded starred reviews to places like Mercado’s, which is an awful lot like a pizza parlor; Jake Moon, which the paper describes as a casual diner; and even the very casual national chain Joe’s Crab Shack.

How insulted would you be if you were the owner of Dorothy O’Day’s? And wouldn’t you want a satisfactory answer as to why your place wasn’t treated with the same respect as a lousy sushi joint operating out of a converted Friendly’s (which also got a starred review by the TU).

If Kristi can help provide answers to these, I’m all ears.

9 Comments leave one →
  1. April 11, 2013 9:37 am

    The part that bothered me most about that review was the “Rancher’s Pie” bit… Shepard’s pie with beef is cottage pie. Who doesn’t know that?

  2. Eric Scheirer Stott permalink
    April 11, 2013 9:55 am

    My vote for the most ridiculous restaurant conversion in the area is the Japanese restaurant next to Golden Corral on Central Ave – they’ve just stuck a few signs and a pair of Fu dogs in the place and let the Old West Goldmine theme of the building remain (complete with shovels & pickaxes)

  3. Rob permalink
    April 11, 2013 10:16 am

    It used to be that newspapers didn’t care what anybody said about them — and then along came social media.

  4. April 11, 2013 10:46 am

    I missed the original discussion about what constitutes “cheap eats” so would like to comment on that. I enjoy Cheryl Clark’s reviews by and large but the “cheap eats” is a misdirection because first, the places she reviews are never especially cheap and second, they’re very mainstream.

    A dollar menu at McDonald’s… two burgers, a drink and fries for $4… now that’s cheap eats. But most people who go to the trouble to read a restaurant column are assuming something else: holes-in-the-wall, probably ethnic, probably family run, usually with minimal ambience but not always, with prices that are remarkably low for the quality of food. Maybe such places don’t exist in Albany? (that was a question.)

    Both the two California cities I lived in, LA and SF, had a cheap eats feature in their daily newspaper which was a huge reader draw. Seems like TU is missing an opportunity here, or maybe $30/pp for “Upscale Irish Pub Food” is about as cheap and off-the-beaten-track as we get.

    • April 11, 2013 11:35 am

      The problem is that yes, there just really aren’t that many truly cheap places around here anymore. Getting a meal for under $30 is an increasing challenge (especially when you’re compelled to get an appetizer and dessert, in order to more fairly assess the menu) that’s made even harder when you consider that most of those cheaper places have probably already been reviewed.

    • Chris VanDoren permalink
      April 12, 2013 1:17 am

      I think there are tons of places that are cheap eats, and in those types of places you aren’t obligated to have an appetizer and dessert, they just aren’t that kind of place. Capital Q, Bros Tacos, The Curry House, Mr Pio Pio, Pho Yum, The Chicken Place in Troy, Jumpin Jack Flash, The Olde English, Wolff’s Biergarten, Fish Fry Places… Whew. I agree with BMF that those are cheap eats

  5. April 11, 2013 11:34 am

    The Crab Shack is too expensive to be called casual — granted, it’s seafood, and seafood’s expensive, but there’s no way you can call $40 a person “casual.”

    Also, “in most metropolitan areas, there is only one major daily newspaper” isn’t true, at least around here. Though it is true that each paper focuses on certain areas more than the others.

  6. April 11, 2013 10:30 pm

    I am with you, that newspapers still matter. That said, I am increasingly dissatisfied with the direction the medium is taking. I don’t fault the Times Union, per se. I fault the Telecommunications Act of 1996. (Something which 14-year-old irisira wrote a scathing letter to President Clinton on, which took him a year to respond to, but it did have his signature with original ink. Sure, it was on a machine I am sure, but still. I wish my mom had made me keep that, but I was so pissed at the blowoff response I crumpled it up and threw it in the trash.) However, I am not going to bore you with the details. I get most of my news from WAMC and All Over Albany, neither of which are corporately owned.

    Which brings me to my next point. The blogosphere has, in fact, filled a void that newspapers have since left. Perhaps not in the old school way we envision it, and perhaps it is a bit rough around the edges, but nevertheless it is trying to fill that gap. So, yes, you question the TU. I am a little disappointed in Kristi, as I know she’s had excellent training as a journalist (both schooling and professionally), that the questioning part is something that should appeal to her. Reality TV doesn’t matter. News does matter. We question what matters.

  7. April 12, 2013 1:53 pm

    Calling $120 for a family of four cheap eats is silly. Pointing that out makes sense, and when I read your tweet I thought, “sigh, shame on the TU” [or anyone else who would make such a statement about a $120 meal]. You also tend to point things out that you’d like to change. You aren’t saying anonymously, “hmm something about the TU sucks,” you are giving constructive feedback and not hiding behind anything at all. Anyone who really wants to know your “schtick” should come to your homepage and read your prominently-featured Open Letter. Change doesn’t come from seething silently, but from giving feedback.

    I like reading a decent Sunday paper at the kitchen table so much that I pay $30/month for it.

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