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Media Failures Large and Small

April 18, 2013

Wow, this is a shitty week. Last night a fertilizer plant exploded in the Texas town of West, just outside of Waco. This comes on top of the Boston bombing and its subsequent media circus. And then there was the Senate buckling to the gun lobby.

Food is not feeling all that important today.

I did have an amazing conversation with Brendan Noonan at The Orchard Tavern yesterday, and I got to look a little under the hood at how they make their signature style of pizza. Hopefully I’ll have more on that for you tomorrow.

While my heart aches for those in West who wake up this morning with their lives forever changed, I’m also feeling more than a little annoyed at the media frenzy surrounding everything. Maybe the news media in general is just slipping. I’m really close to giving up on the Times Union.

Some other local food lovers have been displeased too.

Last Sunday’s restaurant review was another Cheap Eats write up. This time the paper selected a recently remodeled diner. And I’m totally fine with that. Well, mostly fine with that. Our diners are a treasure, but part of me thinks they should be rough around the edges and show the wear of time.

Still, putting my personal prejudices about diners aside, there was some blowback from readers about this choice that inspired me to take a closer look at some recent trends at the paper.

A fellow named Jasper wrote:
There are so many interesting little places doing what the diner is doing and doing it oh so much better and kinder. But then again, I no longer look to the TU dinner reviews for where to go anymore. I read the TU every day, I find it relaxing, but I don’t look forward on Sundays anymore to find out where I should try a new place to dine. I don’t need a diner review – I want a review of someplace that is special and perhaps out of the blue to try. I used to look forward to the dinner reviews – now, I could care less for the most part -sometimes because of the place and sometimes because of cumbersome reviews CC gives.

Steve K. chimed in his support:
I agree with Jasper but there are a few exceptions on this. (I don’t think the Westgate is one.) Topps in Rotterdam has the bones of a diner but inside it has the look and feel of a restaurant.

Even Willie Pittman got behind Jasper and added:
For the most part, the “cheap eats” reviews in both papers are a big bunch of who-cares for me. Why should I go out to get cheap eats when I have such good eats, and such a good cook, at home?

It really seemed like the paper had been reviewing a lot of pubs and taverns lately. And with two cheap eats reviews running back-to-back, I decided to take a comprehensive look at the last twelve weeks of Sunday restaurant reviews.

It was kind of illuminating. Here they are. Starting with the most recent one.

1. Gateway – Diner – Cheap Eats ($58+ for four people)
2. Dorothy O’Day’s – Pub – Cheap Eats ($120+ for four people)
3. Gavel Grill – Pub – Full review (3*)
4. The Crimson Sparrow – Contemporary – Full review (3.5*)
5. Darbar – Indian Takeout – Cheap Eats ($42 for three people)
6. Betty Boop’s – Diner – Cheap Eats ($45 for two people)
7. Henry Street Tap Room – Pub – Cheap Eats ($113+ for three people)
8. Hokkaido – Bad Sushi Bar – Full review (1.5*)
9. Route 67 Country Store – Deli – Cheap Eats ($45 for 4 sandwiches, etc.)
10. Smith’s – Pub/Tavern – Full review (2.5*)
11. Shirley’s Cafe – Diner – Cheap Eats (no total provided)
12. Charles F. Lucas Confectionery – Wine Bar – Full review (3.5*)

So out of the last twelve reviews five have been for some kind of pub/tavern/bar and four have been for some kind of diner or deli. That’s nine out of twelve that many people wouldn’t consider to be a “proper” restaurant. Add on a takeout Indian experience from a hole in the wall place and a predictably miserable sushi diner from the inside of a converted Friendly’s, and you are left with just one review of a nice restaurant that’s actually trying to put out notable food.

Except that one review was for The Crimson Sparrow. And while it did look amazing, it’s down in Hudson. As much as those of us up here in the Capital Region would like to claim this town as part of the Capital Region, I’m pretty sure they rightly see themselves as part of the Hudson Valley.

Where’s the diversity that reflects some of the great things the Capital Region has to offer? Where’s the starred review for All Good Bakers? And what about an update to 677 Prime which has changed alot since Bill Dowd reviewed in 2005. Yono’s doesn’t seem to have a follow up review since 2006 and I can’t find a review for dp in the Times Union archive at all. The City Beer Hall is another gastropub that deserves some serious attention from critics, yet hasn’t been reviewed. La Mexicana Grocery and Restaurant hasn’t been visited by the paper. And I can’t find any mention of Orchids Jamaican or Tara Kitchen in the restaurant section of the Times Union at all.

These are just for starters.

I know that when I write my features on All Over Albany, I take great pains to rotate among the cities in the region, capture different kinds of foods, and try to keep a good balance of stories. Periodically, I’ll sit down with AOA Greg to review a plan of attack.

Presumably something like that should be going on at the Times Union as well.

Don’t get me wrong. I love pubs and diners. Still, someone should be holding our actual restaurants publicly accountable for the food they are serving to their guests. And it would be great if the paper exposed its readers to other things besides pubs, taverns and diners. Maybe it’s my sour mood today, but I have a hard time seeing this as anything less than one more failure of the media. Granted, a much smaller one that whipping up people (and themselves) into a frenzy after a tragedy.

But looking back at what the Times Union has actually written about restaurants over the last twelve weeks, it’s no wonder that people are feeling dissatisfied.

9 Comments leave one →
  1. April 18, 2013 10:33 am

    They haven’t reviewed Tara Kitchen or City Beer Hall? No wonder I don’t read their reviews. I tend to take recommendations from AoA and people like you in the Albany blog/Twitter community.

    I think what you’re writing about really speaks to the bigger picture of newspapers finding themselves completely irrelevant. The newspaper, like the Post Office, has grown complacent in its role in society. As technology and the exchange of information has evolved, the distribution of news has needed to evolve as well – and it hasn’t. I feel like newspapers planted their feet firmly in the ground and refuse to change. While I think they should maintain an independent and objective voice, they need to pay attention to HOW the customer wants to absorb their product.

    These reviews show how the newspaper is out of touch with the community it serves. People who care about the food they eat aren’t turning to what used to be the primary source of recommendations. Luckily, the awesome online community of Albany has gone above and beyond in filling the hole left behind by the newspaper. Our community is filled with passionate people who write and share their experiences with one another and I think it’s done wonders for the start-up restaurants in the region. This blog, AoA and the surrounding online community are where it’s at.

  2. -R. permalink
    April 18, 2013 11:52 am

    While your tirade is on point, it also smacks slightly of an unsolicited job interview. Never capitulate to the shackles of a steady paycheck and benefits, if indeed you care about what you do; ‘the man’ has a way of beating you down (as I’m sure you’re aware). While I respect the TU for what it is, I agree with WrigsMac in that the mass media has submitted to the tyranny of the majority: easily digestible articles/stories that don’t take more than 30 seconds to quickly scan through (due to the public’s disgustingly short attention span), simple vocabulary, lots of pictures, no opinion and little substance. And, let us not forget that the Capital Region’s favorites (as borne out by likes of the TU’s Best Of poll) are right in line with what the TU’s dining reviews pander to: beer, diners, shitty take-out, pub food, more beer. Not that there’s anything wrong with any of it, but reaching out to a publication that generally expresses the demographic of the area and asking it to “aim higher” is like asking you to eat TV dinners for a month – it’s not going to happen.

    • April 18, 2013 1:49 pm

      I’ve told this to Kristi Barlette on multiple occasions, and perhaps I should have explicitly said something in today’s post, but I’m not after anyone’s job. If Rex Smith called me up this afternoon and told me I could have complete editorial control over the Times Union’s food section, I’d have to politely decline. When I start looking for a job, it probably won’t involve being publicly critical of my prospective employer. Anyhow, that day is still years off.

      And for the record, if I could solve the Capital Region’s culinary woes by eating TV dinners for a month, I’d totally do it. I might even buy a microwave.

  3. April 18, 2013 11:54 am

    The Gazette’s reviewed Orchids. And Tara Kitchen. And I think La Mexicana as well.

    (Also, I’d love to know on what planet $113 for 3 people constitutes “cheap” — that’s almost $40 per person. You’d think the limit would be more like $20-$30 per person, allowing for the fact that you’re factoring in tip and tax and drink and appetizers/desserts.)

  4. Jessica R permalink
    April 18, 2013 12:41 pm

    Wow, putting the last 12 weeks in a list like that is depressing. I think you really have a good point with this post.

    My thought is that they should aim to target any new restaurant within 3-4 months of it being open. These are the restaurants I’m more interested in reading about.

    It also seems like more of these reviews belong in a place between a starred review and a “cheap eats”. Either they need another category all together, or they need to better define internally what should place a restaurant into one of these categories, and not go to restaurants that fall outside those guidelines.

    I would love to see reviews of Tara Kitchen and the City Beer Hall!

  5. April 18, 2013 1:02 pm

    Cheap Eats: The new Shoprite (Both of them on Central Ave) actually have above average Chinese Food. I believe the Chinese food kitchen is independent from Shoprite. I do believe they are both owned by the same person (as they both seem to have the exact same menu), but I can not confirm this. I have only tried the food at the Shoprite near Everett. Although they only offer a few items daily, they have a full menu (if you ask) and they will cook to order, or you can call and place your order ahead.

    I have met the owner at the Central Ave location near Everett Road. He is very nice and explained that the Chef is actually from a local well known Chinese restaurant that recently lost their building lease. They will cook to order and it is actually quite good (for take out). It is not Ala Shanghai for sure – but it’s good, cheap eats. At $5.99/lb it’s not all that bad. I can get plenty to fill up on for around $7.50 They have fried dumplings where the meat actually taste very fresh and their tofu and mushroom was a very pleasant surprise for me.

    • April 18, 2013 8:57 pm

      Be wary of that Chinese food. The Nisky ShopRite’s Chinese food started off great (even better than the actual Golden Phoenix buffet next door), then quality declined after the “new store shine” wore off. It’s inedible now. Hopefully you’ll have better luck!

  6. April 18, 2013 2:48 pm

    It would be one thing if these pubs and diners being reviewed were actually interesting or unique in any way, but that seems to be (for the most part) not the case.

    And maybe it’s giving a little too much credit or power to the region’s main newspaper in this day and age, but I do think in a place like the Capital Region that a newspaper and their website can help shape, at least a little, the perspective of its residents, and that goes for the dining scene–which, despite the places mentioned here and in other posts that do serve good food in the area–is quite dull.

    I guess long-time residents can probably recognize a slow change, progress in the quality and interesting nature of restaurants in the area, but as someone new to the area it’s been really disappointing to try place after place that just leaves me cold, with basically just a handful of exceptions. Which really isn’t enough for an area of this size.

  7. Jessica R permalink
    April 21, 2013 8:01 pm

    Wow, seems like they read your mind….
    http://www.timesunion.com/living/article/Come-on-in-their-kitchen-4445921.php#ixzz2R6QXmsEe

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