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No Votes No Complaints

June 24, 2014

2014 was the year I decided to ignore the Times Union’s Best of the Capital Region Poll entirely. In past years I’ve tried to meddle with the outcome by compiling a slate of truly exceptional places, and getting like minded people to vote along FLB party lines.

Some folks dismiss my scheme as anti-democratic. But such compromise and cooperation is exactly how our democracy is able to get things done. At least in theory anyhow.

And it was after an open letter to the Times Union on the FLB that the paper reconsidered how it asks the questions on the poll. Now it is a lot less likely for big chains with multiple locations to be deemed the best in a category simply based on the restaurant’s ubiquity.

This year I did nothing. That was part of my sabbatical. Also, I now carry a list of local recommendations in the header of the blog. Frankly, I can’t even remember if I voted. And if you don’t vote, I say that you cannot complain about the outcome. Democracy requires participation. But AddiesDad wrote in with his observation that this year’s results are a big step backwards and asked for my thoughts. This list has had reverberations elsewhere, so what harm could come from putting my spin on them?

Okay. Well, here it goes.

Best Restaurant – not my picks, but it’s not an embarrassment to the region:
1. New World Bistro Bar (’13 – Angelo’s 677 Prime)
2. Angelo’s 677 Prime (’13 – New World Bistro Bar)
3. D’Raymond’s (’13 – Delmonico’s)

Best New Restaurant – okay, this is embarrassing:
1. Texas Roadhouse (’13 – Joe’s Crab Shack)
2. Dave & Busters (’13 – Lucas Confectionery)
3. Bonefish Grill (’13 – Johnny’s)

Best Fish Fry – reputations are hard to kill, but this isn’t surprising for Albany:
1. Bob & Ron’s (’13 – Bob & Ron’s)
2. Harbor House (’13 – Harbor House)
3. Ted’s (’13 – Ted’s)

Best Pizza – I’m just glad DeFazio’s made the list, congratulations to us all:
1. Kay’s (’13 – Kay’s)
2. The Fountain (’13 – The Fountain)
3. DeFazio’s (’13 – Purple Pub)

Best Hamburger – this is identical to last year, change is slow up here:
1. Five Guys (’13 – Five Guys)
2. Red Robin (’13 – Red Robin)
3. Jack’s Drive In (’13 – Jack’s Drive In)

Best Sandwich – as long as Subway is off this list, I’m a happy man:
1. Gershon’s (’13 – Gershon’s)
2. DiBella’s (’13 – Deli & Brew)
3. Deli & Brew (’13 – Halfmoon Sandwich Shoppe)

Best Chinese/Japanese/Korean – I find this category to be deeply insulting:
1. Koto (’13 – Koto)
2. Plum Blossom (’13 – Plum Blossom)
3. Ichiban (’13 – Ichiban)

Best Indonesian/Thai/Vietnamese – this category is deeply insulting too:
1. Yono’s (’13 – Yono’s)
2. Bangkok Bistro (’13 – Bangkok Bistro)
3. Sushi Thai Garden (’13 – Blue Spice)

Best Indian/Pakistani – again, another identical set of results to 2013:
1. Sitar (’13 – Sitar)
2. Karavalli (’13 – Karavalli)
3. Shalimar, Delmar (’13 – Shalimar, Delmar)

Best Mexican/Central/South American – now there is only one outlier on the list:
1. El Loco (’13 – El Loco)
2. El Mariachi (’13 – Bombers, Albany)
3. Bombers, Albany (’13 – Bombers, Schenectady)

Best Italian – Canali’s unseated Lombardo’s this year proving old reps don’t last forever:
1. D’Raymond’s (’13 – D’Raymond’s)
2. Delmonico’s (’13 – Delmonico’s)
3. Canali’s (’13 – Lombardo’s)

Best Ice Cream – is a pretty good reflection of the region’s taste if not my own:
1. Stewart’s (’13 – Stewart’s)
2. The Snowman (’13 – The Snowman)
3. Guptill’s (’13 – Guptill’s)

Best Hot Dog – my top dog is Famous Lunch, but this is the same top three as YAG:
1. Gus’s (’13 – Gus’s)
2. Jumpin’ Jack’s Drive-In (’13 – Hot Dog Charlie’s)
3. Hot Dog Charlie’s (’13 – Jumpin’ Jack’s Drive-In)

Best Sports Bar – first two are the same as last year and number three is an improvement:
1. Wolf’s 1-11 (’13 – Wolf’s 1-11)
2. Recovery Room, Troy (’13 – Recovery Room, Troy)
3. Stadium Cafe (’13 – Buffalo Wild Wings)

Best Coffee Shop – are there better places for espresso? Sure. But these roast good coffee:
1. Uncommon Grounds, Albany (’13 – Professor Java’s)
2. Professor Java’s Coffee Sanctuary (’13 – Uncommon Grounds, Albany)
3. Uncommon Grounds, Saratoga (’13 – Uncommon Grounds, Saratoga)

Best Diner – Alexis may have moved up the ranks, but it’s the same top three:
1. Alexis (’13 – Latham ’76)
2. Latham ‘76 (’13 – Alexis)
3. Blue Ribbon (’13 – Blue Ribbon)

Best BBQ – Smokey Bones is an embarrassment, but it was on the list last year too:
1. Dinosaur (’13 – Dinosaur)
2. Smokey Bones (’13 – Giffy’s)
3. Giffy’s (’13 – Smokey Bones)

Best Outdoor Dining – I’m fine with this list too, it has something for everyone:
1. Jumpin’ Jack’s Drive-In (’13 – Jumpin’ Jack’s)
2. Brown’s Brewing (’13 – Dinosaur)
3. The Water’s Edge (’13 – Lanie’s)

Best Romantic Dinner – little is more romantic than the meat sweats:
1. Angelo’s 677 Prime (’13 – Angelo’s 677 Prime)
2. Delmonico’s Steakhouse (’13 – Jack’s Oyster House)
3. Prime at Saratoga National (’13 – Delmonico’s)

Are these results flattering to the Capital Region? Not really. But I also cannot call them a big step backwards either. Mostly because so much is identical to years past. And many that aren’t actually identical are nearly identical.

And there a few rays of hope that should be celebrated:

DeFazio’s is one of our greatest pizza places, and I’m thrilled to see them get a bit of recognition here. Let’s not forget that we saw Pizza Hut make this list just a few years ago.

– Bomber’s may make some mighty fine wings, but their burritos are awful. And the place isn’t even remotely Mexican. Last year they took up two slots under the Mexican category. This year it’s down to one. I call that progress.

– Subway didn’t make the Best Sandwich list and Dunkin’ Donuts isn’t one of our Best Coffee Shops. Thank God for small miracles.

The only real thing to get fired up about this year is the selection of three national chain concepts as the Best New Restaurant in the region. But let’s not forget either that last year Joe’s Crab Shack took the category, so it’s hard to definitively say that this is a step backwards either.

Steve Barnes does a good job at chronicling restaurant openings and closings every year, but I can’t imagine very many of the 10,000 respondents to this poll were armed with such up to date information. Even if they were, I think the better places on that list would surely divide the audience of good food lovers and make room for the mass of mediocrity that enjoy eating at Dave & Busters.

Here’s an idea of what I’m talking about:
– Dali Mama is interesting, but it’s a lunch joint
– Fish & Game is doing great stuff, but it’s in Hudson
– The Hollow has heart, but it’s lacking a wow factor
– Hong Kong Bakery & Bistro is a bit rough around the edges
– Jack Dillon’s sounds like they’re doing good work, but it’s very Saratoga
– Same goes for Javier’s
– Tala American Bistro burned a bridge with the Tablehopping crowd
– Rain Modern Chinese may be a bit too exotic for many in the area
– Etc. etc. etc.

If I were going to focus on one thing to change about this poll for next year, it’s not the embarrassing results, but the insulting ethnocentrism of the Asian restaurant categories.

Chinese food should be its own category. I’m not sure we have enough Korean restaurant’s to make the category worthwhile, so perhaps that should go away for now. We certainly don’t have enough Indonesian restaurant’s to justify its own category. Thai should be its own separate category (ideally one which excludes places that also sell sushi). Vietnamese should stand alone too. And if you want to be inclusive of those restaurants that sell pan-asian cuisine with their own dedicated category, I have no problem with that.

Certainly when the TU poll began there wasn’t this fantastic array of ethnic restaurants focusing on a single cuisine. Today there are. Let’s celebrate that glorious reality of modern life in the Capital Region.

And at the same time, let’s give these amazing cultures a monicum of respect. Each deserves a chance to shine on its own terms. Maybe then, some of the better ethnic restaurants will find their way onto this list and balance out the shame from our beloved big box restaurants.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. June 24, 2014 2:15 pm

    I found this list to be disheartening, but maybe we should also be disheartened by the lack of good and interesting restaurants opening up in this area in the past year?

    Also, from my one experience there, the problem with Rain wasn’t exoticism, but quality. Mediocre might be a generous description. Others have liked it more, but when I have Ala Shanghai nearby (and prefer Hong Kong Bakery, though the “rough around the edges” line is warranted), it’s hard to be motivated properly to try it again.

    And yes, more than anything, the embarrassing culture-fusing by the TU for some of these categories needs to change. They can’t really change the results, since those are voted on, but they can change the categories.

  2. Randy K permalink
    June 24, 2014 3:20 pm

    I agree with the overall sentiment and there is definitely room for improvement.

    That being said – I have one comment on your restaurant gripes… Smokey Bones may be a bit chain-y feeilng, but no one can deny that their ribs and smoked wings are damn tasty!

  3. June 24, 2014 8:10 pm

    Too bad Mugs & Jugs closed before the vote. It surely would have garnered #1 as best new restaurant.

    Also, why do we need two categories for Chinese/Japanese/Korean and Indonesian/Thai/Vietnamese ? It’s all the same, right? (That was a question.)

  4. June 25, 2014 1:28 am

    Without the discussion that goes on here, I completely missed the voting.

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