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The Capital Region’s Most Entrenched

March 29, 2017

What can I tell you, I’m a glutton for punishment. Every year, when the Times Union’s Best of the Capital Region poll results come out, I’m curious to know what those who vote in this survey think are the area’s crowning jewels.

Sometimes it fills me with hope. Other times it’s despair. Usually, it’s a combination of both.

We talked about this year’s poll a couple of months ago when the voting was open. And no longer do I care enough about this long standing barometer to execute a formal campaign to try and sway the results. This year, it seems like Tipsy Moose did a pretty good job of that.

Congratulations to them. I’m serious. It’s no small feat. But besides the accomplishment of being able to achieve some movement in the poll results, more importantly it helped to put some fresh new businesses on the list, which by and large are fairly lacking.

Much like Albany itself, this is a town where reputations are long entrenched. Things get done the way they’ve always been done. So Uber has an uphill climb, we’re not getting wine in grocery stores anytime soon, and the fact we can now have a mimosa with brunch is somehow a staggering political accomplishment.

Grumpiness aside, let’s look at some of the highs and lows of this year’s results.

Think about the best locally owned restaurant in the region. What do you come up with? If you’re a foodie, it’s probably Peck’s Arcade. If you like to be charmed a bit and don’t mind spending a good bit more, maybe you said 15 Church. Or if you’re old school perhaps you went with 677 Prime, Yono’s, or Cafe Capriccio.

Well, you would all be wrong. Because the poll results say that Tipsy Moose comes in at the top, followed by Berben & Wolff’s Vegan Delicatessen.


Funny story. I actually really like both of these places. Tipsy Moose is all about elevated tavern fare with a killer beer list and no pretense. And Berben & Wolff has allowed vegans the joy of going to a restaurant and ordering anything off the menu that strikes their fancy. And it’s all good, too. I’ve heard it called “junk food for vegans.” I’m still jonesing to try the wing burger there, or to make it in for one of the Wednesday wing nights.

The interesting thing about this poll is that the respondents are getting it right. Just not the majority of the respondents.

For example, Best Burger lists Jack’s Drive-In as the top pick. Again. And while I do cherish this regional roadside seasonal burger joint for its excellent caramelized onions, it’s not our best burger. The third place Crave is a much better pick. But this small, relatively new, independent burger place made the list. That on its own should be cause for celebration.

Kay’s Pizza took the top spot for its namesake dish. Again. While my top choice, Marino’s in Schenectady didn’t make the list at all, DeFazio’s in Troy came in fourth. And let’s not forget this category used to contain Pizza Hut. Thank god those days are long behind us.

For wings, it’s true, The Ruck does outshine Clifton Park’s Rusty Nail. But 20 North in Schenectady doesn’t even make the cut? Now I’m starting to question if there even is a God.

Once again, Plum Blossom tops the Chinese list, but Ala Shanghai gets the number two slot. And still, there are locals who have never heard of this local treasure which makes Shanghaiese soup dumplings that rival the best places in Flushing.

Professor Java’s isn’t bad. At least Dunkin’ Donuts no longer makes the list for Best Coffee. But kru coffee in Saratoga Springs isn’t even on the list. Nor is Superior Merchandise or little pecks. Thankfully Stacks scored the number two spot. It means that there were at least some Albany-centric coffee aficionados who answered the survey.

Koto again takes Best Japanese. El Loco is still Best Mexican. Gus’s is still Best Cheap Eats. Empire is still Best Wine Store. Bella Napoli is still Best Bakery. Roma is still Best Ethnic Market. Augie’s takes Best Family Restaurant again. Ric is once again declared our best chef. According to readers of the Times Union, little has changed in years.

Interestingly, the TU readers voted Yono’s for best Vietnamese, but the editors wouldn’t let an “eclectic contemporary American restaurant” win that category. Yes, the restaurant does have an Indonesian side to its menu. But that’s still not Vietnamese. At all. It’s not even close. Although the paper can not wash its hands of this result, as this survey had a “Best Indonesian/Thai/Vietnamese” category for many years.

The Memphis King totally got shafted and wasn’t even included in the Best Barbecue list. In the top seven, there are three chains, and a place all the way out in Oneonta. I’m starting to wonder if TU readers are scared of Schenectady. Seriously, 20 North, Marino’s, and La Mexicana were entirely ignored. Gershon’s and Blue Ribbon were the only two Electric City places to crack any of the top three. That’s a travesty.

But there are upsides too.

Olive Garden had been our best chain restaurant. Now it’s Five Guys. I don’t know about you, but I see that as an improvement. Lucas Confectionary snagged the first place spot for Best Bar For Wine, and the place doesn’t even have “wine” or “bar” in its name.

I guess the bottom line is that there is still room for improvement. This is a far cry from the horrorshow of this list when I moved to the region almost ten years ago. But it also demonstrates how hard it is to get people out here to change their minds about a place they’ve been told is good for years.

Restaurants change. New places open. Let’s be nimble, people. Let’s support the great ones, and encourage our old favorites to elevate their game. Otherwise there’s just stagnation. And that’s never pretty.

9 Comments leave one →
  1. Adam permalink
    March 29, 2017 10:42 am

    Really agree with what you’re saying here! The presence of all the chain restaurants really blows my mind. Mentioning pecks, 15 church and crave made my heart sing. Great article

  2. KingOfBeacon permalink
    March 29, 2017 11:52 am

    So much to digest. Gus’ is the worst of the 3 mini hot dogs places. They might as well call their sauce ‘paprika with water and salt’. And I’m of Hungarian descent! Professor Java’s should be shut down for health code violations or at the very least the 2 inches of dust coating everything. And I guess the Bella Napoli fans have never heard of The Cookie Factory. Lotta fans of boring plain white bread and hard, dry cookies around these parts I guess. These same people probably only believe in doing missionary. 2 and a half years of living around here and I still don’t get the food ‘culture’ of the Capital Region.

  3. Lou permalink
    March 29, 2017 2:30 pm

    TU readers aren’t just scared of Schenectady, they actively hate on it. It’s amazing, with as many people who move through, in/out of the Capital Region every year, there is still a strong and entrenched parochialism among the populace. Albany people don’t go to Schenectady and Schenectady people don’t go to Albany, etc. I bet if the Gazette were to do a similar poll you’d have very different results.

    I moved here about 10 years ago and to me, Alb/Schenectady/Troy are all just neighborhoods of the Capital Region. I go to all of them equally because they all have cool things/good restaurants/etc., and none of them have a monopoly on any one thing.

  4. albanylandlord permalink
    March 30, 2017 1:38 am

    I can’t complain too much about the lack of Schenectady places – It is an Albany paper and there is a separate Schenectady paper that has its own solid fan base. Remove enough Gazette readers from the voting and thats the deal. Troy is closer to Albany and has a pretty cool / unique vibe to attract people there so it does pretty well.

    I’m happy with the improvement over the years and the inclusion of some cool places (I’m looking at you Crave), but Yelp is where its at to find the good places, not the TU.

    • albanylandlord permalink
      March 30, 2017 1:40 am

      Of course that makes Jack’s for best burger even more of a head shaker… How that overcame the Schenectady deficit to win is a real tribute to Nostalgia (not that there’s anything wrong with nostalgia….)

    • David Nardolillo permalink
      March 30, 2017 8:24 pm

      I agree with you that the presence of the Gazette in Schenectady hurts the performance of the city in these types of polls.

  5. David Nardolillo permalink
    March 30, 2017 9:07 pm

    Better, but quite a bit to work on. I don’t want to slam Druthers too hard, especially since their Albany location deserves plaudits for the space and for the food, but the best beer bar results were a bit disappointing. Critical omissions in several categories, some of which you have highlighted, and a few “asleep at the switch” moments, e.g. somebody running the poll forgot that Sitar closed over six months ago.

    Having said that, I think we can be encouraged by what is going on and that a lot of good places are surviving in not the easiest place to run a restaurant. I second your applause of Crave, which turned a seemingly cursed space into a go-to spot for burgers (great fries, too). Viva Cinco de Mayo on Madison and Oaxaquena Triqui on N. Lake will save me the trips to Schenectady for La Mexicana.

  6. April 4, 2017 9:35 am

    Mr. D’Imperio has to do a lot more homework.

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