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How Wrong Can 24,000 People Be?

April 1, 2019

Last week the Times Union’s Best of the Capital Region results came out for 2019. There were a few summaries of some top categories available online, but some of the things I was most curious about were kept off the interwebs.

Or maybe they were online. We actually pay for a digital subscription to the paper. Hey! You’ve got to support journalism, otherwise it will go away. Even still, I couldn’t quickly find the juicy details. Part of the problem is that I can’t find my password, or maybe that it’s only on one computer. Who knows. I don’t have time to figure it out. It was easier to run down to Price Chopper and buy a hard copy for my records.

And I’m glad I did.

The results ran in the April / May 2019 edition of Upstate magazine, which starts with an Editor’s Note from Gary Hahn. He tried to address the perpetual problem of people not finding their own personal favorites in the top spots from the survey. The gist is that one person’s excellent experience may not be shared by everyone in this “big, spread-out region.”

A few pages further in, we get to some of the numbers.

Thanks to Sara Tracey for sharing some of the reporting data from this year’s two-part survey on page 23 of the magazine. The important thing was that these results were based on the votes of 24,000 people.

However, it was the 18,000 people who participated in the previous nomination round which limited and dictated which five or six businesses would be in consideration for each category. And these included all kinds of oddities, as I noted in a prior post, like a Japanese restaurant in contention for the best Chinese restaurant in the region.

Another wrench in the machine was the presence of paid advertising on the ballot.

In some ways, this may have been the best survey in some time. While I may disagree with Kay’s coming in first place for best pizza in the region, I know lots and lots of people who love that place to pieces. And the fact that DeFazio’s, Marino’s Flying, and Romo’s made the top five is huge. I can even give The Fountain a pass since so many people grew up eating that after softball games.

In other ways, this poll was deeply flawed. By relying solely on nominations, one of the most important categories, “Best restaurant to open in the past year” was hamstrung from the get go. Of the five restaurants listed, only two deserved to be there. Two were juice bars, and not restaurants. One was a national chain, which I deeply believe should be excluded from these contests. We should be celebrating our local, independent restaurants and businesses. Period. Full stop.

Hey, you want to recognize chain restaurants? I can be cool with that. Just carve out a separate category for them. And in fact, the Times Union did just that. At the top of the list was a place called Delmonico’s, which combines everyone’s favorite Italian-American food with steak. Okay. That’s at least a regional chain and better than Texas Roadhouse, which oddly came in second. Whatever.

Except that very same Delmonico’s also took the top prize for best steakhouse.

The nice thing about getting the print version of this list is that each section comes with editorial commentary. I had been hoping for some kind of insight on these results. So here it is. On the steakhouse section it says, “The top two were separated by less than 10 percent even though the average steak price at 677 Prrime [sic] is twice as much as at the winning Delmonico’s.”

That’s a strange thing to say. It would seem that statement implies the fact that Capital Region diners are more value savvy than to pay the premium at “677 Prrime” where the second “r” must stand for rip-off. But Delmonico’s also has multiple locations, and thus more throughput and a broader coverage of the Capital Region.

Once upon a time, this annual survey had been dialed back to include single location businesses to eliminate this kind of bias. It would be a good idea to return to those guidelines.

Do you know what else I find strange? The places where the Times Union holds its readers to the fire, versus the places where it gives them a free pass. To better understand what I’m talking about, let’s look at the results of the best Southern restaurant. Hattie’s won followed by Texas Roadhouse in the number two position. The editors responded:

“C’mon people – Texas is its own place, not part of the South… Texas Roadhouse has almost no traditionally Southern food, starting with no mac-n-cheese, collards or hush puppies.”

Now let’s juxtapose that response to the best Chinese category. Plum Blossom came in as the top choice, followed by Sake Cafe, which self identifies as a Japanese restaurant on its very own website. But here the editors take a markedly different approach here:

“Sake Cafe must be doing something right with its Chinese food… Sake Cafe, which offers fewer than 10 Chinese dishes on a 150-item menu dominated by Japanese fare, still beat out the estimable–and wholly Chinese–Ala Shanghai.”

Do you think that is what happened? Is Sake Cafe’s Chinese food really that good? Or is it more likely there are enough locals within the 24,000 voters in this poll who think chicken teriyaki is a Chinese dish? I mean, the Times Union already acknowledges its readers don’t know bupkis about Southern cuisine.

I think you know the answer. And that means there is still work to be done. Maybe not quite as much work as there was to do several years ago. Stacks Espresso has cracked the top five for best coffee shop, and neither Stewart’s nor Dunkin’ took the top spot.

So I’m going to listen to Gary Hahn, and let his parting words about those great local businesses that didn’t make the cut, echo around in my head this week.

“Keep well your choices – they may bear fruit next year. And until then, don’t forget to tell those plumbers and mechanics and the waitresses that they’re tops in your book.” This also applies to all those restaurants and other great local food businesses that were robbed in this year’s poll.

It’s probably time for me to update the #518 Recos section on the blog just below the masthead. In the meantime, if you have any ideas for how to get people to remember that chicken teriyaki is Japanese, and that crab rangoon is an American invention, and that Chinese food is a varied as the regions of that improbably large nation, I’m all ears.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Andy C permalink
    April 1, 2019 10:03 am

    24,000 TU readers can be as wrong as a single Yelp review.

  2. April 1, 2019 1:05 pm

    What the Times Union needs to do is hire 10 or so local food cognoscenti, and sit them down in a room to hash out the best eateries in our region.

    If they must do a poll, label it such that people understand it’s a popularity contest and not a list of what’s ostensibly “best”.

    I hate that this poll conflates popular with best. They are two very different things.

  3. April 1, 2019 5:24 pm

    Everything about the poll is an embarrassment which besmirches the TU and perpetuates the reputation of the Cap District as a backwater populated by the clueless. Occasionally getting it right doesn’t change this. A nod is as good as a wink to a blind horse.

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