The day I became The News’ restaurant critic, I lost my appetite.
I found it again, to be sure, but my first months as a professional opinionator were disconcerting. For 25 years as a newspaper reporter, my opinion was the last thing my bosses wanted.
As much as possible, my stories were straight, just-the-facts-ma’am journalism. Appearing biased – that is, indicating that you favored one side or entity over another – violated one of the American reporter’s prime directives. “It’s not just that you might make us all look bad,” a city editor explained early in my career. “It’s that no one cares what you think.”
In March, I became The News’ second restaurant critic, after the retirement of Janice Okun, who founded the position in 1974. That put me officially in the opinion business, one day a week, in addition to my regular writing duties.
Over the years I had written freelance reviews of inexpensive casual eateries for The News’ Gusto section, but not reviews of higher-end restaurants. As food editor, I had written many stories about chefs and their doings, and I thought I knew quite a bit about restaurants.
What I didn’t know was how seriously readers take their restaurant reviews.
“We are now calling you ‘Mr. 7,’ ” reported a reader, one of several who complained of a perceived overabundance of 7 ratings, on a scale of 1 to 10. “Joyce’s Hot Dog Stand was a 7. Chez Super Terrific was a 7. Billy’s Crack House and Sin Den was a 7. So either you are drinking heavily or there is no difference between any of these restaurants.”
Neither, actually. But since critics are in the flaw-naming business, it seems fair to describe my goals, even if I sometimes fall short. In bigger markets, full-time restaurant critics go to places three times or more to assess food, service and ambience. In Buffalo, I usually must write after a single visit, which has been News practice.
The News instituted a new rating system for the new era, wherein I would award restaurants one to 10 plates, instead of a four-star system. Like stars before it, the plate score aimed to inform the reader of overall satisfaction – how well I thought the restaurant delivered on its promise.
The things restaurants do best should be described in the body of the review. The details are where I try to serve Mr. and Mrs. Western New York, readers trying to discern whether a place would suit their needs and tastes on a precious night out. If you’re going to the trouble of getting a baby sitter, I want to give you solid information on what a place is like.
If you’re only looking at the score, you’re missing out. In my opinion.
That said, it’s true: There have been a lot of 7s. Though I have given 8s at least eight times (Gordon Biersch, Western Door, The Dove, Remington Tavern, Amaretto Bistro, Protocol, Marco’s, Blue Lantern). There has been one 10 (Mike A’s at the Lafayette) and one 9 (Sample).
Why so few high scores? Ten months into the job, my review list includes new places and places that haven’t been reviewed in more than five years (unless something major changes, like a new building or a new chef). In her last two or three years as critic, Janice Okun visited most of the area’s “Top 100” places. That took a lot of high-end experiences out of the review mix for now.
I can immediately recall four 6s (Iris, O’Brien’s, Tony Rome’s East Aurora, Lucy Ethiopian) and a 5 (Empire Grill). Since I don’t write about the least interesting restaurants if I can help it – places that would earn a 1, 2 or 3 generally don’t last anyway – average-to-pretty-good places will tend to outnumber the outliers. If I have to choose between appearing to be in a rut of 7s or swaying an evaluation into a 6 or 8 to break up the monotony, I’ll take the rut, as the lesser of two evils.
That said, I expect my evaluations will become more sophisticated – and more useful to readers – as I grow into the job. I’m always looking for ideas on turning my visit into a useful evaluation, and suggestions for places I have missed. I would welcome your thoughts, and my email is listed at the end of this story.
That said, here are some of the places, trends and people that were especially notable in my 2012 experiences.
Chef Mike Andrzejewski cemented his place as Buffalo’s leading chef in both senses of the word. That is, he had the highest profile and helped spearhead a fledgling effort to cultivate a restaurant scene in Buffalo.
Already operating SeaBar downtown, he drew crowds when Cantina Loco, his take on Buffalo-Mex comfort food and tequila, opened to full service in Allentown in January. It started late, after numerous regulatory delays and menu tweaks driven by critical customer feedback, but it is going strong today.
Then he opened Mike A’s at the Lafayette, the city’s most notable new restaurant of the year. He also is involved with developer Rocco Termini in planning Tappo, an Italian place on Ellicott Street to open next year.
Meanwhile, working with Feed Your Soul producer Christa Glennie Seychew, he started Buffalo’s first formal industry night. Called IN, the events bring kitchen crews and other restaurant types to SeaBar every other Monday night. He also has served as a color commentator for the popular Nickel City Chef live food battles, organized by Feed Your Soul and now heading into their fifth season.
Andrzejewski said he finds time in his schedule for those events because he wants to give young cooks a sense that they can become chefs in Buffalo. If they can find a stage here, maybe they don’t have to leave for Manhattan or Las Vegas to take the next step, he said.
Remington Tavern, built into the historic Remington Lofts along the Erie Canal, extended the Mark Hutchinson-Paul Jenkins brand to North Tonawanda, where it instantly became one of the best places in town.
Ethiopian cuisine arrived, going from a big zero to accessible, with three places opening in three months: Lucy Ethiopian at Grant and Amherst, Mike’s American and Ethiopian on Bailey, and Gatur’s on Allen Street.
Sun Restaurant Buffalo reopened as a full-service restaurant, adding Burmese to the menu for local diners.
I found real Chinese resurgent in homey settings near the University at Buffalo: Northern Chinese at Tonawanda’s Peking Quick One, which has so far maintained quality through an ownership change; Sichuan at Amherst’s China Star at Harlem and Sheridan; Taiwanese at Kung Food on Main Street; and Cantonese at Wok & Roll on Sheridan Drive.
Except at Kung Food, you have to make sure you ask for the “home style” or “Chinese” menu, or you will be looking at a list of the usual General Tso’s Whatever.
Here’s some of the restaurants that have opened, or closed, in 2012. It’s not a complete list, and owners of some of the recently closed places say they intend to reopen, under the same name or not.
Open: Kaydara, Smoke on the Water (Tonawanda), Remington Tavern (North Tonawanda), Mike A’s, Cantina Loco, Butterwood Sweet & Savory, Pan American Grill & Brewery, Coco, Mes Que, Liberty Hound, Sun Restaurant Buffalo, Lenox Grill (formerly North), Jewel of India, Taisho Bistro (Amherst), Madonna’s, Serene Gardens (Grand Island), American Grille on Seneca (East Aurora), Brick Oven Bistro (South Buffalo), Buffalo’s Best Grill, El Ranchito (Clarence), Kung Food, Yolo (Amherst), My Burger Bar (Amherst), Rizotto (Amherst), Woodcock Brothers Brewing Co. (Wilson), Mariachi de Oro (Medina).
Closed: City Grill, O’Connell’s American Bistro, Basket Factory (Middleport), The Eights, Le Metro Walker Center (Amherst), Niko’s Big Fat Greek Restaurant (North Tonawanda), W.J. Morrissey Irish Pub, K. Gallagher’s Tavern, O’Brien’s Smokehouse (Hamburg), Prime 490, Fiamma, DiGuilio’s & Co., Del Fuego Steakhouse (Lockport), Billamy’s BBQ, Nonoo Ramen, La Dolce Vita, Cozumel Grill, Sole, Lagniappe’s, Buffalo Cakery, Wil’s BBQ, Canvas @ 1206, Pizza Junction (North Tonawanda).
Coming in 2013: Dinosaur Bar-B-Que, Perfetto, Melting Point and Don Tequila on Allen Street, Tappo.