When The Oregonian released their Restaurant of the Year issue this week, the winner left many people scratching their heads. Their choice for ROY, which is apparently not the same as “best restaurant in Portland” (I’ll get to that), is Renata.
If you are like many people, this announcement was followed by the sound of silence, while you dug through your mental file cabinets, trying to figure out if you have ever heard of it. It seems most of you, have not.
Lest you berate yourself for being out of touch with the Portland food scene, I’ll tell you up front that Renata struggled for a very long time after their first “coming soon” announcements, and were a vague memory for many before they could get the doors open – I wrote about it on June 3rd of 2014. They finally did so on June 1st. Yes, June 1st of this year. 18 days ago.
When you consider the lead time for a newspaper, you have to wonder how many meals they managed to squeeze in during the week or so before the decision by the O had to have been made.
Social media is awash with theories as to how this could have happened, with some accusing the O of less than ethical practices when it comes to picking their top restaurant, others saying that food critic Michael Russell is a complete idiot. Some say that maybe the O had really pissed someone off, and they picked Renata because they know the sheer volume of traffic generated by such lavish praise would completely overwhelm the restaurant to the point where it would bring about its demise. (A quick look at Open Table showed reservations available this evening). A quick browse through social media and review sites left me with the impression that the restaurant still has a lot of kinks in service to work out, and Russell himself points out weaknesses in the food.
Personally, I think it is more about clicks on the website than anything else. Pick a restaurant like Kachka, and everyone goes “oh yes… it’s gotten lots of buzz; this makes sense”. It would be an article that most people aren’t going to talk about. On the other hand, they could pick something that seems ridiculous, and hope people will flock to the website to read the story, all the while generating traffic and clicks which drives income to the newspaper. For a periodical that is a wisp of what it used to be, that would be a compelling argument. It’s been pointed out before that writers at The Oregonian are judged by the traffic they generate on the website.
Actually, the entire restaurant issue left me bewildered. Another article lists “Portland’s Best Restaurants” – 101 of them. When I first started reading and it didn’t make any sense. I went back to the top to see if I was missing a sorting key, but no, they were ranked from worst to best, with pretty much every restaurant that you’ve ever heard of, and probably some that you haven’t, making the list.
If there is one thing I learned reviewing restaurants, it is that they are incredibly dynamic. Chefs and staff change so frequently it is hard to keep up. Someone is always retooling, others lose focus, and it always seemed that after I gave a rave review, I’d go back a few weeks later and have a lousy experience. This was after my standard rule of going at least three times over three months. So my question is, who went around to all of these restaurants within a somewhat recent period of time to do the rankings? Even if you are generous and say they should have been visited within the last year, I find it doubtful that they were. I guess this means this list is meant to be a very general guideline. You’d better believe that some pretty decent restaurants are no longer going to get the tourist traffic that they used to. There are restaurants in the top half of that list that I would never visit again, and some in the bottom 50 that, in my subjective opinion, should place higher. Renata, their ROY comes in at number 11 – apparently Davenport, St. Jack, Toro Bravo, Roe, Nostrana, Aviary, Castagna, OX, Langbaan and number one pick, Le Pigeon, better captured “the city’s dining zeitgeist”. Gesundheit. What? Oh, “zeitgeist” means “the spirit of the time; general trend of thought or feeling characteristic of a particular period of time”.
I could go on and on about this, but I’m on vacation, and frankly this isn’t all that important. All of this is just opinion – by both the reviewers and myself. But it doesn’t seem to me that these decisions are going to engender themselves to anyone in the community – restaurant or diner. If I was a hard working chef trying to get noticed, I’d feel like I’d been slapped in the face.
For another view, check out this article on Willamette Week, with reactions from chefs and restaurateurs.