Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Best Of ... What, Exactly? - Updated

New Times Best of Miami In today's Short Order blog, Lee Klein of Miami New Times offers a baffling and seemingly self-defeating explanation of the NT's annual "Best of Miami"[*] listings. First, let me confess that I've never put much weight in this list, and really just stopped reading it entirely when a couple years ago they gave the "Best Restaurant Wine List" award to Maroosh, a perfectly serviceable Middle-Eastern restaurant whose wine list is - really, no exaggeration - less exceptional than many convenience stores I've been to. Seriously. Unless of course you consider a horizontal collection of the ubiquitous, mass-production Kendall-Jackson "Vintner's Reserve" to be impressive (they have the Chardonnay, the Zinfandel, the Cabernet Sauvignon AND the Merlot!). This was such an insult both to the several local restaurants that make an effort to put out interesting, fairly priced wine lists, and the diners who genuinely give a crap about such things, that I just stopped reading "Best of Miami." I didn't even look at the thing last year.

Besides, I'm just not a big believer in the whole "best" concept. Maybe I'm just incapable of making decisions or lacking in strong opinions (unlikely), but I find most matters, food or otherwise, to be too nuanced to declare such absolute superlatives. Best Spanish? I love Michelle Bernstein's contemporary take on tapas at Sra. Martinez, but I also like the more straight-ahead versions at Xixon; I also love the callos and ensalada rusa at Copas y Tapas, and the bacalaitos at Taberna Giralda, to say nothing of the more formal dinner fare at Ideas. Is one the "best"? I couldn't say; depends what I'm in the mood for any particular day. Dim sum? Tropical is the most consistent, but I had better chicken feet at Mr. Chu's on South Beach (before it closed - here's hoping they reinstate dim sum at the new Coral Gables location). These kinds of lists draw in readers (and, thusly, advertisers), but I don't think they usually mean all that much.

But the New Times' preemptive defense, hoping to avoid the "catcalls of derision," just gives me more reasons to disregard the latest list:
We do try to choose what we think is the best in each category, but with the same set of unofficial caveats that Oscar voters abide by. For instance, we are just as hesitant to name the same winner for the same item two years in a row. Do our readers need to read that Garcia's makes a great fish sandwich year after year after year? We think not.
So, if readers are looking for, say, the best fish sandwich, they should only rely on New Times every other year? This is the "Best of Miami - Unless You Were the Best Last Year"? How do I know whether this is the year that really has the "best," or this is the year that you decided to list someone else just for the sake of variety?

Plus nowadays every publication and online food site has their own set of bests -- do we really need to read that Garcia's makes a great fish sandwich 20 times a year?
No. Agreed. Completely. But then - and maybe I've lost my train of thought here - what exactly is the point of this "Best of Miami" thing anyway?

On the other hand, you can't put together a credible overview without giving nods to those establishments that everybody knows are deserving. So we mix it up -- best actor this year, best supporting the next. And we are also extremely unlikely to give more than one nod to any restaurant in any one year -- so if your favorite steak house didn't win Best Steak House, it may be because it won Best Restaurant In South Beach. Or vice versa.
So if, again, let's say I'm looking for the best fish sandwich in Miami, and it happens to be one of those years that the place that actually has the best fish sandwich in Miami isn't being listed for "Best Fish Sandwich in Miami" (because that would be so boring), I should instead look in, say, the category for "Best Restaurant that has Park Benches In Back Looking Out on a Somewhat Dingy But Still Slightly Charming in its Own Way Part of the Miami River"? Very helpful. And once again, if "everybody knows" what restaurants are deserving of awards, then what, exactly, is the point of publishing the list?

This is for those bloggers -- and I'm talking to you, Chowhounders -- who annually blather on about how our more questionable picks just have to be attributed to an attempt to please advertisers. Let me say, once and for all, that this is simply not the case, and never has been -- both in terms of our Best Of issue, and all other writing. Period.[**]
Just for the record, I have never said that. And in fact, the numbers tend to bear it out - sort of. You can take a look at the 2008 Best of Miami listings, and only a small fraction of the award-recipients are advertisers, and there are certainly a lot more advertisers than awards. On the other hand, I suspect - and this may tie into the now-acknowledged "let's mix it up regardless of who's really the best" philosophy - many current advertisers have been recipients of prior awards, and vice versa. I am not a subscriber to the "advertiser conspiracy" theory; however, it shouldn't give anyone much comfort that some picks are so outright bizarre that the most natural explanation that occurs to some readers is that they must be paid for.

But I do think New Times' own explanation for its "best of" decision-tree is reason enough to doubt its reliability, independent of the unsubstantiated rumors of advertiser influence. If the purpose is really to just pick the "best" in any category, it shouldn't remotely matter whether the same place was named previously. Spreading the wealth around, just for the heck of it, does little to assist diners and undermines whatever credibility the publication might otherwise have.

It seems that the implicit message is "It's all just entertainment, don't take it too seriously, we're just trying to sell a newspaper here after all." (Of course, being a free paper, what they're really selling is advertising.) And I understand that. But sadly, the "Best of" Primer presents a very compelling argument for why anyone who really cares about finding the best food in Miami may well find New Times' "Best of Miami" largely useless in that endeavor.

Update: I posted a paraphased version of this as a comment on the Short Order post, and Lee Klein gave a pretty lengthy, earnest response. It hasn't changed my mind on much, but it does provide some further explanation. As some have already noted in comments here, there's nothing wrong with provoking a healthy debate over food.

[*]Image at top via Miami New Times.

[**]I don't think anyone's bothered to mention the New Times "Best of Miami" list on Chowhound for more than two years, so "annually" would seem to be a stretch. But nonetheless, it's nice to know that Lee Klein is reading Chowhound for reasons other than just picking up ideas on what restaurant to visit next - "Gustavo the hairdresser"? Really?


  1. I guess it's a good thing for 'best of' lists to reach a point where they actually obliterate the validity of 'best of' lists. All is well in the universe.
    Would it be to un-political to put out a 'worst of' list just to break it up a year? No danger of 'advertising conspiracy' there.

  2. All I can say is my sentiments exactly.

  3. Well said. Did you see Racks earned Best Italian Market? :)

  4. Their comments that choices are 110% not based on advertisers is an all out blatant lie. Some of those places I never even hear mentioned in Chowhound or any other avenue. You are pretty good at getting out there to new places and I would trust your word than this guy from New Times. Don't remember the last time I read NT or Zagat for their opinion as I do not find them reliable. Us Chowhounder's ROCK!

  5. Paula - as I said, I don't look at the "Best of Miami" any more. But you made me, and I find that particular one just baffling. I recall seeing one little refrigerated deli case with a few things in it, not even enough to put together a picnic. Did I miss something? And where did they get that the place is open till 2am? The Racks website says they're open till 10pm, 11 on weekends. I also see no "small plates of regional fare for under $20" on their menu. Where does this stuff come from?

  6. Frod,

    I agree with you about the advertising conspiracy; it seems unlikely. I actually enjoy reading the "Best of" for fun. However, I think you make an excellent, nuanced point about how difficult it is to pick the best, with your example of the Spanish restaurants.
    I was also moved to leave this comment on Mr. Klein's post today. I don't usually post up there but here it is:

    Dear Strouse and Klein: I read Short Order regularly. I don't think I have ever written about Lee Klein ever in my blog, Miami Dish, or on Chowhound. With that context in mind, please consider my humble comment:
    I know it must be tiring and irritating to feel personally and professionally attacked. Dialogue is important, but being able to defend yourself is too.
    However, I am perceiving, of late, a general tone of defensiveness toward bloggers that is tedious and alienating. I enjoy reading about food and people in food in Short Order. That's what I want to read about here. Just a thought.

  7. Paula, it is odd. I was checking out Racks when we went on Sunday. I saw some cool stuff but not a huge amount. I would pick a store like "Laurenzo's" for best Italian market. Yet, it got selected for "Best Farmers Market." Yes, their fruit and vegetable branch is called "Farmers Market" but it is not what I would consider a farmers market. Love the sarcasm in that write up too. Again, snarky and defensive=two different things. :(

  8. I thought it was just me that sensed that off-putting, self-righteous defensiveness, and elected not to say anything about it initially. But I've had the same exact reaction on multiple occasions. Maybe it has something to do with LK seemingly being unable to use the word "blogger" without also adding "blah, blah" or "blather" - though that could also just be a symptom of his penchant for alliteration (another writing trait I'm not enamored of, but maybe others find it incredibly clever). And I agree with you - it just doesn't make for very interesting reading.

  9. Good points. And as long as people know that Garcia's is what you're talking about when you speak of a dingy, but nice in its own way part of the Miami River, aren't we all okay anyway?

  10. If Racks is best italian market, then publix is dean and deluca. what a crock!

  11. "For instance, we are just as hesitant to name the same winner for the same item two years in a row."

    I think that's the main problem. I mean, really, best Cuban restaurant is some cafe in Wynwood? You'd be very, very, very hard-pressed to find a Cuban who doesn't think that Versaille or La Carreta best represents our authentic tastes, or at least La Palma.

    The explanation that they give for their choices itself makes them lose a lot of credibility and, where I have taken joy in reading their Best Of before, they will not be getting that treatment this year.

  12. Frod - I made you look. :) I haven't read the issue but was skimming through the winner's list online and found that one funny. I didn't pay much attention to the market the day we visited Racks, but from the glimpse I caught it didn't seem like it carried many products.

    On another note, I don't know how late they open on weekdays but maybe they changed their hours because on Sunday they're open until midnight.

    Trina - I'm glad you said something. I've noticed that as well on their blog.

  13. Hey Frod,

    I tend to agree with your stance on superlatives as well as the "requirement" that a venue does not win multiple years in a row. That rule, as it were, is something of a corporate directive, but it's one that's been broken, at least in Broward-Palm Beach, on a regular basis. But, considering that very few categories can be claimed each year by establishments that ALWAYS are at the forefront of their particular area, my approach to Best Ofs has been to generally try to expose places that are doing great things and receiving little credit - that a joint is "new" to a category may be ancillary to that fact.

    Regarding the relationship between bloggers and traditional press: this really isn't a unique situation, is it? I enjoy your blog, as well as many other "chowhounders" (if we're going to lump people) but I really don't think whatever resentments some food writers might have are completely unfounded. A bit too broad brush and over-reaching? Sure. But not unfounded.

    Personally, I'm for a more all-inclusive discussion. Otherwise, we're just talking to ourselves.

    - John

  14. Nothing wrong with provoking debate over food...

  15. John - one of the virtues of the publication which I did not mention, and which you note, is the opportunity to recognize unheralded places - something that is made easier to do by the oft-utilized practice of "improvising" some categories from year to year. And perhaps that's a good enough reason to read it.

    I agree as well that the uneasiness between traditional media and bloggers is common, if unfortunate. I understand that it can be frustrating to be subjected to potshots that you feel are unfounded. But making generalizations about "bloggers" or "Chowhounders" just because one person on a board says something somewhere is needlessly overbroad.

    We all share a common interest in good food, even if we don't always agree. But I don't find the "Best Of" list to be a good starting point for that debate, because - for reasons that have now been explained - it doesn't always even necessarily represent someone's judgment of the true "best" in a particular category.

  16. Here's the problem (outside of potential MNT ethical issues):

    It appears that all the Best Of voters only notice the newest, trendiest,flashiest thing, i.e. what's "hot" at the moment, with no sense of history or respect for a eatery's longevity. That list pisses me off so much its unbelieveable...If you look at a previous year's "winners", half are out of business within the year.

    Best burger of 09? 8 oz Burger Bar, of course! Why not??? Its only been open for 6 months. What a joke.

    I don't know if MNT is to blame or instead all the idiots on South Beach who stuff the ballot boxes with terrible choices.

  17. Wow your rant reminds me of something....
    welcome aboard hurts when they steal your shit?

  18. Danny - and here I was expecting it was going to be this "dish duel" on Short Order whihc was going to send you back into Press Chops mode.

  19. Frod I am so used to having my ideas and words appropriated or outright stolen that at this point, after almost two years, I simply roll my eyes and turn the page. But it is kind of appropriate that people like Linn and Klein are defensive about their work. They are constantly being attacked, so it must get tiring. Of course Klein has yet to respond to my pointing out that he had his facts wrong in his piece about burgers-Strouse also silent after saying "we take facts very seriously here" or some such BS-but who really cares when we know that they write not for the people who actually know or care about food in this town, but for...wait. Who the hell ARE they writing for?

    Cute story-the piece that Jake Katel wrote on Joey's contained the lyrics from 'one meatball'.

    Then go back a few years to Lee Klein...

    So at least they are stealing from themselves, now. To see how it should be done, go to ...of the three I believe I actually make it work.

  20. Danny: I'm not being defensive, I'm just engaging in the discussion. Please don't lump me up with anyone; I'll show you the same courtesy.

  21. "I enjoy your blog, as well as many other "chowhounders" (if we're going to lump people) but I really don't think whatever resentments some food writers might have are completely unfounded. A bit too broad brush and over-reaching? Sure. But not unfounded."
    Perhaps defensive was the wrong word. How about patronizing? And, yes, defensive, especially when it comes to defending La Klein. I mean jeez, John, is he your illegitimate father or something? And by the way John, I "enjoy" your writing as well [insert eye-rollage]. (Actually I've never read you. Sorry.) As you have already lumped me and my fellow 'bloggers' together, and especially by calling us "chowhounders', which is a lazy insult to me and the rest of us with actual identities, I'm not sure what you mean by courtesy?