Commentary by Buzz Editor, Marcie Rothman
Frequently I am asked what the “best” restaurant is for this or that. And while “best” may be debatable, I was flabbergasted to learn that In-N-Out won the 2007 Gold Medallion award for Best Hamburger. A fast-food burger wins in a town with a nationally touted burger joint? While I’ve got nothing against a good fast-food burger, I do wonder about the yearly awards–who gives them, gets them and what they mean to San Diego’s food scene.
The San Diego Chapter of the California Restaurant Association gathered for its 23rd annual dinner May 9–an evening when local members bestow Gold Medallions on each other. This big deal industry-only event pays tribute to nominees and winners for Best Breakfast, Best Pacific Rim, Best Hamburger, among others. To be nominated, a restaurant must be a member of the association–non-members are non-grata—and, as such, many of the very “best” large and small restaurants go unnoticed for Gold Medallions.
Let’s be clear, this isn’t about the restaurants per se, but is about the incestuous good ol’ boy-and-girl coterie of board members that has run the chapter for seemingly eons. The voting membership includes vendors, restaurants and others who pay the membership fee. The chefs, restaurateurs and managers I spoke with consider the awards, unfortunately, as a joke. Why? Because these awards do not reflect the true “best” of San Diego–how can they when membership is requisite for award nomination and voting includes all members (including vendors who supply favored nominees) rather than restaurants only?
Some background: The Sacramento based California Restaurant Association (CRA) is a group with roughly 22,000 members. The purpose of the 100 year-old association is to be the “definitive voice of the California foodservice industry and to protect and promote its success.” This is accomplished through education, lobbying, and community involvement. Among the nine main regional chapters, each with a board of directors and each with its own member activities, Los Angeles has 7,000 members with a 20-member board while San Diego counts 1,200 members and a board of 56 members.
Presently, San Diego is one of the few chapters that lavish so many awards on its members. Over the years San Diego’s categories have grown — from 19 in 2003, to 36 in 2005 to the current 44, not including restaurateur or chef of the year. Many of this year’s nearly 140 nominees appear yearly and are board members as is the case with the Best Breakfast nominees. In 2003, 2005, 2006 and 2007, nominees were Cafe 222, Crest Cafe, and Hash House a Go-Go. An amazing feat for these three well-known eateries, considering this town has good breakfast venues in practically every neighborhood.
Categories are added to keep many of the same nominees in the game each year, albeit in a slightly different area. Best Hamburger is a good example of the shifting category syndrome. Best Hamburger category was added in 2006. In prior years Best Fast Food or Best Quick Service Restaurant were the rightful categories for In-N-Out Burgers, Jack in the Box and Anthony’s Fishette. In 2006 and 2007, In-N-Out moved and won for Best Hamburger against nominees that are not usually thought of as fast-food establishments: Ruby’s Diner and Boll Weevil Restaurants, Fatburger, Red Robin Gourmet Burgers and Ruby’s Diner.
San Diego strives to be a big league player but the publicity around these purely insider awards negatively influences the credibility and awareness of San Diego’s restaurant scene, both locally and nationally. When foodies arrive for the 33rd Winter Fancy Food Show next January 13 to 15, some may wonder how serious a food culture we have when they read that a fast- food burger is the best in town. Such an accolade affects how the entire region is perceived (for more than just burgers) considering many people will have attended shows in food meccas such as New York, San Francisco and Chicago.
The line between editorial content and paid advertising is so vague in San Diego that many of us are unaware that restaurants can pay for the privilege of a favorable mention on many well-known websites as well as in print. How many readers noticed the nine-page paid advertising supplement in the June 14th Night & Day section of the Union Tribune listing those Gold Medallion winners?
So, is a fast-food burger really the Best Hamburger in San Diego? When well-respected, nationally-known food and restaurant writers Jane and Michael Stern wrote a about Hodad’s in Ocean Beach for Gourmet magazine (June, 2004), who would have known from that year’s local CRA awards? No one, even though the Sterns, best known for their Roadfood books, website, columns and well-honed palate, put the restaurant on their national top 10 list for hamburgers in the country. Hodad’s (not a CRA member) remains on that list after Sterns second visit last year.
While some may say there’s really nothing wrong with any of this, I believe the public deserves better when it comes to learning what is “best”. For San Diego to be taken seriously as a restaurant city, we need unbiased, anonymous and critical restaurant reviews from food savvy writers who can educate and explain what constitutes good and great food and service. We need clear disclosure when advertising guarantees positive reviews on sites and in print. And we need awards that recognize more than just a few favored players. Future commentary will address the people’s choice and other local awards.
Finally, why not consider an association of restaurants only, working together to recognize the “best” that San Diego offers?