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?  

8 thoughts on “A Look Into San Diego’s Restaurant Awards, Part 1

  1. I completely agree with your reaction to the CRA awards results. So often I see in either awards or city write-ups chain restaurants listed as the best of in any catagory and I cringe. How could an In-n-Out Burger or Chevy’s beat a Hodad’s or Rancho’s? The biggest shame is that many tourists rely on winning restaurants or local publication referrals when they make their dining choices. If a chain is listed as the best, 9 out 10 times they’ll take the safe choice over an unknown. That’s why as locals we always need to promote and support our local restaurants and spread the word as much as possible.

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  2. The blatant corruptness of the SD CRA awards is an annual cause for gnashed teeth.. Year after year the same poor-to-mediocre restaurants win, with the Cohn Restaurant Group theme-park eateries perpetually garnering at least 7 awards. The choices that infuriate me most aren’t the cheap-foods categories like hamburgers, they’re the “ethnic” and “Asian” categories. How can Deborah Scott’s restaurants ever win “Ethnic” when her cooking is a very Cuisinart of Ethnicities? (Of course, genuine ethnics like Pomegranate and Kous-Kous are never even nominated.) Why do crummy Chinese and Thai chains always win, never the serious restaurants that draw actual Asian customers? Panda Inn — versus never-nominated China Max or Pearl? Taste of Thai (but merely the tiniest, least authentic taste) — versus Rama? It’s a joke — a sick joke.

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  3. Nice to see someone shake the tree a little in this town. San Diego has been too sleepy on this suject. People just settle for mediocore at this point. It is time we band together and educate each other on this matter. The SD CRA awards don’t mean anything and are a joke. People that visit and people that live here need to know the truth. We are becoming a real food town and we need discussions like this to tell the truth and stir the pot. If we don’t we will never be thought of as a real food town. Keep it going

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  4. Do you feel similar outrage about the Oscars? Members of the Academy vote on films produced by their peers. Top Chef? Any number of publications’ “Best of” awards? Like the CRA Gold Medallion awards, the results are subjective, and no one denies that. Congratulatory ads are placed.

    Perhaps those who feel shut out of the CRA awards should consider joining the organization, and voting. The San Diego group raises a lot of money, through membership fees – and the Gold Medallion event – which is used to work at protecting the interests and promoting the business’ of restaurant owners of all sizes. Non-members ride along, benefiting from the local chapter’s tireless efforts, without contributing the vast amount of time and/or dollars that board and other members do.

    Some restaurateurs do help out, but don’t take advantage of the chance for recognition. They join the CRA, but don’t return their ballots during awards time. As the saying goes: you can’t win if you don’t play. Whether it’s for president or local restaurant awards, if you don’t vote, maybe you shouldn’t complain.

    Full disclosure: I’m an active member of the CRA, though I’m not currently a restaurant owner. I know how hard those folks work, and how delighted they are to welcome “new blood” that wants to pitch in to benefit the local industry. Instead of fighting them, how about joining them?

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  5. Let’s add a “Tallest Food” category or “Food Most Likely to Fall in Your Lap While Eating It” and see if there’s a repeat of a former “Chef of the Year”.

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  6. A message to Catt:

    Regarding your comment “if you don’t vote, maybe you shouldn’t complain” can persons that are not restaurant owners, vendors and such… (like the author of the article and me) join?–I am too lazy to do the research at the moment–forgive me.

    Because as a person who is in the industry (not an owner so I have no award to win) and more importantly a consumer I certainly have opinions. I would love to know that an intelligent list of great choices will be compiled for my comparison by industry insiders. I do find the industry awards in this town generally hovering somewhere between a disappointment and a joke but not nearly as disappointing as “reader’s awards” can be–could IHOP and Denny’s really be the top breakfast restaurants? Perhaps membership voting is not such a bad idea.

    But thank God we are saved from such amateurish tragedies by knowing that we have David Nelson to let us know that George’s California Modern (it was George’s at the Cove just months ago) is somehow his pick for the “Best New Restaurant of the Year” even though it is the same location, same owners and essentially the same menu. Not knocking George’s, of course, which deserves accolades just wondering if Mr. Nelson really meant to give an award for “Best New Upholstery of the Year”.

    Members–what do you think?

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  7. I realize I’m joining this conversation a bit late, but for what it’s worth…

    I completely agree with Catt. The members of the CRA work tirelessly, without pay in most cases, to make running a restaurant a more profitable, efficient, and overall more desirable occupation and investment. This benefits anyone that chooses this line of work. It also helps to ensure that great restaurants are able to survive in the harsh economic climate of the restaurant industry. Without the efforts of the CRA, many small privately owned restaurants that can’t afford membership would go under due to costs that would skyrocket out of control in all areas, particularly labor and taxation laws related to the industry.

    But that’s not really the point. The CRA, like any organization, has the right to issue awards and publicly state its opinions. Especially in regards to the very thing it exists to support and sustain: its members!!! What about the awards issued by any number of other organizations around town? Almost every local publication I know favors its own advertisers when issuing “Best Of San Diego” titles.

    As a connoisseur of delicious food of all varieties, and a devoted employee of a CRA member, I have never relied on Gold Medallion awards to decide where to eat. I instead prefer to use resources such as Zagat, chowhound, yelp.com, and other reviews by anonymous diners paying full price.

    There is a clear purpose behind the CRA. Check out their website if you want to see the truth, that it’s really not just a bunch of good ol’ boys patting each other on the back over whiskey and cigars. http://www.calrest.org/go/CRA/

    But yes, I agree, there are easily ten or twenty better burger joints than In-n-Out. Whatever…

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  8. One last vent.

    The SD CRA majorly jumped the shark in 2003 when they named Chez Loma as the best French restaurant. That was my last attendance at the awards banquet even though I continue to be in the business. Chez Loma??—come on now!! Did the majority of the members REALLY vote for that? An honest show of hands please, who has actually eaten there? I have and I found it to be pleasant but who actually believes that it could have garnered enough votes to beat out every other French restaurant in town.

    I smell a ratatouille.

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