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Do You Want Another Best Restaurants List? Well, Here Are a Few More!
A short argument in defense of listicles, plus thoughts on Michelin Denver, Chicago's decision to end the tipped minimum, and Jewish food in Great Britain
Free Food is a weekly column that tracks some of the biggest (and smallest) stories in food from across the country, with a focus on features, op-eds, and reviews.
We’re Living in a Listicle World and I’m Okay With That. Mostly.
The New York Times published a national list of 50 places to eat in mid-September. Perhaps you saw it. Not too long after that, the paper put out two new lists, the top restaurants of Los Angeles and San Francisco. Both are shorter counterparts to another new list: the top 100 restaurants of New York. Perhaps you saw those too.
And there are already quite a few other lists out there.
Bon Appétit and Food & Wine unveiled their national efforts last month, while Eater and The Infatuation publish their own city guides on a regular basis. The new series of NYT lists represents a clear effort to compete in this larger…ordinal space.
And I’m okay with that. I’m pro list. In fact, here’s a quick list of reasons that I, as a critic, love lists. Enjoy:
They’re a welcome break from the rigors of writing expository prose, even if they force us to condense our arguments into a short paragraph or two (all the while knowing folks might not read the blurbs anyway).
Lists also give us a chance to highlight spots we didn’t have the time or budget to dedicate a full-fledged review to.
They force me to think holistically about a city’s restaurant scene and my coverage of it, prompting me to question seriously what I should be including (or excluding) from the list — and future coverage.
If I feel bad about leaving a place out, I can reverse that decision a few months later when I publish the list again — something that’s tons easier to do than finding the time and storyline for a full re-review.
Lists are a useful, service-y gateway into longer, more nuanced reads.
Writing a good list is like making an annotated mixtape for the world.
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I also like lists as a reader, and as a fan of restaurants.
I can engage with them seriously, debating all the relevant contextual points. Or I can reflexively disagree, sort of like how a sports fan gets agitated about Yankee manager Aaron Boone putting in the wrong pitcher. But then, before I get too aggravated, I’ll scroll down to the next entry and, presto, the genius writing this story apparently likes the same place I do, lol. All good!
What I take issue with is when a publication leans a little too heavily — or exclusively — on lists, at the expense of proper reviews or thoughtful reporting. World’s 50 Best is the extreme example of this…it’s just a hollow list and little else. And then there’s The Infatuation, a JP Morgan Chase content machine that feels as if it’s morphing into a non-stop manufacturer of shorter blurbs and (admittedly informed, researched) listicles. It’s really too bad because, like at the Michelin Guide, smart and creative people work there — folks who could tell compelling stories, and maybe even publish newsworthy journalism, if they ever go in that direction.
You can only author so many mix tapes for your friends before they start to wonder how sincere you’re really being.
Anyway, I won’t dive into the new NYT lists because I’ve gone on long enough. But I’m really happy that Tejal Rao included the Cali-Filipino Abacá in the SF guide! I’ve only been once but I really loved the aromatic prawn pancit there. Gosh, what a nice reminder to get back to San Francisco. Thank you, list!
I wish Denver, one of my favorite restaurant cities, had more folks reviewing restaurants there. I say that because Michelin’s $600,000 debut in Colorado was most notable for doing….very little. The Mile High city received just three stars — as many stars for an entire city as for Masa, a single sushi spot in New York. Really.
Michelin — an organization that extracts hefty fees from local governments — isn’t whom you call in to highlight your city’s overlooked culinary scene. Michelin isn’t whom you need to bring in tourists. For all that, you need actual journalists, professionals who trade in telling stories, not issuing opaque inspections.
That said all said, I was excited to (belatedly) read Amanda M. Faison’s 5280 column on Molotov Kitchen & Cocktails. Molotov is a Ukrainian restaurant — it also found its way into this national NYT list — and it was nice to see someone writing about Eastern European fare in the same way that you’d expect to see someone writing about fancy French fare. Here are a few words, on borscht:
A month or so later, the menu had changed, and the borscht listed was a smoked chicken and nettle iteration with dill, cilantro, and radishes. “Sorrel is a huge part of the Ukrainian diet,” [owner] Porytko says. “We switched that out for nettles because we thought it would be fun to do something locally foraged.” The dish, which I enjoyed on what felt like Denver’s first real spring day, was a revelation: It tasted of green, of sunshine, of a season unspooling. The dill-chicken broth was decanted tableside from a small rooster pitcher. Pomp and circumstance, perhaps, but not in a pretentious way; instead, the ceremony felt like a generous handshake.
The Windy City will eliminate the tipped minimum, the lower wage that restaurants pay to waiters, bartenders, and other staffers who are eligible for gratuities, Eater Chicago reported. The single wage will take full effect by 2028.
California, Minnesota, Oregon, Washington, Alaska, Nevada, and Minnesota all prohibit operators from paying a sub-minimum wage to hospitality staffers — a rate that can fall to as low as $2.13 an hour in states like Texas. But efforts to introduce a single minimum beyond those states have encountered difficulties. New York excluded restaurant staffers from their single wage initiative back in 2020. And while President Joe Biden and Democrats have proposed ending the tipped minimum federally, that initiative hasn’t worked out just yet.
Translation: It’s a big deal that striking the tipped wage made its way though the Chicago city council. Click through for Ashok Selvam and Naomi Waxman’s report on how this all happened, including a compromise involving the state restaurant association dropping its opposition in exchange for a five year phase-in period.
In other labor news, Waffle House employees and supporters in Atlanta rallied this week for better wages, better security, and an end to a very odd tax on employees, USA Today reported. The specific demands, according to a petition by the Union of Southern Service Workers, are a $25/hour minimum, 24/7 security amid threats of in-store violence, and an end to mandatory paycheck deductions for employee meals, regardless of whether staffers take advantage of that offering. That charge is $3.15 per day, according to a Waffle House staffer who posted a TikTok opposing that policy
San Francisco Chronicle associate critic Cesar Hernandez reviewed the latest effort by Azalina Eusope, a fifth-generation street food vendor. The Malaysian restaurant charges $100 for four courses, a fee that includes a glass of wine and a non-alcoholic cocktail. That’s much cheaper than many tasting menus — or a la carte affairs — in SF, but Hernandez makes sure to frame things within the scope of the Tenderloin district:
The challenge here is balancing the relatively steep price tag with its location in a contentious neighborhood, where most of its residents are working class or impoverished.
Hernandez critiques the food, which he likes. But again, he also grapples with the tension of Azalina opting against a la carte (to deal with high operating costs) while trying to fit in with the community, which the owner does with a commissary and cooking classes.
I’m a longtime lover of yakitori (I’ll eat literally any part of the chicken) and I can’t believe I didn’t know about the dish’s link with sumo in Japan. Here’s Mari Taketa, writing for Eater:
I’m cheering for my favorite wrestler with a skewer of grilled chicken. It’s not that I’m hungry. Japan’s ancient sport, it turns out, goes with yakitori the way American baseball goes with hot dogs. Why? Because a wrestler loses if he touches the earthen ring with anything other than the soles of his feet — and chickens always stand on two feet. So when Ura — a short, feisty underdog whose rotund build makes him look like the Michelin man in a pink silk loincloth — hops into the ring, the crowd waving half-eaten chicken sticks is bringing him luck.
The good folks at Vittles have put together a 10-part series about Jewish food in Great Britain. You can see editor Molly Pepper Steemson introduction and overview here, but allow me to link up the first entry in the series, a missive by Dan Hancox on the history of Jewish cooking in the U.K. from the 1800s until the present.
I particularly enjoyed a short conversation with Claudia Roden, as well as how the author documented a popular pivot (of sorts) from Ashkenazi fare to Israeli and Mediterranean dishes, more Sephardic preparations that are now popular on pub menus and at supermarkets. And I learned a new verb: “To Ottolenghify.”
For a good quote, let me just reprint this lovely introductory graph:
We talk surprisingly little about Jewish food in this country. This is surprising only because it has long been right here, hiding on shelves, in cookery shows and on menus of non-kosher restaurants and cafes, constantly adapting and assimilating, ducking from the low murmur of antisemitism and a historic distrust of foreign food. It has long been right here, and yet it never really gets noticed. American–Jewish food is a vernacular cuisine and a source of proud civic identity in New York, bursting out from its many world-famous kosher and Jewish-style delis, while in the UK we have matzo ball soup wearing a disguise and hoping to go undetected on the menu at The Wolseley (‘Chicken Soup with Dumplings – £10.95’).
Wait, Here Are Some More Reviews!
Enjoy the rest of this Sunday Chomp Day, and let me know in the comments if you’ve been reading or eating anything tasty!