Thursday, February 15, 2007

The Top One Hundred Best Restaurants in Saint Paul

My friend Mr. Christopher pointed me to Dara Moskowitz's lukewarm review of the new Selby Avenue spot, Il Vesco Vino Bar Napoletano, in the City Pages. Il Vesco Vino is a new St. Paul restaurant, and she found that as much as she wanted to review it well, too many things went wrong. In the review, she defends her neglecting St. Paul's finer dining spots in her best of 2006 picks, and I think it illustrates the same sort of thing that art critic Jerry Saltz was trying to say (when he was defending himself against an angry gallery owner who told him if he couldn't write something nice, he should keep quiet. I blogged it here). Here's Moskowitz:
I visited all of the best restaurants in St. Paul last year -- Zander, Au Rebours, Heartland, Frost, et al., and none of the meals I had were the top ten meals of the year. Are they great restaurants? Yes. Did I hit them on bad days? Yes. Would I give them a negative review based on a single visit? Never. Am I going to lie and shoehorn one into my top ten? Not this year I'm not.
The problem, she writes, is that critics and public alike judge restaurants on a different scale depending on where they are.
There's an implicit grading on the curve that all of us local food writers do for St. Paul and the suburbs, and I'm kind of sick of it. I picture two imaginary geographical points in Minnesota, one on top of the IDS building, the other atop the Uptown Theatre, and the farther you get from either of those two points, the gentler and easier the curve you're graded on gets. At this point I could name five ritzy suburbs in which if you put a plate of pasta on the table without falling into it or poisoning anyone, you'll get a rave review in half of the local rags. Of course, you readers are not idiots, and so to compensate for these fuzzy raves, many savvy restaurant-goers have learned to discount praise for all suburban, and most St. Paul restaurants. Meanwhile, people who want to believe that the restaurant they've been to twice in the last decade which is near their lovely house is master-class have the critical ink to back it up. Eventually, it all snowballs, and here we are: drowning in a murky world of insider-relativism and the soft condescension of low expectations.
It's true, if you don't hold one thing to the same standards as you would the next, it diminishes both of them.

Likewise praising 100 albums as the best of a single year, as the City Pages' Britt Robson did last December. How can any writer respect him or herself after creating such a list? This is where a conservative would start harping on how liberals don't stand for anything and how they think everything is relative, everything has merit.

What didn't Britt include? Lists like this do exactly what Saltz warned against with never writing bad reviews, and exactly what Moskowitz is afraid of when we judge everything on an ever-changing scale. It's like putting an evolutionary biologist on television next to a backwater country preacher. It ain't a fair comparison. It makes everything good just as good as everything bad.

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