This past Friday, the Chattanooga Time-Free Press released its 3rd Annual Chattanooga's Official People's Choice Awards Best of the Best. I am disappointed, even disgusted.
Why? I'll tell you why. Because in the only section that I care about--dining--nearly half of the top vote getters are chains that have nothing to do with the restaurant traditions and unique places to eat that make Chattanooga special. And I'm surprised that our own citizens in our own city don't see that.
Now, I'm not naive. I know that this kind of thing goes on, usually to a lesser extent, even in large cities like Chicago, where a place like Chipotle can emerge as the "Best Mexican" because there are so many of them. I know that when you put something to a vote of everyone, you are like to end up with a bland victor.
But I thought that Chattanooga would be different. I don't know why. Maybe because in my 27 years here, it has gotten a little more open-minded, a little more expansive, a little more sophisticated each year. At least where restaurants are concerned.
So, in a city where we have a James Beard nominee for Best Regional Chef every year, where we have 3 stellar Italian restaurants opening in the last couple of years, where we have a restaurant group that has patented a superior version of wood-grilling, what is the best overall restaurant?
J. Alexander's is a chain out of Nashville or Memphis, I forget which. Admittedly, it is a smart chain, with not too many outposts, consistent cooking, a clubby atmosphere, and good-looking hostesses, but it is ultimately an upscale fern bar serving slightly-to-much better versions of the basic dishes that other fern bars offer--salads, ribs, fried shrimp, a creamy pasta, etc.
St. John's, where our perennial James Beard nominee holds court, relies almost exclusively on locally-grown organic meats and vegetables and puts out food that a New York sophisticate who visits our city regularly proclaims is as good as anything in the Big Apple.
Chattanooga offers a wealth of country cooking. What, supposedly, is our finest country restaurant? Cracker Barrel.
We have terrific breakfast options, including nationally-recognized pancakes at Aretha Frankenstein's. What is our finest breakfast establishment? Cracker Barrel.
Really? When we've got everything from Wally's to Bluegrass Grill and the Blue Plate?
Our best chicken wings? Buffalo Wild Wings. Our best ribs? Sticky Fingers. Our best doughnuts? Krispy Kreme. Our greatest sandwiches? McAlister's, followed by Subway. Our greatest Italian, a local place that lets you eat free on your birthday and has great garlic rolls, followed by Carabba's and Olive Garden. Our best burger? Five Guys (which is pretty good, but no match for Zarzour's).
Even among our local establishments, to suggest that a chain like Amigo's is putting out the best Mexican food in the city is a joke. The cheapest, especially on Taco Night, yes. The best? No way.
And then it's almost a shock to find out that our voters have figured some things out. Yes, Lupi's really is the best pizza. Somehow, it managed to fend off Pizza Hut in the voting. Yes, Southern Star does a good job with meat-and-threes.
Two things are at work here. One, our local eaters seem to be largely interested in what is the best bargain and the most well-known. That may be expected. Times are tough now. Times are always tough. People are likely to confuse a good value with good eating. The other thing is that there are incredible opportunities for people to come in here and develop new offerings. Where is the great steakhouse in Chattanooga? It ain't Outback, the most popular. But what local establishment is there? Why aren't there more great breakfast places? The Bonefish Grill probably is our best seafood restaurant. Why is that?
Ok, I also think our newspaper is not always asking the right questions. Where is the category for Best Fried Chicken or Best Soul Food?
And what a kick in the you-know-whats it must be to know that you are putting out local food that is far superior to what corporate America can produce, and yet, your city seems to suggest that their menu, crafted in the flavor factories of New Jersey, is better than yours.
Ultimately, I think a "Best Of" edition like this does more harm than good. It ignores any number of local entrepreneurs who have built up loyal followings over years or even decades. It reduces all of the peculiar traits of our city, or any city, into least common denominators and suggests both to us and to the tourists who come here, that we embrace those generic choices. It provides (in my opinion, undeserved) bragging rights to those places. And, it ultimately doesn't tell those of us who live here anything at all, except, perhaps, what we'd rather not know.