I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I’m not a restaurant or food critic, but I am a critic of restaurant and food critics.
If I eat somewhere and the clam chowder tastes like a boiled rubber boot, I’ll probably not mention that in this space as there may be others who enjoy the flavor of poached latex, I’m just not one of them. And outside of New York, where I anticipate it, and would be disappointed if they failed to meet my expectations, I’ve never really experienced extremely rude or awful service. Sure, I’ve had servers who were slow and dim, but I don’t think these folks are intentionally out to annoy me or spoil my meal, after all they are working mostly for tips and they generally understand that a customer’s generosity is inhibited by waiters and waitresses who pour hot soup in their laps, carry bread sticks in their armpits and serve them spaghetti covered with ingredients that look and smell like something that the cat that hangs out behind the kitchen coughed up. Everybody is entitled to a bad day now and then right?
My friendly and talented correspondent, the Fat Man From Space (FMFS) and I have rated hamburger joints on the island, but have never criticized the ones that didn’t make our top five list, nor would we ever consider running a “worst of the island selection.” Readers have responded to our rankings suggesting places we need to add for various and sundry reasons, but nobody has been unduly harsh or negative about the eateries and their fare, just the opposite. As I said, it’s not our job to whack an eatery because we don’t set ourselves up as experts or critics, only as folks who know what we like.
But what really annoys me, are the so-called expert restaurant critics who really aren’t critics at all. Critics are folks who communicate their opinions — good and bad — about a variety of creative efforts ranging from art and literature to movies and food, among others. Publications on Amelia Island, in Jacksonville and surrounding areas employ folks who write exclusively about food and restaurants, but to call them professional critics would be a stretch. These folks would dine in an Ebola-invested yurt in Jacksonville’s “Operation Ceasefire” zone then write about the quaint ambiance, local charm and tasty gruel. None of them have been introduced to a plate of food they didn’t devour with enthusiastic relish.
For example Jacksonville’s Florida Times-Union has two restaurant “critics” — Matt Pittman and Nancy White — whose reviews are published on the front page of the FTU’s Saturday Dinning section weekly. Pittman’s picture looks like a guy who survived a famine while Ms. White’s photo gives the appearance that she may have caused it. Their columns read like a couple of folks who are subliminally saying to local restaurateurs: “Hey, give us free food and drinks and we’ll write the same mindless, fawning pap about your place that we did about this joint.” The liberal weekly alternative newspaper Folio is not much better, except they seem to have a hard time keeping track of where the restaurants are and its efforts at being cutesy occasionally backfire into incoherent gibberish, but that may also be a result of a newsroom filled from the haze of a certain smoldering plant life its writers might be inhaling. You also have to wade through a number of mind-numbing pages of leftwing blather to get to the restaurant rubbish, but it appears that Folio’s readers have better taste than its editors as evidenced by their selections of eateries in its 2014 “Best of Jax” poll. (See Dining, Drinking & Dancing below). It is significantly improved over last year’s edition when it named the island’s “Best Local Pub” a place that was not only not on the island, but was only open at night three times a week, and then closed down for good soon after their review, and Fernandina’s “Best Downtown Restaurant” was a place almost five miles from town.
Amelia Island has several publications that mostly appeal to tourists that print reviews, while the bi-weekly Fernandina Beach News-Leader print newspaper and online Fernandina Observer don’t offer them.
I would be embarrassed to have my byline appear above some of the claptrap that appears in the island publications that pass as restaurant reviews, but, as you flip through these periodicals it’s obvious that their lifeblood is advertising, much of it from local eateries and bars, and they obviously don’t want to bite the hands that feed them, even if they may be covered in Béarnaise sauce gone bad. I read one recently where the reviewer lavished praise on her sides of both potato salad AND French fries.
I also don’t put much stock in online reviews on sites like Yelp, etc. as many of these contributions read like they were written by the owner’s mom, prospective employees, the chef or at the other extreme, crazed ex-girlfriends, prison and asylum inmates or folks with serious personality disorders or anorexia. I’ve seen statistics saying that 60 percent of online reviews are bogus. The problem is, which ones?
If the local Jacksonville area food “critics” ever got together to compare notes they could adopt as their collective motto, not only the title, but also the opening lines of the Beatles’ “All Together Now”:
One, two, three, four
Can I have a little more?
Five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, I love you
Home Of The Whoppers: Local political observers are incredulous at incumbent Fernandina Beach City Commissioner Charlie Corbett’s campaign (I’m trying to be polite here) exaggerations and truth stretching claims particularly the one where he boasts about lowering the tax rate by 2.2 percent, when in fact he and another misguided and obviously confused incumbent candidate , Sarah Pelican, both voted for budgets that raised the tax rate 15.95 percent in fiscal year 2012-13 and another 3.3 percent in FY 2013-1014. These members of the Larry, Mo and Curly city commission slapstick trio wave off any criticism with a “There’s nothing to see here!” nonchalance while at the same time depositing eight grand of our money into the personal bank account of their pal and local gadfly Lynn Williams for what other observers have called a “mysterious magic mud machine” that is apparently being held under wraps behind a Wizard of Oz drape because no one has seen anything of value from Williams yet. Oh, he has attacked my reporting of his puzzling dredging plan as “bonkers” but so far, despite my invitation, has offered nothing to explain why he feels that way. I fully expect at the next commission meeting that he’ll pull out a 52-piece Bicycle deck and invite Corbett, Pelican and Gass to “pick a card, any card.” As a veteran observer commented recently “Commissioners Corbett and Pelican decided to risk our money on an undocumented idea as opposed to examining the track record of local charitable organizations that actually help people,” … some of which would also lower the rate of police and ambulance calls. Oh, and despite Williams never contributing a penny of his own money to this Rube Goldberg scheme, Corbett and Pelican still support this wacky dredging concept, despite Williams never producing any plans, timetables, details, permits, or models. This November I’m going to do what I used to tell my kids when they were small: “Turn off those stupid cartoons and concentrate on some serious stuff.” Marking the ballot for Tim Poynter and Robin Lentz and ridding us of Corbett and Pelican is serious stuff for the financial health of our community.
A City Hall Double Standard? Local businessman Doug Bailey recently attempted to purchase a hole and tee sponsorship during a Fernandina Beach Men’s Golf Association tournament for Tim Poynter’s City Commission campaign but it was nixed when the golf course manager asked the city for permission to post the sign, with the city attorney relaying the thumbs down indicating that it was the city manager who made the ultimate decision citing a “no political material on city property during a campaign policy” despite the fact both Democrats and Republicans have held fund raising events at the course with signs posted during the campaign, the most recent being a dinner there by Democrats last month with their Lt. Governor candidate, Annette Taddeo-Goldstein, as guest speaker. City Manager Joe Gerrity, who was selected by his old pals, Curly, Larry & Moe, who fired then City Manager Michael Czymbor and ignored the selections provide by a tax-funded search agency, certainly wouldn’t stoop to denying Charlie Corbett’s (a member of that trio) opponent the same privilege others received now would he? Nah, that’s just nyuk, nyuk, nyuk crazy. Or is it?
Clink, Clank, Clunk Department: Our Belgian expatriate pal Philippe Boets will once again host Petanque players from around the world as some 160 of these “boule” teams from places as disparate as Morocco and Mexico and Australia and Alabama gather for the November 15-16 Petanque America Open with so many expected this time that Monsieur Boets will have a shuttle bus scurrying between the courts at Central Park and those at the downtown harbor. Folks, if you’ve never attended one of these events them you’re missing out on a really good time as the international flavor, cacophony of foreign languages, food and drinks, and music are as interesting as this odd game played with small metal balls, and all combine to contribute to a fun couple of days. Oh, and there is no entry fee for spectators.
Things I wish I’d Said: “The great virtue of a free market system is that it does not care what color people are; it does not care what their religion is; it only cares whether they can produce something you want to buy. It is the most effective system we have discovered to enable people who hate one another to deal with one another and help one another.” – Milton Friedman via Georgia Public Policy Fundation.
The Skies Are Getting A Little Bit Friendlier: We hear a lot of stories about folks bashing the airlines because of pricing, scheduling, baggage or other issues so it’s nice to hear a positive air transport story like the one told by a local island couple who have nothing but praise for Delta. Due to unrest in the Middle East with the ISIS butchers this pair changed their plans to fly to Istanbul, Turkey to visit their military son, and rescheduled a flight to a safer nearby destination fully expecting to pay the $300 per ticket change fee. Instead the good folks at Delta waived the fees, telling them to thank their son for his service. I’ll go out of my way to fly Delta after hearing that story first hand.
Clueless? Last week, just prior to speaking to a New York Democratic fundraiser President Barack Obama chided the Republican Party for catering to the “interests of billionaires” sending out an email critical of the GOP saying:”Once again, the interests of billionaires will come before the needs of the middle class.” The President then sat down to a $32,400 per ticket meal at an event that was held at the home of a guy named Rich Richman.
Drinking, Dining & Dancing:. Despite my negativity about Folio’s restaurant reviewers mentioned above, its readers actually got a whole bunch of stuff right in its October 8-14 edition including voting Fernandina Beach’s harbor facing Front Street Salty Pelican BOTH the Best Restaurant and Best Neighborhood Bar on Amelia Island, saying it’s the “kind of place where you stop for a drink, snack, order dinner….and end up staying ’til the closing bell.” The Pelican knocked off some heavy hitters in both categories as Folio’s finalists for best restaurant were Salt at the Ritz-Carlton and 29 South while the Green Turtle and the Palace Saloon were runner-ups in the Best Neighborhood Bar category. T-Ray’s scored the island’s Best Burger justifying my commentary a few weeks ago while the Salty Pelican nailed a trifecta, appearing again, this time as a finalist, along with Tasty’s. Apparently the out-of-towners voting in this category haven’t tried the Putt-Putt burger at Main Beach or may think, that it’s just not possible to find one of the best on-island burgers at such a place. The voters ran a bit off the tracks in the Best Pizza section selecting Moon River as their choice, a place that makes a solid pizza, but my selections would have been a tie for first among Tony’s, Townies and a place that isn’t even a pizza place, Sandy Bottoms, which all serve my favorite thin crust pies. Moon River is good, but more deep dish than I like. They declared downtown Arte’s a finalist but where they really went off the tracks was selecting Mellow Mushroom a finalist as well. Unless the Mushroom people opened a joint under the cover of darkness, they don’t exist on the island, somewhat justifying my earlier criticism of the Folio’s lack of editorial oversight and a stoned, “who cares” attitude. Downtown Centre Street’s Courtyard Pub never closed between the transfer of ownership from Joe Parrish to Tony Colucci but it’ll celebrate a “Grand Reopening” anyway tomorrow, Oct. 18th, in the courtyard that will include an “All You Can Eat Hog on the Grill” and a 16 ounce Courtyard cup to put your Bud & Miller Lights in, all for $20. Tony was miffed that I used the pub’s old phone number when I mentioned his new ownership in this space about three weeks ago and despite me asking he still hasn’t provided me the new one, so I have no idea how you can call ’em. So you think you want to be in the restaurant business and can run a kitchen and bar better than the folks whose places you currently frequent, then here’s your chance. The Ernie Saltmarsh-owned and recently renovated Beech Street Grill property is available for lease so if you’re a chef-entrepreneur-businessman that wants to make your culinary mark on the island then try this 5,500 square-foot historically preserved site with four dining areas that can accommodate more than 200 guests, and qualifies for a liquor license. Inquire at the other successful Saltmarsh-owned properties Green Turtle or the Florida House. I heard rumors that the now closed South 8th Street Merge may reopen as an Irish pub, but can’t find anyone to verify that. If you know then tell me please. We accompanied a group of about 40 folks for a Wines By Steve wine tasting event on one of Kevin McCarthy’s Cruise boats out of the Fernandina Beach City Harbor and we’ll be back for the next one too as sipping fine wines and snacking on hors de’ oeuvres is a great way to enjoy the dolphins, Cumberland Island’s wild horses, good company, the water, etc. Check Steve’s site for future water and other wine-related events at www.atasteofwinebysteve.com or call ’em at 904/ 557-1506. Tanner Garrard tells me that the Crab Trap has just announced a gut busting burger topped with macaroni and cheese, bacon, and EXTRA cheese that includes a side, all for just $10.99, a must eat item for me and the FMFS. Also, don’t forget the Trap’s Wednesday 50 cent wings and cheap beer weekly special. Call ’em at 904/261-4749.
Good post, Dave! Just yesterday I read a glowing “review” by a local food expert about a B&B that serves Sunday brunch. We had such a horrible experience at the same restaurant that we’ll never eat there again! Unlike the restaurant “critic,” we were not recognized by the owners and didn’t give them advance notice of our arrival and pending review, so we were just customers (and evidently, invisible ones). The service was nonexistent, even though there were only 3 other tables of patrons. We had to ask for menus by flagging down a server who kept walking past our table, but never even greeted us. Then we waited and waited for our food. Finally the chef himself came outside with two plates of Eggs Benedict and waved them under people’s faces, asking if that’s what they ordered! Two of us in our group said ‘yes, that’s ours’… but then the waitress told him that those were for indoor diners, not us, and he yanked the plates off our table. Later, everyone in our group finally got served, but the food didn’t taste fresh, the egg dishes were dry and flavorless, and forget about ever getting a refill on coffee. We left a decent tip anyway, because we felt sorry for the server who probably has trouble finding any other job. Maybe we should all pose as “Food Critics,” call ahead and warn the owners that we’re going to review their food, and then receive the quality and service we all deserve!