By B.A. Nilsson
on two decades of sampling the fare at Capital Region restaurants
This week marks the 20th anniversary of Metroland’s
food column—appropriately enough, it’s the anniversary for
china, the topside of which I’ve now studied professionally
in several hundred different eateries. And there’s no doubt
that I’ve seen the color of those many, many plates, because
my pursuit of gustatory indulgence during this time has personally
cost me about five pounds per year.
The first restaurant review appeared in the issue of April
3, 1986. I wrote about the long-defunct Bijou Café in Schenectady.
A week later, we reviewed Café Capriccio, which is still going
strong. This is about par for the statistics you’ll see below.
Review may be too generous a term for what ran the first 22
weeks. When I pitched the idea of a food column to the magazine’s
founder and then-owner, Peter Iselin, he liked the concept
but lamented the lack of a budget. So I suggested that we
do the opposite of other newspapers, and phone ahead, beg
for a free meal, and allow the restaurant to show us what
it does best.
Thus was “Byron’s Blue Plate Special” born. It encouraged
more restaurants to advertise, but there was grumbling that
an announced visit was no more than a puff piece, and thus
not to be taken seriously. In September 1986, we switched
to unannounced visits for a meal at Jack’s Oyster House, and
it’s been that way since.
I argued myself into this job by virtue of the fact that I
was already writing for the newspaper—back then I covered
classical music, dance, and theater—and had spent several
years before moving to this area on the floor and in the kitchens
of a number of restaurants in Fairfield and Westchester counties.
So we could offer a perspective unique to area food writers,
who otherwise tend to be arts editors throwing themselves
a plum little gig.
During all those 20 years, there were but 16 weeks when no
food-related piece ran at all—usually because I was running
late. 1990 began the annual Best Of issue, which usurps a
review; a year later we began ending each year with a best-of-the-year
roundup and a “Year in Pictures” issue that gives most of
the staff a holiday.
After about a year and a half of trying to wrench yet more
food-related verbiage from my overfed brain, I gave up the
column, suggesting Jo Page as my successor. I figured myself
happily rid of it, even when Jo packed it in and someone else
took over. The column almost died at the end of 1989, when
Peter lured me back with the time-honored technique of offering
Thankfully, Laura Leon has been contributing reviews and essays
for the past three years, giving me welcome breaks from that
dining?” I hear you echo. “It’s a dream job—getting paid to
eat!” Getting paid to eat, yes, but then also to come up with
800 to 900 words about it every week, trying like hell to
make this week’s piece sound a little different from last
week’s and the week before. But, yes, it’s still a thrill
to sit at that table anticipating what’s to come.
Making it all the more revealing to pause and look back. What
kind of ground have we covered in 20 years? Sifting through
a list of all the pieces that have run, setting aside the
various essays—topics ranging from preparing macaroni and
cheese to raising chickens—reveals that 928 restaurant reviews
have run in this paper.
After subtracting the many repeat visits, we’re left with
712 different restaurants. Although I may not have tracked
down every last one, it looks like 317 of those places have
gone out of business, far fewer than would be expected in
a more frenzied market.
Some of those places folded precipitously. The most savage
piece I recall writing was in early 1987, when a place called
D’Lites opened on Albany’s North Pearl Street. Taking its
cue from the fast-food burger joints, it was supposed to offer
comparable fare, but what food we received was terrible and
the rest was unavailable because the staff didn’t know how
to work the various machines in the place. It folded shortly
I take no credit, however, for the demise of 55 Main, in North
Adams, Mass. My glowing review ran on Oct. 25, 2001; the place
closed a week later, succumbing to pressure already in place.
Still, it felt awkward.
My daughter, Lily, was born in early 1997; three weeks later,
her mother and I plunked a sleeping infant in a corner at
Nicole’s Italia in Guilderland, and the kid’s restaurant ventures
began, well-chronicled (often to an annoyingly self-indulgent
degree) in columns ever since.
the restaurant owners ever know you’re coming?” I’m often
asked, and I shake my head sadly in reply. In Manhattan, photos
of reviewers are affixed to kitchen walls, and the writers
don disguises and tender pseudononymous credit cards.
Here in the Capital Region, I haul my bulk to a table, often
with that telltale child in tow, and pay with a credit card
that trumpets my name. Have I ever been spotted? Not yet.
here for a list of recently reviewed restaurants.
of Beekman Street activity, the Yawning Duck
Pasta Co. and Gotchya’s Trading Co.
are combining forces to open Gotchya’s Trattoria,
a fresh pasta market and espresso bar by day and
neighborhood Italian restaurant by night, which
means that the Yawning Duck will be moving to
the current location of Gotchya’s, 68 Beekman
St. The combined opening will be on March 31;
Got chya’s Trattoria will be open Tuesday through
Saturday at 11 AM for the fresh pasta market and
espresso and pastry bar, and dinner service will
begin at 5. They will begin to take dinner reservations
next week. 584-5772 or www.gotchyas.com. . . .
In Harper Lee’s novel To Kill a Mockingbird,
Scout Finch makes several mentions of Miss Maudie’s
Lane Cake. A version of this multilayer cake,
with coconut, pecans, candied cherries and raisins
in the filling, will be the centerpiece for a
“Mission Society Dessert Table” at a reception
on April 8 at 2 PM at Schenectady County Community
College. The reception follows a lecture by Claudia
Durst Johnson with the provocative title “Bela
Lugosi, Rosa Parks, and Harper Lee: Social and
Universal Issues Reflected in To Kill a Mockingbird.”
The program is free. . . . Remember to pass your
scraps to Metroland (email@example.com).
want your feedback
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Agree or disagree with B.A.? Let us know what you think...
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very much enjoyed eating dinner at Daniel's
at Ogdens. You review described my dining
experience perfectly. This wasn't the case
with Pancho's. I much prefer Garcia's or
Lake View Tavern for Mexican fare. I agree
that a restaurant can have an off night
so I'll give the second unit on Central
Avenue a try.
yes I miss the star ratings, bring it back.
Second, I haven't had a chance to visit
Poncho's yet, but I especially like reading
would travel to Amsterdam to this restaurant
- it's not that far away. People traveled
from all over to eat at Ferrandi's in Amsterdam.
From his background, I'm sure the chef's
sauce is excellent and that is the most
important aspect of an Italian restaurant.
Sometimes your reviewer wastes words on
the negative aspects of a restaurant. I'm
looking forward to trying this restaurant
- I look forward to Metroland every Thursday
especially for the restaurant review. And
by the way Ferrandi's closed its Amsterdam
location and is opening a new bistro on
Saratoga Lake - Should be up and running
in May. It will be called Saratoga Lake
Bistro. It should be great!
comments about the Indian / Pakistani restaurants
being as "standardized as McDonald's"
shows either that you have eaten at only
a few Indian / Pakistani restaurants or
that you have some prejudices to work out.
That the physical appearances are not what
you would consider fancy dancy has no bearing
on the food. And after all, that is what
the main focus of the reviews should be.
Not the physical appearances, which is what
most of your reviews concentrate on.
A restaurant like The Shalimar, down on
Central Avenue, may not look the greatest,
but the food is excellent there. And the
menu has lots of variety - beef, lamb, vegetarian,
chicken, and more..