The Curious Case Of Taste – Restaurants, part 2
When I roll into a new town or city I always like to check online in an attempt to suss out where the locals like to eat. My current favorite “app for that” is TripAdvisor.com. Although the site envelops a dearth of travel reviews including hotels, plane flights and other services, I like it because most of the users are engaged writers who appear to have a sincere interest in passing on useful information.
I decided to start this essay with a look at my own area restaurants. Using Trip Advisor to turn the glass upon my own stomping grounds has yielded some unexpected results. Here’s a look at my own home town offerings as of this writing.
First of all, Erie PA has a fine collection of eateries to choose from. Many of them are casual dining (or “mom and pop” places), often a bar that serves food. I like cities and towns that have multiple restaurants to choose from, it provides some hope that there is healthy competition in the market and a minimum standard as a result. I’m personally less interested in bars that have a limited menu; I’m more interested in restaurants that may have a bar. Then we have the classic diner, or as I prefer a “dinor”. Regardless of how you spell it this would be a joint that is probably open for breakfast and lunch, perhaps dinner. Then we have the small specialty places. They may focus on a particular ethnic cuisine (outside of the “burger and fries” mentality of the American palate), or they may have some signature dishes that have made them popular. Finally we do have some upscale snobby places, and I say snobby in the kindest way. I like these places as long as the snobbery is more from the patrons and less from the wait staff. I figure if you walk into a place and order from the menu with a full understanding of the money you’ll be spending you deserve to be waited upon with respect. I don’t like to think of myself as a snob just because I happen to be an educated diner.
So what does Trip Advisor have for us? Let’s take a look.
226 places come up. When sorted according to rank, Number 1 on the list is the Lawrence Park Dinor with 181 reviews. I have never been here and I find it interesting (though not surprising for Erie) that it’s a dinor.
Number 6 on the list is the Texas Roadhouse with 52 reviews. It’s the first chain to hit the list. I will dine at a chain when it’s necessary, but it’s rarely what I’m looking for when I travel. The benefits to chains are consistent management (generally), consistent and predictable food choices and preparation, and moderate prices. I’ll go out of my way to avoid these places if there are any other recommended restaurants in the vicinity.
In the top ten we have two restaurants that fall under the “fine dining” category. The first is Number 4 with 97 reviews, Bertrand’s Bistro – a French restaurant (I believe the only French restaurant in Erie). I’ve eaten here in the past and I don’t recall being bowled over. In defense of fine dining establishments; I do appreciate the freshness, preparation and execution of exotic dishes. Where I run afoul is when I feel that trust is not reciprocated and the expectation of the kitchen or wait staff is that my uncultured palate couldn’t discern a decent snail from a hush puppy. For me it’s a steep learning curve, probably for most people as well. Since most of us rarely dine this way, how are we to know if the alligator is too tough, or if the creme fraiche has turned? We must rely on the proclaimed experts to help us understand the style in which we are dining.
The second fine dining place to make the top 10 came in at number 9 with 70 reviews, 1201 Kitchen. It’s been a long time since I’ve eaten here. Rest assured my plan is to eat there soon. Their menu is ever changing. They prepare the menu based on the fresh food they can get their hands on. The atmosphere is beautiful and dynamic, the bar itself something to behold. I did have the worst martini of my life there a few years ago, but I was too foolish at the time to complain. That won’t happen again now that I know what a great martini is. This place always receives accolades in the word-of-mouth area, possibly the best restaurant in town.
THE BIG SURPRISE on the top ten list is indeed number 10, with 136 reviews; Sara’s. This speaks exactly to what I mentioned from the start; tasty is in the palate of the beholder. We also must account for the fact that conscientious reviewers will rate a restaurant based on the type of place it is, disregarding other contenders that are not within the scope of that type of eatery. To wit, one of the draws that makes Sara’s an Erie institution is it’s geographical location. It’s a 50’s-esque, greasy spoon, cafeteria-style burger/hot dog joint that adjoins a campground area – a campground area that leads you into one of the nation’s most unique state parks, Presque Isle. It doesn’t hurt that the place has been there since 1980. A stop at Sara’s on the way into or out of the park is a summer tradition for locals and out-of-towners alike. From a cuisine standpoint it holds very little appeal for me, but I certainly understand the important link between food, atmosphere and nostalgia. They recently updated the service area and the seating. If you miss 50’s style burger joints we have one. My advice; easy on the onion rings. They taste good, but be near a functioning rest area within 30 minutes of eating them.
RECAP: The top 10 from 226 contenders contains 2 dinors, 1 chain, 4 mid-priced mom-and-pops, and 2 fine dining establishments. No surprises there for a town with our population count. In fact, I’m thrilled there’s only one chain on that list. ~TH~