Gripes with Gourmet

The October issue of Gourmet magazine heralds the results of its third-annual readers' choice restaurant survey. "North America's Best Restaurants!" trumpets the company press release. More than 500 restaurants made the final cut from the original pool of 3,500: The 24 highest-ranking establishments overall were anointed "America's Top Tables," while other entrants were recognized as "best for business" or "best for value."

You don't need the envelope, please, or even a drum roll to accompany the announcement of the "Top Table" restaurant in Houston: It is, of course, Robert Del Grande's Cafe Annie. Although the awards are based on a random survey of 26,000 Gourmet subscribers in 24 regions of the U.S. and Canada, Houston subscribers, at least, have been well prepped for this exam. Not only did Cafe Annie take the top prize for Houston last year, Gourmet's "Houston Dining" article also lauded it as our town's best in March -- only a couple of months before readers received their ballots in the mail.

It's not that Cafe Annie doesn't deserve recognition; it's just that the choice is sooooo predictable. And call me cynical, but did I mention that one of Gourmet's editors, Margo True, is a great fan of Del Grande's? Once upon a time, while living in Houston, she apprenticed several months in his kitchen and wrote a story about the experience. She also wrote the aforementioned "Houston Dining" article.

Not to say that has any direct bearing on this survey. But does "most popular" mean "best"? I open and shut my case with Stephen King's death grip on the New York Times bestseller list. But let's explore Gourmet's "Best for Business" category. Almost all the winners are, predictably, "big steak" places, and at least ten of the 24 finalists are national chains. Houston's bizness winner is The Capital Grille, which also won in Boston, Detroit and Miami/Ft. Lauderdale. Other Houston-familiar heroes include Ruth's Chris Steak House (won in Los Angeles), The Palm Restaurant (hands-down in Chicago) and Morton's of Chicago (picked for Washington, D.C., and Phoenix/Scottsdale).

The "Best Value" category is new this year, and so perhaps hasn't ossified yet. But still, there's that chain thing happening again. Houston's Kim Son was a big winner, recognized in our hometown (where it has four locations) and also in New Orleans. Now there's an eyebrow-lifter: The best restaurant value in the Big Easy is a Houston-based Asian chain?

I'm only annoyed by popularity contests when they aren't labeled as such. At the risk of encouraging the FDA to legislate it to death, I suggest that Gourmet magazine could more accurately describe its awards as "North America's Best-Known Restaurants."

-- Margaret L. Briggs

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