The Buffalo News’ venerable restaurant reviewer Janice Okun called it quits this week, and News Editor Margaret Sullivan made the announce in her Sunday column. I’ve had some fun over the past several months picking apart Okun’s self-parody reviews, culminating in the epic fail fed to her by the parsnip aficionados at Valenti’s Restaurant in December.
Okun had officially retired from the News in 2009, but continued to write reviews in part because new food editor Andrew Galarneau thought himself a bit too recognizable, thanks to his video series on the News’ website. But every restaurant kitchen in WNY – even Valenti’s – had a picture of Okun up on its wall and knew exactly who she was when she walked in. When a one-paper town has a single restaurant critic, it’s not that hard to figure out who’s who.
The News’ restaurant reviews were sometimes embarrassing anachronisms, waxing poetic about booth comfort and the author’s chumminess with the staff, and less about an informative assessment of the preparation and flavor of the food. It was more about how these restaurants could interpret the dishes that Okun and her ever-present companion ordered most often, and less about innovation or risk-taking. One of my favorites was when Okun was surprised that muffuletta had an olive salad in it; olive salad is one of the muffuletta’s core ingredients.
To put it mildly, for people in town who take this sort of thing semi-seriously, it had long been time for a change.
Although I’ve sometimes disagreed with Galarneau’s assessment of restaurants he’s reviewed for Cheap Eats (he was dismissive of Bingo’s Dim Sum and Five Guys), but he has an overall good reputation in a burgeoning local foodie community, and I like him. I wish Galarneau well in his new & important position, and hope that the quality of restaurant reviews in the Buffalo News goes from mockable to must-read.