Yelp and the Art of Marketing

Poor Saint John’s still doesn’t have any businesses worth going to, except bars. This is hardly an exaggeration. They’ve got weird old Patty’s Home Plate—one-half retro lunch counter, one-half flea market—a Mcmenamins, a vegan market/lunch spot, a couple of brewpubs that serve little food, and a hippie, crunchy, punky restaurant. The only place I can ever think of to go is The Fishwife, which always seems to be closed, but which is the best seafood restaurant in town.

One amongst their number, a woman of apparently heroic ambition, would like to rebuild a historic hotel called Central Hotel, and she’s bought the building and put a sign outside that says Central Hotel, but it’s pretty confusing since it still just looks like the old Dad’s Lounge, a dive. They allow kids now, and they’ve put together a menu that includes latkes with lox, and a lamb burger, and a cocktail list with Punt y Mes, Weller bourbon, and nocello, which are some of the preordained ingredients for restaurant success. But man, that interior, and exterior, and the doorway with the cracked glass, and the video crack with the neck tattoo dude who needs a spit cup for his chaw—these are liabilities. Have these people heard of brand damage? I’m a hillbilly with a nine-year-old laptop and a website called Gangster Of Food, and I’ve heard of brand damage.

The idiots over on Yelp (not the ones who’ve kindly granted me permission to use their photos, the other ones) they’ve probably heard of brand damage, and they are doing their very mightiest to inflict it upon this hapless real estate agent who dreams of turning her property into a bona fide hotel and family-friendly restaurant. Yelpers have given the Central Hotel an average of 3.5 stars, and have made some very critical remarks besides. Oh my god! The fries are from a bag! Get over it Yelpers; you’ve sung praise to greater indignities.

I don’t know if you know this, but 3.5 starts on Yelp is pretty bad, except in the cases where it’s great, and it’s only great when it’s obvious that the entitled little honkies just don’t get it, which is fairly common. This time I’d say that the Yelp system worked out perfectly despite itself. The place deserves an honest 3.5 (okay maybe three) stars considering what a disjointed fucking mess it is. I like the neck tattoo dude. I like the carpet, and the paneling and the stained drop ceiling. I love the cut out piece of cardboard on the soffit over the bar listing the draft selection. These are check-check-check in my little book. The drinks are good! Weller with nocello—I’m into it. The food is…problematic, but fine. I don’t expect people with a background in property sales to understand food like I or my readers do. They’re like: “Hummus…check. Burger…check. Sausage…check. Chicken sandwich…check. Alright, the menu looks great; I think you guys are ready to move into the kitchen. Congratulations!”

But the food—despite some obvious flaws like the chicken sandwich whose actual chicken component is suffocated by the ciabatta sandwich component, and the pigs in a blanket, whose pigs have the savor of Hebrew National, while the blanket is little more than than a sage-laden cracker—isn’t really too bad. It’s at least as good as the overhyped, marketing-driven slop that Yelpers have driven me to before. What’s a really overhyped restaurant in the Rose City? Too numerous to count, but let’s take Kenny and Zuke’s for example:

The pastrami, to be fair, sucks. People go nuts for this shit, but I’m telling you now that any single one of you could prepare a beef brisket pot roast with sodium nitrite, put it on bread, and you would have approximately the same thing. This isn’t just an aesthetic consideration. This isn’t just, as the pastrami pariah Nick Zukin would have me believe, my modern, industrial sensibilities talking. Yelpers love(d) this place, although they have gotten considerably more critical of late.

The whole media establishment love(d) this place: The Oregonian, Willamette Week, Bon Appétit, Gourmet, the list goes on…, and I say that there is only one factor that accounts for its rabid popularity: Brand Strength. It’s at the bottom of the Ace Hotel (where I once stayed as a destitute transient, only it was called the Ben Stark back then), and it’s done up like a jewish deli, but sleeker. It’s Katz’s without the rough edges and somewhat worse pastrami! What more could the hipster republic ask for?

Take heed, restaurateurs. Take notice. How about Bunk? East Coast sandwiches with chef pedigree. The phenomenal popularity of this place had escaped my understanding until recently. Actually, it’s improved significantly since the early days, but if it hadn’t been for those line-out-the-door early days, they wouldn’t have five or six locations today. Marketing. A sort of underground, “oh here’s the dude from Ripe, worked for Mario Batali way back in the day. My friend says he’s really cool,” marketing, but that’s the best marketing of all! Marketing that don’t look like marketing.

Speaking of insider marketing, let’s look at some projects by Chefstable (where does the chef end, and the stable begin?): Lardo, Block and Tackle, Roe, Pok Pok! Phenomenal! How do they create so many hits?! Are they the Phil Specter of restaurants? Marketing. These are some very good restaurants, don’t get me wrong (oh please restaurant bosses—don’t get me wrong. I’m sure I’ll be back begging for alms again someday), but are they the very best restaurants that have opened in their respective fields? Maybe, sometimes. Mainly though, if you open a restaurant in The Stable, you get the very best hay that money can buy, and by hay I mean marketing. Eater and Portland Magazine will say nice things about you in advance of your opening. The guy at the Oregonian will be notified to put on his prescription secret agent glasses and and come on down to darken your doorway. You get the very best shot at it that money connections can buy.

So, do I do anything besides gripe about the success of others? Some restaurants are wildly successful; what’s the problem? The problem is that marketing is the monkey wrench in the meritocracy. For every new Bunk Sandwiches/Lardo/Pok Pok that opens, we lose another business that might be as good or even better, and give us a greater range of options for dining. Because the foodie masses will gladly queue around the block for an average meatball hoagie with rocker chef pedigree, we lose all sorts of other places —RIP Döner Kebab, Flogenes, Hillbilly Bento, Sauvage…—that broaden the palate. The gastronomic terrain becomes more predictable—”oh is that another Pok Pok opening up? Thank god, I won’t have to travel two and a half miles to for my Ricker fix anymore”—and less exciting. In my estimation, more diversity is nearly always a positive thing, and homogeneity is unequivocally evil.

So, to put this back on track: Would-be hoteliers of Saint John’s, I admire your ambition in restoring this eyesore of a dive (although I actually think the current facade is kind of cute) to it’s Gilded Age glory. And I really want you to succeed, if only so that I can take my daughter someplace nice after a day’s hiking in Forest Park or Sauvie Island. But I think there may be something you’re overlooking about this town: marketing rules everything. If the construction were done, and included lots of reclaimed wood, exposed rafters, and vintage chandeliers, and you had contracted a chef from say New York or San Francisco, it wouldn’t matter if you served fried horse poo sandwiches, people Yelpers would line up and praise your authenticity. You could be on the way to a hotel empire in no time at all. Imagine: the New Seasons Market of hotels. It could be such that the sustainability-minded traveler hadn’t even a choice in Portland anymore.

I’m telling you right now that this thing will follow you through construction, until the opening of your big, beautiful hotel. I really hope you succeed, but right now you gotta think about your brand. And fix that food, even Yelpers can tell it’s off.

 

P.S. to pastrami charlatans, hand sliced don’t mean thick as a textbook. I slice meat so thin by hand, I wrote this blog post with piece of lox on my glasses.

 

Whenever they give you something good…they take it away.

So let’s say you live in a city with a lot of bars, and you want to open another one. What would you do? Open another smoky dive in which 20 somethings could acclimate themselves to adult society? A fancy beer haven with the ambience of an office depot? A hipster den, replete with hummus and Bulleit bourbon (the milk and honey of the edgy crowd)? Oh, how about a third floor dance complex for out-of- town “white hats” and the slutty little things that love them? Any of these ventures would provide a steady stream of low- investment, easily- managed income to just about any sleazeball in the country who’s willing to show his sallow, sagging, dirty little face around the place once a month or so. They have two class of prey:  the old and stupid, and the young and ignorant (and probably stupid) .

Why pay $4.75 American for a pint of the same beer that’s available in every convenience store and supermarket in the city? “To meet members of the opposite sex, gangster, to impress them with our sophistication and prowess”. This is not enough, especially for the married among us. I expect something special from a bar.

I want atmosphere. “Lived in” is nice, as is “bizarre”. But the seating needs to be comfortable, and preferably leave me with a similar point of view to that which I had while standing. Simply fancy is not good enough, unless it’s really fancy and has character. Like the Maria Cristina in San Sebastian. If your going to be fancy, I want to feel a little mentally uncomfortable. The fancy bars here are a bit of a joke in that, if your fleece is expensive enough, you’ll fit right in. Now I’m just wearing a flannel amongst the nouveau riche which is only mildly amusing.

But mostly what I want is a truly knowledgeable selection of drinks. By which I definitively do not mean a collection of cocktails made with major brand liquors. A bottle of Grey Goose and some Lillet Blanc doth not a cocktelier make. I don’t care if you have the hoppiest IPA from Vancouver BC to Salinas nor that you make your own “bitters”. Here’s a hint: bitters should actually be bitter, if you infuse vanilla pods into grain alcohol, that’s just a liqueur.

A competent, thoughtful selection of esoteric liqueuers from the farthest flung corners of Europe is a reason to go out. Especially when they come at a reasonable price. If you refuse to pollute or cheapen them by mixing them into clever little “creations” and referring to yourself as a “mixologist”, then we’re speaking the same language. Unfortunately, that sassy little hussy that Mr. nine to five just picked up from behind the counter at the tea shop is not in accordance with my views, hence the demise of Apotheke. Really the best bar in the city for a time. Zwack Unicum, Chartreuse (several varieties), Rip Van Winkle 15 year; they had it all. Not to mention a selection of esoteric, yet delicious draft beers not to be found elsewhere in the city. I like to think that the Pearl District location was their downfall, but I know better. That place wouldn’t have fit in anywhere in Portland.

And now it’s gone. So where to drink? Where to take the friends? Higgins has a nice selection of bottles, but it’s a little pricey for just any old night. Pix, well chosen beers, wines and liquors, they even got the Rip Van Winkle. But it is always so incredibly crowded, totally understaffed and just hipster, hipster, hipster. Enter Saraveza.

My new favorite bar is smartly located in an underserved neighborhood and right next to Portland Community College (these people are savvy) and has just the right mix of up and downscale. Best of all, its never busy when I go in. Even at night one can find a seat. The selection is thoughtful, the service is friendly and the food is good and best of all, it’s  American.

Saraveza serves about eight beers on tap and countless more in bottles. the selection rotates often and usually features a couple of European brews in addition to the obligatory Northwestern IPA and pales. Resin covered bottle cap mosaics in the tabletops, dark wood and lots of really truly vintage midwestern beer paraphenalia make up the decor. The tables sit at bar height, which is what I like, but they got a handful of chairs that are ridiculously uncomfortable (hope you all see this) like they’re just broken. The food though.

The speciality of the house is the pasty. An Upper -Midwest staple, it is essentially a savory turnover. Think mom’s potroast, only wrapped in shortcrust. This they serve with a doctored up bottle of Heinz chili sauce and some house-made pickles, and some ambitious pickles at that (maybe balance the acid little more please?). They also got deviled eggs, the whites being pickled, chex mix, summer sausage with cheese and crackers (just like home) and a trio of Old Country Meats sausages with mustard. Not my favorite sausages in town, but better than most.

So what’s so special? Nothing, except it’s thoughful and that’s rare. And by thoughtful I don’t mean really ambitious or super- creative or niche- driven. I mean details are almost effortlessly orchestrated to give an overall  impression of ease and abundance. No need for homemade “bitters” when you got beer and atmosphere.

Where critics fear to tread

I hate going out to dinner in this town. Rarely am I surprised or even incredibly impressed. More often than not, I get let down. I had a rule for a while wherein there were only about six “fancy” restaurants that we were allowed to eat at. I won’t mention what they were.

But then one of them let me down terribly. I had taken a bunch of cooks there for dinner and everything was sub-par, but I gave it another chance. This time I wasn’t with restaurant people and that was, in some ways, worse. Worse because they weren’t tasting the mistakes and foibles of execution and recognizing exactly what went wrong where, they were simply underwhelmed. Especially because the chef in question has gotten so much press. I think Food and Wine called him, “The Prince of Modern Gastronomy” and the New York Times raved, “The Prometheus of Portland”. I think they overstated the case.

To be perfectly fair I had only eaten at Le Pigeon once before and the food was good. The atmosphere was good too. So it really had no place in my little canon. But I really believed in the place for its seeming lack of pretension and its willingness to experiment. We had a linguine with pickled pig’s ears and I appreciated the playfulness. This time the menu seemed a little more straightforward, but there were some things that grabbed my attention.

So we started with a grilled romaine salad with salt cod, pine nuts and sherry vinegar marinated red onions. This would have been great, the lettuce was nicely grilled, the pine nuts well toasted, the onions sweet and tart (although I didn’t really get the sherry, maybe too much sugar?), and the salt cod nonexistent. I literally don’t think there was any salt cod. But there were other things on the table and I got too caught up in the moment to think to send it back. Who needs salt cod when you have sweetbreads and lamb trio?

The sweetbreads were great. Fried crisp and served up with quartered, slightly sauteéd grapes, some pancetta, a little friseé and red onion salad and some nice big slices of Oregon black truffle. I only wished it were bigger. But good critics don’t complain about portion sizes, so I won’t here either. I just miss the way it was in Donostia in Spain, where sweetbreads came sliced thin, fried crisp, and piled high on a grease-paper lined basket with lemon and aioli. That’s living.

The lamb was where things really started to go downhill for me. The dish was advertised as ribs, belly and tongue. The ribs were dry and over-salted, not to mention bland. The belly came in the form of rillete, which was also over-seasoned yet bland, not to mention fatty even by the standards of belly rillete. And the tongue, which drew my eye to the dish in the first place, failed to satisfy not only on the above scores (bland, salty,) but also by virtue of it’s long experience as a disembodied organ. Offal can be cured or pickled and be great, this was neither. Maybe somebody forgot the pink salt.

For dinner I got braised pork (shoulder, jowl?) served atop a mound of excellent polenta, coated with sauce naturelle and covered with a nice flurry of Parmegiano. The pork was burnt. Not over-carmelized. It wasn’t just the fond. The meat itself was bitter as a coffee bean with that aroma that comes if you’ve ever tried to toast a tortilla on an electric burner. I couldn’t finish it, and I was hungry. So I moved over to Leona’s plate, rabbit with English peas, pancetta and Raclette.

This one was pretty good. The peas were delicious. Who doesn’t like Raclette? Pancetta is a food group in my house (or it would be if anybody in this town would proffer a decent log, besides Todd, who doesn’t make enough). The rabbit itself was a little, je ne sais quoi; plain, dry? But after my encounter with the pork, Leona was lucky I left the bones. Sauce would have helped this one, the Raclette was unfortunately just a semi-melted chunk in the bottom of the earthenware dish. But the aesthetic was true, a rustic ensemble of simple, hearty lapin garni.

We had some great wines including a Refosco from Vigne de Zamo, 2006 I think. The price, $40.00, not too bad. This one was a little dense and chewy but still with those nice refined Italian tannins that make it go so well with food or, for that matter, drunken revelry.

I don’t want to say that I don’t recommend this restaurant. The atmosphere is nice, the prices right, and the food playful and sometimes spot on. I just hate having my expectations shattered. It was probably just an off night. But I figure, if you got your picture on the cover of Food and Wine, the food should blow little-old-me away on a balls-to-the-wall shit night with no dishwasher and a new pantry cook.