Yesterday we learned that Zagat, once a trustworthy go-to guide for great restaurants and travel destinations, chose Louisville one of “7 Up-and-Coming Food Cities Around the U.S.”

I couldn’t agree more. Our terrific restaurant scene has garnered a fair amount of adulation over the past few years—most of it deserved, some of it overblown, such as when Zagat called Louisville one of “8 Awesome Foodie Destinations Around the World.”

The list largely makes sense given the other cities in the round up, places like Boulder, Colo., Salt Lake City and Athens, Ga., cities getting sizable shares of positive press from reliable writers.

That Charleston, S.C., is on the list as an up and comer seems disrespectful, however, to a restaurant community that’s long since arrived. I’d regard it as the South’s hottest, if not the best.

But as is typically the case with Zagat blogs of late, if you take the 41 seconds required to read their three paragraph investigations, you quickly realize how little thought and effort was invested into their claims, especially the most recent ones penned by writers Kelly Dobkin and James Mulcahy. For example:

“Though the culinary draw of this town has largely been the bourbon distilleries that are easily accessible by car (and the countless bars within the city limits that serve the native spirit), the city’s restaurant scene has really taken off in the past five years or so.”

Um, what? Bourbon distilleries are a culinary draw to Louisville? And bourbon distilleries are culinary elements?

Bourbon is big here because bourbon is dang tasty. Same goes for our restaurants: they stand firmly on their own merits. These authors’ work marks the first time I’ve seen anyone credit the former for the latter.

But the line “the city’s restaurant scene has really taken off in the past five years or so” is purely maddening. Just in the past five years it’s taken off?

Does that mean nothing happened in the ensuing decades to account for the terrific eateries we have now? How is it possible I missed this culinary big bang that transformed a non-existent Louisville restaurant scene from nothingness into “Now we’re talking!” in 2008? I know I’ve spent way too much time harping on my teen to do his homework over the past few years, but surely I’m not that far out of the loop.

Here’s an undeniable fact: If what was begun among our local restaurants in the 1980s never even occurred, Louisville probably wouldn’t have a restaurant community resembling anything like it is today. I don’t recall every great restaurant from that era and my dates could be off by a few years, but this list should suffice:

  • Casa Grisanti (the gold standard in the ‘80s, which spawned 35 other restaurants)
  • Sixth Avenue, 1981 (it spawn 4 others)
  • Bristol Bar and Grill, 1979 (spawned four of its own, and three other names)
  • Fig Tree, 1980 (Kathy Cary even cooked there)
  • Cafe Metro, 1980 (?)
  • 610 Magnolia, 1980 (?)
  • Langtry’s, 1981 (owned by Bristol co-founders Doug Gossman and Bim Dietrich)
  • Myra’s 1982 (?) (Bim Dietrich)
  • Lilly’s, 1987 (there’s Kathy Cary again)
  • Vincenzo’s, 1989 (Vincenzo Gabrielle trained a whole generation of Louisville operators)
  • Jack Fry’s 1986 (the version recreated by Susan Seiler)
  • People’s Place (Steve Clements’ first place, 1984, he later opened Avalon)
  • Mama Grisanti, 1977 (those Grisantis were something)
  • Ferd Grisanti, 1973, (their cousins were terrific, too)
  • August Moon, 1987 (Peng Looi and Mimi Ha)
  • Dietrich’s, 1987 (?) (Bim Dietrich, of course)
  • Equus, 1985 (Dean Corbett’s first place)
  • Rubino’s, 1986 (owned by Sal and Cindy Rubino, who now own The Café)
  • Sweet Surrender, 1988, (the talented Debbie Keller)
  • La Paloma, 1989 (there’s that Seiller woman again)
  • Lee’s Korean (I think it was a child of the ‘80s)

Need we go into the 1990s, when Mayan Gypsy, Pesto’s, Saffron’s, Irish Rover, Sapporo, Jack’s Lounge, Ditto’s Grill, Steven’s and Steven’s, Club Grotto, North End Café, El Mundo, Lynn’s Paradise Café, Limestone and Asiatique opened, and when the fabled English Grill and The Oakroom wowed us? The lineup thus far hasn’t even breached the 22nd Century and yet Zagat’s writers say the scene has hit its stride only recently?

Comically, all four restaurants mentioned later in their investigative three paragraph piece fall outside the writers’ five-year parameters: Proof’s older than five years, so scratch it. 610 Magnolia was a landmark restaurant before Edward Lee raised the bar even higher, and Mussel + Burger Bar and Game just opened this year. There’s a whole lot of “or so” wiggle room in their five-year timeline.

Done a little Internet browsing, have we? Are we expected to believe these writers hunted anywhere beyond the Web to find Game—since it only opened 10 days ago?

The story goes on with the de riguer “best of” mention of Proof on Main (always a fine place to mention, but there are many equally good stops deserving equal billing) and quotes its friendly and talented executive chef Levon Wallace with crediting “the bounty of the Ohio River Valley” and “the rich tradition for things like bourbon and handcrafted hams” for the town’s culinary rise.”

Did he really say that? Wallace is a really thoughtful and articulate man, so it doesn’t even sound like him because it’s … well … ignorant!

More: “The rise of chef Edward Lee also helped get Louisville on the radar of food lovers throughout the country, especially after he was a finalist on Top Chef: Texas. His 610 Magnolia has been going strong in the town for years.”

Good gawsh, not only is that really poor writing, it’s also a silly claim that implies Lee’s TV adventures are more important than his culinary prowess. It doesn’t even mention the butt kicking Lee gave stud chef Jose Garces on Iron Chefa far more impressive show than Top Chef anyway because centers only on cooking skills, not ginned up personality conflicts.

But wait, there’s more: “Even though quality has been increasing”—does this seem like they’re saying the quality was bad or recovering?—“this river city still keeps things casual. Among recent openings, the trend is bourbon and high-end burgers. Just-debuted Game is making waves with patties made from kangaroo and antelope, Mussel+Burger Bar is a higher-end bistro, and Sidebar promises to spice up the town’s whiskey row.”

Really now? You get two terrific burger spots just opened and a third one that’s just a shell and you’ve got a trend? Out of all the outstanding places in the city—the kinds of restaurants that make headlines in respected dining publications—you mention burger stops?

I love the “better burger” movement. Mussel + Burger Bar is fantastic, and if the owners of Game can deliver there as well as they do at Hammerheads, we’ll be talking about it for a long time.

But mentioning those before the likes of Decca, Doc Crow’s, Basa, Mayan Café, Lilly’s, Corbett’s, Jack Fry’s, The Blind Pig, Seviche and dozens of others is like saying U of L guard Russ Smith has done more to put Cardinal basketball on the map than Darrell Griffith.

I’m sure my take isn’t shared by everyone, especially my dear friends at the Convention & Vistors Bureau and my hardworking publicist buddies who surely added the Zagat nod to their press release boilerplates yesterday. Such lists make their lives soooooo much easier because the town and their clients become easier to promote.

But I’m sticking to my opinion that most of these lists not only suck supremely, they reflect the sloppiness allowed by publications that disregard the necessity for professional journalists and the laziness inspired and enabled by the Internet. How can anyone can take them seriously?

Steve Coomes
Steve Coomes is a restaurant veteran turned award-winning food, spirits and travel writer. In his 24-year career, he has edited and written for multiple national trade and consumer publications including Nation's Restaurant News and Southern Living. He is a feature writer for Louisville magazine, Edible Louisville & The Bluegrass and Food & Dining Magazine. The author of two books, "Country Ham: A Southern Tradition of Hogs, Salt & Smoke," and the "Home Distiller's Guide to Spirits," he also serves as a ghostwriter for multiple clients.

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