Okun Re-Retires

27 Feb

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

Incidentally, you can own a piece of Valenti’s if you’re the winning bidder at an auction on February 29th

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. 

18 Responses to “Okun Re-Retires”

  1. Max February 27, 2012 at 8:08 am #

    Okun could reprise her career by being a part-time PR consultant for Valenti’s and Brocuglio’s next cuisine adventure. She would bring the hapless duo the ‘street cred’ so sorely needed.

  2. John February 27, 2012 at 9:17 am #

    Is it just me or did it seem that Okun only bestoed four stars if the restaurant was upscale/expensive italian………

  3. Tom Beecher February 27, 2012 at 9:33 am #

    One of the comments on Sullivan’s column serves as a perfect microcosm of Okun’s food reviews over the last few years.

    “Ms. Okun’s reviews and columns were always graceful, economical, and impeccably punctuated.”

    Just so much word salad. An ‘economical’ column? What is that even supposed to mean? ‘Impeccably punctuated’? Call me crazy, but I’d rather read a review that talks about the food instead of one that properly uses the Oxford comma.

  4. AnonForGoodReason February 27, 2012 at 9:46 am #

    Goodbye, Janice Okun.

    I remember Janice Okun reviewing the restaurant where I was a server in 1985. It was an upscale place in a new hotel serving top notch steaks and creative fare. I worked there along with two other jobs to pay my way through colleg.

    We were brand new, so we were slammed. I got stuck waiting on her; she was far more interested in drinking than eating. She was rude, insulting about the food and – by the end of the meal – completely plowed. Still, she got her meal hot and in good time.

    When the bill came she tipped me a whopping 5 percent. I knew that was a bad sign. If I knew then what I knew now, perhaps we would have seated her in a booth.

    When her Buffalo News article came out she panned the place and took aim at me personally as her server. The only thing she liked were the after dinner chocolate truffles we offered with the check. I got a bad review at hotel personnel and took interminable weeks of crappy shifts. The subsequent downturn in income cost me an apartment; the resulting schedule complications affected my grades. I never forgot her.

    Several months later, I was back serving dinners and making good bank again. The crowds had slowed down to a healthy flow and the kitchen had worked out its few kinks. One weeknight, I looked up to see Okun hovering menacingly at the hostess table. I quietly swapped a table to assure I was again her server.

    I laid it on thick. Everything was picture perfect; I had the chef pay special attention to her order. All the food came out fast and hot. As she got more and more drunk I did more and more to assure her happiness. She ate quietly without complaints. She definitely did not remember me.

    After her dessert, she asked for her bill. “Please be sure to bring along a few of those delicious truffles,” she said.

    As the cashier worked up her check in back, I grabbed her fancy pants truffles and took them into the kitchen staff bathroom with me. I lifted the seat to reveal the notoriously disgusting toilet rim. I took each truffle and scraped it in a full rotation across the porcelain. I made sure every vile element was a feature in her precious truffle. I was careful to pick out the pubic hairs – why give myself away?

    I brought out her check with the newly-adorned truffles. As she light-tipped me on her credit card, I watched as she devoured the little chocolate morsels one by one.

    Her review came out and she loved the place – especially the truffles. I worked at the restaurant for several more months, graduated and left town.

    So, goodbye Janice Okun. I hope you read this. Your vile personality and complete lack of knowledge of food and how to properly review a restaurant will not be missed. I hope you enjoyed the truffles as much as I enjoyed preparing them for you. Bitch.

  5. Dan February 27, 2012 at 10:02 am #

    John> Is it just me or did it seem that Okun only bestoed four stars if the restaurant was upscale/expensive italian

    She also regularly bestowed four stars on old-school American/ye-olde-taverne-style restaurants; Eagle House, Glen Iris Inn, and so on. Upscale Italian, though, is guaranteed to get 3.5 or four stars. Remember, she wrote for the market; late-middle aged and senior “typical Buffalonians”.

  6. pirate's code February 27, 2012 at 10:26 am #

    @AnonForGoodReason — Let me ask…was she wrong about your employer in her review in ’85? Maybe she had at least a semi-legit beef with the restaurant, its food or … horrors … your service. After all, hot and fast is only part of the equation.

    Sorry that it had such an impact directly on you and your “colleg” education, but it would appear the only vile being in this particular tale is you. I’m not so naive as to believe that your actions behind the scenes are isolated, but that doesn’t make it any less disgusting.

  7. Tom Beecher February 27, 2012 at 10:50 am #

    @AnonForGoodReason : As much I understand being pissed off with Ms. Okun, doing what you did, assuming you really did it, is disgusting and terrible.

    You should be ashamed.

  8. Peter February 27, 2012 at 11:08 am #

    It would actually be easy to find out who you are by searching reviews, if your story is true.

  9. Chris Smith February 27, 2012 at 11:37 am #

    While many people are justifiably happy about Okun’s retirement, the discussion should be about why The Buffalo News continues to over-serve their dwindling subscription demographic of elderlies in the inner ring suburbs by featuring writers like Okun.

    They could have hired someone young, engaging, and educated to review restaurants as a means to expand their audience years ago. Instead, they kept Okun. She has always written for the olds, even when she wasn’t old. They like early dinners, soft food, big portions, comfy booths and “fancy” decor. She was their shaman.

    Her lengthy tenure and continued presence says everything you need to know about why The Buffalo News continues to lose profit margin and subscribers at an equal rate. But, the product Okun and others like her put out is exactly what the subscribers want to read and why the daily paper of record can’t get me or people my age to give them money for content.

    Will Galarneau be better? I hope people will give him a chance to establish himself before simply dismissing him as not up to the standards of the NY Times. He’ll face a lot of editorial pressure to stay true to Okun’s style as that is what the subscribers like (according to their oh-so-important reader surveys), so it will take him time to establish his own style. Best of luck, Andrew.

  10. Sean C. February 27, 2012 at 12:26 pm #

    Chris hit the nail on the head… The Buffalo News has done little, if anything to reach a younger readership. They’ve assured us that getting ink on our fingers will no longer be an issue in 10 years.

  11. mike February 27, 2012 at 12:58 pm #

    Excuse me? But “young” people don’t read newspapers because the writers are old, its the same reason they don’t ride their horse to work. Good for you AnonForGoodReason, only the other 5 percent tipping cheapstakes are complaining. I guess none of the commenters saw “The Help” yet, if you treat people like shit, shit is what you will get.

  12. Tom Beecher February 27, 2012 at 1:09 pm #

    There are many ways to show a patron your dissatisfaction with their attitude or tip. Rubbing their food on a toilet before serving it is not one of them, aside from probably exposing you to legal action.

  13. mike February 27, 2012 at 2:40 pm #

    Spoken like a true Shyster! Thanks Tom for proving my point, attorney’s are notorious bad tippers. I am sure you had a few mop bucket dunked steaks! Another win for the good guys!

  14. RaChaCha February 27, 2012 at 2:55 pm #

    @AnonForGoodReason Bellatrix, is that you? You’re the only one I know in Buffalo with the combination of decent writing skills and astonishing vindictiveness to have both committed such a vile act, plus written such a readable account of it.

  15. RaChaCha February 27, 2012 at 3:01 pm #

    Nope, graduation dates are off. Damn — thought I was on to something.

  16. Tom Beecher February 27, 2012 at 5:15 pm #

    @Mike : I’m not an attorney, but thank you for the compliment. I am however a notorious over-tipper since I worked in that industry while growing up and in college. I’d be glad to give you some names in establishments I frequent who will vouch for that.

  17. mike February 27, 2012 at 7:26 pm #

    As P.T. Barnum once said “There’s a sucker born every minute”. AnonForGoodReason yarn is just an urban legend, they almost had me to until I got to the part of pulling off the pubic hairs. Ha! Don’t you youngsters ever tell stories anymore?

  18. Dan February 28, 2012 at 2:59 pm #

    Chris> She has always written for the olds, even when she wasn’t old. They like early dinners, soft food, big portions, comfy booths and “fancy” decor. She was their shaman.

    Yup. I’ve said this before, and on BP at WNYMedia, several times. The people I knew who took the most stock in Janice Okun’s reviews were an older generation of lower-middle class “Typical Buffalonians” who were generally conservative diners, appreciated “classy” but not modern polish or flair, and gushed more over quantity over quality. They’re the crowd that are regulars at places like McPartlan’s Corner, Danny’s, Rizzo’s, Otto’s or “da Family Tree’s”, and who spend summer weekends chasing Chiavetta from lawn fete to lawn fete. They don’t want to try out something different in the city; unfamiliar cuisine (i.e. not red sauce Italian, east suburban tavern, or meat-and-three) and inconvenient parking scare many away.

    Unfortunately, being Buffalo, there’s still far more of that crowd around than the “youngs”.

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