Blame it on my football coach father, but I love a good competition. Always have. I guess that's one of the reasons I love the first issue of the new year so much, where the best of the best in the local dining scene battle it out for top honors.
The Restaurant Guide and its readers' poll is a Memphis tradition, one that began back in July 1983. That year, Ken Neill was the editor, and the cover featured a dapper young model with a serving platter borrowed from our pals at the Peabody. Also in that issue? A review of the new George Lucas flick, Return of the Jedi, and some awesome ads. Goldsmith's was hawking high-waisted ladies' jumpsuits, Chrysler was showing off it's snazzy LeBaron convertible, Wagner Place was offering the last of its luxury condos for $121,000, and Modern Music Audio announced the arrival of the new "space saving sound system" -- a stereo roughly the size of a Mini-Cooper. As I flipped though the pages, checking out the bad fashion and good intentions of our city in the early '80s, I couldn't imagine which restaurants jumpsuited, LeBaron-driving Memphians had chosen.
As it turns out, good taste in fine dining is trend-proof, for the most part.
The three best Memphis restaurants chosen were Justine's, Grisanti's, and Folk's Folly. River Terrace took first place for best atmosphere. Your favorite seafood place? Red Lobster. Steak? Folk's Folly. Coletta's had the best pizza, Shoney's the best breakfast, and T.G.I. Friday's, the best burgers.
After that issue, the readers' poll became somewhat sporadic, appearing here and there until 1994, when it became a yearly tradition.
Of course, we've had to make some adjustments to the poll over the years, mostly to prevent ballot stuffing. I know, it's hard to imagine Memphians playing dirty when it comes to voting, but it happened, I tell you. Issues flew off newsstands back when we printed ballots in all the copies, and when the entries started coming in, piles of which had the same handwriting, we had to get crafty. We began printing ballots in only our subscribers' copies, and guess what? A sudden rise in circulation! Last year, we even put the ballot online, but decided against it this year as sly folks with various email addresses tried to beat the system again. And yes, we know who you are! Suffice it to say that the staff has gotten very good at spotting the few who still try to get one past us. It's actually become a game of sorts. And while we'd never condone cheating of any sort, we have to say we're impressed with the level of loyalty those few stuffers have to their favorite spots. But for future reference, stuffing is futile.
Another change this year? The addition of our food and wine panel. We gathered the members of various food and wine society members, as well as a handful of food writers and chefs with no restaurant affiliations, just to see how different, if at all, their picks would be. Are their choices any more important than those of the readers? Not a bit, but what better way to find new or undiscovered dining hotspots than to quiz those in the know? No matter what the results, it's a win-win for you.
We've come a long way since that first readers' poll. There are three times as many dining listings as there were then, and not to knock ol' Red Lobster, but Memphis offers a lot more options when it comes to seafood, ethnic, and other specialty establishments. And we're better for it. We might not be New York or Chicago, but Memphis is holding its own on the restaurant scene, and I'll be happily noshing my way across town this year, trying as many as I can, and even hitting a few of your favorites from 1983. I just won't be doing it in a jumpsuit. And thank goodness for that.