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Refire: The Rapaport Report

–Refire is restaurant lingo used to describe food that is returned to the kitchen. Here on Buffalo Rising, it will define an occasional Saturday post that revisits an interesting food story from the Buffalo Rising archives.

This story originally appeared on Buffalo Rising in April of 2007.

Chefs from all over Buffalo read Bill’s site. And customers do, too. Whether you’re trying to figure out if there’s an Indian restaurant in South Buffalo, or you’re looking to read (or write) a review of one, Bill Rapaport’s Buffalo Restaurant Guide is one of the best resources available. And, it was the only one for a long time.

Rapaport, a professor at UB and proponent of the region, started the guide in 1988 as a photocopied list of restaurants with a few recommendations. Nineteen years later, his list has become a website and is featured as a link on the Buffalo Convention and Visitors Bureau site. Though it is not the prettiest site on the web, it is highly trafficked and simple to use. Users can read reviews using filters like location, cuisine or ratings. And if you love to dine out and either warn or encourage fellow diners, you can do that as well.

Bill’s opinions are posted alongside those of regular users, restaurants that have received a rating from The Buffalo News are noted as well. Buffalo Rising decided to sit down with the revered (and sometimes feared) Rapaport to rap about dining in WNY, his guide and his fans.

Buffalo Rising: How did Bill Rapaport’s Buffalo Dining Guide begin?
Bill Rapaport: In 1988, I was the local arrangements coordinator for an international conference being held at UB (the Association for Computational Linguistics). As is the case with most such conferences I’ve been to, the local arrangements coordinator produces a short list of good restaurants for participants to go to. This was my opportunity to show off what I considered to be Buffalo’s best restaurants to a perhaps skeptical audience. So I produced a 4-page handout of my favorites plus some recommendations from colleagues and students. Each summer thereafter, I updated it, just for local use. It grew and grew, and became more widely known, at least at UB. When the Web came into being, one of our lab staff asked my permission to post it there, and the rest is history. I try to update it regularly, but since it is merely a hobby, I often fall behind. The first time I realized that I might have something interesting on my hands was when The Wall Street Journal mentioned it in a 1998 article on how to find things out on the Web!

BR: Do you get feedback from the general public?
Bill Rapaport: Yes, all of the time. Because, after all, it’s an interactive guide. But besides reader reviews, I also get nice email from readers who are merely users. I also get lots of inquiries from people all over the world who are planning to visit Buffalo and want a recommendation.

BR: Do you ever hear from restaurant owners or chefs?
Bill Rapaport: I’ve had several owners tell me how much they appreciate the guide. Sometimes I get email from restaurateurs who want to be included. Sometimes I get responses from restaurateurs whose restaurants have been panned. I’ve also gotten a few of what my wife calls “nastygrams”, but most are complimentary.

BR: Have you ever had a restaurant ask you to take a review down?
Bill Rapaport: Yes, I have. That happened to me very recently, and I wasn’t sure what to do. The owner was upset. It was a really complicated situation, and I had a number of choices to choose from. I decided to post the ordeal on the site.
Editor’s Note: That little tale follows here, taken from Rapaport’s site.

I was contacted by the owner of a particular restaurant, complaining about the out-of-date reviews. I explained that no one had sent me any recent reviews and that all reviews were date-stamped, so that readers would realize if a review was old or relatively recent. He insisted on being removed. Note that the oldest (hence least useful) review is, indeed, quite old; but I’ve kept it because it was positive. The most recent reviews are from 2005, one good, one bad. Other readers have suggested that I delete old reviews, and, in many cases, I have, but I’m now reconsidering this practice, because I find the history and evolution of the reviews to be of interest. Several options came to mind concerning this entry: (1) I could simply delete the older reviews. (2) I could delete the entire entry, so that there would be no mention of the restaurant in the Guide; this was tempting. Of course, if someone sent in a new review–good or bad–I would publish it. (3) I could keep all the reviews on the grounds that I shouldn’t treat any restaurant differently from any other or have to accede to a disappointed owner’s request. After all, some restaurants have sent me “nastygrams”, but I’ve kept those restaurants listed, and other restaurants have called to express disappointment with their reviews and to tell me they were going to try to improve. So, as you can see, I have decided on option (3). But the owner is quite right about one of the ratings, which is based on the last time I ate there, in the 1980s; that is, indeed, too old, so I’ve deleted the 2-star rating I had given it.

BR: Do you consider yourself a food critic?
Bill Rapaport: I’m not so much a food critic as I am a quasi-blog editor. Before the blog, when the guide was on paper, I really only wanted to promote Buffalo and its good food.

BR: Do you feel that Buffalo food culture has changed since the site launched? If so, in what way?
Bill Rapaport: I’d like to see more seafood restaurants, but I’m pleased that there are a lot more high-quality restaurants now than there were 20 years ago. And a great deal more “ethnic” restaurants- Indian, Thai, etc. I remember joking in the early 80s about how a certain Indian restaurant was the best one in Buffalo; it was also the only one. That’s changed considerably.

BR: Do you have a favorite cuisine, or do you have a favorite meal?
Bill Rapaport: I love Chinese, Indian, Thai, and French cuisines. I have no single favorite meal, though there have been some highly memorable dinners, such as one I had at Tsunami. When I eat out, I tend to avoid items that I can just as easily prepare at home, such as most steak, chicken, or pasta dishes. I don’t eat seafood at home (my wife is not a fan), so I tend to eat that a lot when I eat out. I wouldn’t call myself a “gourmet” (there are some foods I simply will not eat because I find them disgusting–bleu cheese, for example–and I haven’t found any real Japanese food that I like), and I’m not into wine at all. But these are all merely personal tastes. I’m not concerned that it colors the reviews in the guide, simply because most of the reviews come from readers.

BR: What are your favorite city restaurants?
Bill Rapaport: I list my favorites in the guide with descriptions. There are lots of restaurants that other readers love that I just haven’t had a chance to try (my wife and I don’t eat out that often, actually), so the lack of “Bill Rapaport stars” on some restaurants in the guide is in no way a comment on them, but merely reflects the fact that I haven’t had a chance to eat there. I will say that I find it pretty amazing that there are some restaurants (which I won’t name) that have received uniformly bad reviews yet remain open.

BR: Is there anything else that you’d like people to know about you, the site, or your take on our region’s collective dining opportunities/experiences?

Bill Rapaport: I welcome reviews from anyone and everyone, as long as folks give me their full name and a
re not in any way obviously related to the owner of the restaurant being reviewed. That’s often hard to prevent, but I figure I get enough reviews to compensate for the occasional “plant”. I enjoy the occasional rant about how bad some restaurant is, especially when it’s followed by another reviewer telling me how wonderful the place is; I think these kinds of debates make the guide more fun to read. Buffalo is a great place to live (and eat), and I’m happy to do my small part to promote it.


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