Ask the expert
Expert in All Things Edible: A Conversation with Janice Okun

By Maria Scrivani

When it comes to food, everyone is a critic.

It isn’t just that everybody eats, but food has become such a hot topic—economically, geopolitically, and healthwise. If it’s edible or oenological, opinions abound. In Western New York, the real expert, hands down, is Janice Okun, who’s served for more than three decades as food critic of the Buffalo News. Both revered and feared, the former home economist dishes up her favorite topic, always with a side of humor:

How do you get better service in a restaurant?
Ask for it, simply and quietly. If you don’t like where you’re sitting, for example, politely inquire if there’s another table. Don’t sit there fuming, for heaven’s sake!

How has the restaurant scene changed locally over the years?
What’s become worse is the economics of running a restaurant. Lots of great little places seem to close suddenly because the owners don’t have deep pockets. But most of the changes have been positive—the variety and quality of restaurants here is tremendous. It’s a great scene for consumers, with great choices at, for the most part, reasonable prices.

Besides good food, what are some signs of a well-run restaurant?
Some of it is obvious: is the place clean? What about lighting—is it dim because it’s romantic, or because there’s no money to pay the electric bill? Real turn-offs include dirty menus (Is that gravy? Do you want to know? How hard is it to make sure the menu stays neat and tidy?), and waiting a long time for someone to notice you. You should be greeted promptly when you come in.

What makes a good bartender?
He or she should know what they’re doing. They should be sensitive to people’s moods. The really good ones have been around for a while, so experience definitely counts.

If you were appointed Czarina of Food and Dining here, what would you change?
Restaurants would stop copying each other. Enough with the calamari. Enough with the bruschetta. Try some unusual foods. Prepare the old standards in unusual ways. And I would encourage restaurants to do a lot more with local food. [Okun would also outlaw misspellings on menus (“It’s sherbet, not sherbert!”) and poorly trained servers. On the other side of the table, she takes to task patrons who linger too long on busy nights. “A certain sensitivity to people waiting is what’s needed … it’s not squatters’ rights, after all.]

These are tight times. Any advice for local diners seeking the best value?
No doubt we’ll be seeing more specials—two-for-one and half-off coupons … And I always suggest you look beyond the entrees—check out the appetizers, salads, small plates. This is where restaurants can really shine.

Writer Maria Scrivani is a native of Buffalo with an interest in local history and people who make a difference.


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