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28th April

First Published in The New York Sun, April 28, 2006

By Andrew Wolf

In a county with of one of the nation’s sickest economies, the Bronx president, Adolfo Carrion, Jr., has come up with a plan to jump start one local industry segment, the borough’s restaurants. Mr. Carrion is utilizing a tactic that is not unfamiliar to the Bronx Democratic Party machine: he is trying to “fix” an election.

The election in question is the annual Zagat survey, the poll that asks those dining at restaurants which ones they like or dislike and why. Mr. Carrion and his government-funded “Bronx Tourism Council” (yes, there is such a thing), are distributing thousands of cards in the borough’s restaurants urging people to vote for their favorites. Prominently featured is the fact that casting a vote earns you a free copy of the local Zagat guide.
This is the second year that Mr. Carrion has adopted this strategy. It paid off last year when the number of restaurants listed from the Bronx more than doubled, 25 from 12. This is out of more than 2,000 restaurants listed in the guide. But artificially encouraged voting predictably results in equally artificial outcomes.
According to last year’s guide, Roberto’s Restaurant in the Arthur Avenue “Little Italy” section of the borough finished in a tie as the city’s best Italian eatery. Out of a scale of 30 for quality of food, Roberto’s Bronx aficionados gave them a score of 27, equal to Mario Batali’s Babbo, and Il Mulino in Greenwich Village. Lidia Bastianich’s flagship restaurant, Felidia, an eatery of international renown, only managed a score of 25. In my mind, a more realistic equivalent to Roberto’s might be Rao’s in East Harlem, rated by the tougher overall audience at just 21.

I’m not demeaning Roberto’s. It is a great place, one of the city’s best to be sure. But not THE best.
Similarly, Jake’s Steak House on Broadway, just outside of Riverdale, and a favorite haunt of Mr. Carrion, is rated at 24, the same as The Palm, and just one step below Sparks. Jake’s is a fabulous place. But let’s get real here.

Mr. Carrion’s efforts to promote his borough, which have been recognized by Zagat in the introduction to the current volume, is at one level laudable. It is after all his job to promote the economy of his borough. But there is a better, and more honest way.That is by actually improving the economy by encouraging business formation. The more disposable income that is generated here will naturally encourage more eateries to open.This is exactly what is happening in Brooklyn.

Restaurant ratings are important. The Zagat method has a bit of the element of a popularity contest, but that aspect is counter-balanced by the huge sample of diners who participate. That isn’t the case in the Bronx, which explains the skewed results. Zagat editors don’t seem concerned about Mr. Carrion’s campaign. Tim Zagat happily toured the borough’s eateries with the president. Mr. Carrion is helping them build their brand awareness.

Mr. Carrion is using spin to cover up his failure to build the Bronx’s economic base. After all, this is a borough with nearly a million-an-a-half residents, yet no hotel in which you would allow your Aunt Mathilda to stay.

Recently, I typed into an online travel database a query for hotel in the Bronx. I got back a list of hotels only one of which was located in the borough, Howard Johnson’s Hotel on West Farms Square.This is situated in a neighborhood that few out-of-towners would feel comfortable walking through, particularly at night. Everything else on the list was out of the Bronx.

Three years ago, while vacationing in Italy, my wife and I visited the small town of Soriso for a memorable lunch at a three star eatery there, Al Sorriso.This town has a population of 770. Had we opted for dinner and wanted to stay in Soriso overnight, we could have booked one of the eight charming rooms above the restaurant.

That means that the town of Soriso with its tiny population offers exactly eight more quality hotel rooms than the borough of the Bronx with a population nearly two thousand times greater.

Rather than stuff the Zagat ballot box, Mr. Carrion would better serve his constituents by stuffing the business community with incentives to locate here, the first of which being tax breaks. Maybe a waiver of the sales tax on restaurant tabs and overnight hotel stays in this, the poorest of the state’s 62 counties, would be a good start.

© 2006 The New York Sun, One, SL, LLC. All rights reserved.

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