How Anthony Bourdain Blew It On Buffalo & The Rust Belt

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Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations
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Up until recently, we were fans of Anthony Bourdain - we've read his books, watched his TV show No Reservations, and enjoyed his "we'll do things differently" attitude. He's the sort of guy who likes to cover a city like Seattle by deliberately ignoring Starbucks, and instead going to the Russian bakery a few doors down. So last January, he came to Buffalo to tape a segment, and today, he released the episode titled "Rust Belt" several hours after posting a blog post on what was to come: "tonight's episode celebrates that particularly American character," he said, "who proudly survives and thrives in places like late era Baltimore, Detroit and Buffalo." What exactly was that supposed to mean, we wondered? The show is "about places where the American dream has fallen a little short," explained the Manhattan-based Bourdain, calling all three places "fine, noble and deeply troubled American cities" in his blog. Then the show started, and he expanded upon this point: they're "three of the most f'ed up cities in America," he said, several times in different variations, each with the profanity bleeped. Deeply troubled? "F'ed up?" We can't speak for Detroit or Baltimore, but Buffalo? Really?

In past shows, the sense of Bourdain as Mr. Cool - the ex-junkie chef gone good - has been cultivated with exotic backdrops, knowing glances, and team-ups with people who guide him to places supposedly regarded as the best in town. This episode felt oddly different to us, though as a friend from Chicago suggested, it's illustrative of what a No Reservations show feels like when your city is being visited. In the Rust Belt episode, Bourdain and his single sweater didn't actually stop by any of Buffalo's best places. Instead, the show had a cinematic objective: after that withering introduction, it was going to show the rough parts of three cities in mid-winter, then end each segment on an upbeat note.

Thus, the second-largest city in New York appeared in the third of three segments, described as the "frosty, mostly forgotten end of New York State." Opening his coverage on Buffalo, Bourdain initially made several hopefully insincere references to the person who brought him here, Nelson Starr, as "kind of disturbing" and apparently crazy, punctuated with a slo-mo of Starr calling himself "your biggest fan, man." All in good fun, right? Then, as noted in our prior articles, he stopped by Ulrich's Tavern for some liver dumpling soup and - less than enthusiastically - chicken wings, inexplicably took a snowmobile ride to a pig barbecue, and in his only real local culinary discovery, praised the egg nog and Beef on Weck at Schwabl's. Why Schwabl's? Because "most Buffalonians agree that the best Beef on Weck is to be found at Schwabl's restaurant," he says. Not really, but that doesn't matter, right? It's just television. He then closes the segment with a visit to watch Starr perform at a nightclub, enthusiastically praises both working man Starr and Buffalo's nice people, and exits the club to a gathering of groupies who heard that he was in town. Why did he visit these places? Because he was brought there. That's Buffalo. And that's enough of Buffalo for the show.

As we're familiar with Bourdain's writings and television shows, it's easy to understand why he feels a city like Buffalo merits "Rust Belt" style coverage. Based in Manhattan when he's not roaming the globe or hunting for a house in Vietnam, he is unapologetically in love with an old, pre-Giuliani New York that has been slipping away, and hates modern chains - "TGI McFunster's," among them - which his punk rock TV persona has blamed for sanitizing everything from the former cesspool Times Square to the city's old ethnic neighborhoods. New York may be called "the City of Broken Dreams," but Bourdain thinks it's God's favorite place in America. And sure, the hot dogs may be laughable, but it's a nice enough place to visit.

That said, we wouldn't want to live there. Western New York may share with Baltimore and Detroit "the wreckage of a million Horatio Alger stories," as Bourdain put it in this episode, but Buffalo and its suburbs today are home to hundreds of thousands of happy Americans - ones with big and small success stories of their own. People here get to raise their families in actual homes rather than the apartment complexes Manhattanites scrape for. We have cars, because we want them, love the freedom they bring, and can afford to park them where we live. And we love our food. Buffalo's wings are internationally famous. There are a dozen other local specialties here - food and drink alike - that aren't as well-known, but should be. Plus, we have the best supermarkets in the country, nationally rated as such, and enough money left over in our budgets to actually shop at them.

Maybe one of these days, Mr. Bourdain, and hopefully sooner rather than later, you'll get a chance to visit again. Perhaps at that point you'll realize that at least one of the cities you visited isn't any more "deeply troubled" than the one you live in. Every city - even yours - has rough neighborhoods. Some are more impacted by them than others. And very few cities are as large as your home. Buffalo is amongst only a handful of American cities that prizes both its indigenous fare and its ethnic restaurants. It also has an appreciation for all things mom and pop that has helped small family businesses to survive here at the same time as they've fallen to the wrecking balls in Manhattan.

So yes, our faith in No Reservations may have been undermined by this episode, but there's good news: we get to wake up in the morning in a place that we love, warts and all. Some might call such enthusiasm apparent craziness. That's probably because they've never lived here. Or maybe they just haven't seen the right places yet.

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Comments (27)

Andrew Z :

Nelson Starr is a joke. His Pearl Street party tonight was a joke. Visit his website and watch him mimic Bourdain's style at a couple Buffalo establishments. That's a joke.

I would definitely suggest you contact him for comment about the filming. He said at the bar tonight that he strongly discouraged the producers from focusing on many of Buffalo's German aspects, but they proceeded to keep doing such.

I think that the suburbs thing you mentioned is a touchy subject. Watch the Baltimore and Detroit footage. The inner cities all suck. But the surburbs are all flourishing, much like that of ours. This isn't the Food Network's DDD. Bourdain likes to film raw carnage. He films from angles he likes best. He films for the sake of filming, not for what is being filmed.

Matt Marcinkiewicz :

Buffalo's the third-poorest city in the country, Detroit is the poorest, and Baltimore is crime-ridden and was the site of an infamous syphilis epidemic in the '80's. Objectively, these cities deserve to be grouped together, though Baltimore does fall outside of what is traditionally referred to as the "Rust Belt". But let's focus on Buffalo, my town and yours. To me, Bourdain's treatment of Buffalo seemed fair AT WORST. Sure, there were plenty of shots of the skeletons of industry along the waterfront, but were those sites not once home to the economic heart of the area? Weren't they the reason that Buffalo was once in the top ten population-wise in the US? What were the producers supposed to do, line up dramatic stillframes of debt collecting agencies?

As for the places he visited, where do you expect him to go over the span of, what, 2 days? When you mention that he saw Starr perform "in a club", you neglect to identify which club that actually was--Nietzsche's, a venue sufficiently steeped in tradition to be worthy of consideration as "one of the best places in town", whatever that really means. To me, Ulrich's, Schwabl's (which does have arguably the best beef in town--I personally think Barbill in East Aurora does them one better, but I'd be fine with Schwabl's getting top billing--c'mon, there's no way there are more than a couple places around WNY that can top their beef on weck), and Nietzsche's combine to offer a great, if very small, representation of WNY dining and entertainment--which places would you have preferred? These are places with some significant tradition, and they're distinctive...truly the anti-chain. At the very least, Bourdain let the nation know that Willis McGahee sold Buffalo a little short with his notorious assessment of the area, heh.

Overall, there are plenty of other national figures whose depictions of Buffalo could be attacked. This was not one of them. I find Bourdain to be a pompous prick at times, but I was pretty pleased with how he portrayed Buffalo. You're kidding yourself if you think that it could be made to look much better to an outsider.

Elaine :

Spot on commentary. More proof that we can't trust many of those TV "personalities" to be more that headline seekers.

Matt: If your basic thesis is that Buffalo deserves to be depicted as a snowy, burnt-out husk of a place with occasional flashes of gold in the pan (City Hall), I think there's a perception gap between us that can't possibly be bridged. He showed up here, in Baltimore, and in Detroit in the middle of winter to film decay and stagnation. You seem to think that the images that were chosen are a "fair" representation of this area. I disagree. These aren't the scenes I, or many people, see every day - even in the winter. They're not scenes that show what this area's culture and restaurants are like for most people. No Reservations has made third-world countries look better than these three places, but then, that seemed to be the idea.

"Where do you expect him to go over the span of, what, 2 days?" I'm not sure where your magic swoop-in-and-swoop-out theory of filming comes from, but even on the assumption that he actually only had two days to spend here, most people could have come up with a better list of places. To play that hypothetical game, let's try just a few, and stick with low-end fare. Buffalo's known for its wings, so visit Duff's or the Anchor Bar. Not going to do that for some reason, because you want to be edgy? Try our pizza, which is entirely unlike the New York and Chicago style versions he's shown off; I'd recommend Bocce's, but there are other options. Need something else low brow? Okay, just stick to hot dogs and sausages, from Sahlen, Wardynski, Mineo & Sapio, etc, going to a place like Ted's, which Starr highlighted. He could have even hit loganberry at the same time. And maybe take a trip into Wegmans, the country's #1 supermarket.

By the way, lest you write those suggestions off as "too late," note that all of these places were included in the "do the city justice" letter we sent to Bourdain back in December (referenced in prior BC postings on this topic). So were two major food festivals, including the country's second-largest (Taste of Buffalo), and the famous National Buffalo Wing Festival. In other words, he had the opportunity and the knowledge to pick better, but went with the dark-of-winter, abandoned, snowy angle.

As a consequence, even on Bourdain's own blog, viewer responses to the show last night have included a lot of "you didn't present our city fairly" comments. You're obviously entitled to view it as "fair at worst" if that's what you think of this area, but many people, including us, are disappointed by the portrayal.

Adam :

Great post, Jeremy. Agree 100%!

Gregg Prince :

I love Buffalo, too, but winters are indeed long and difficult here and (taking this year into account for instance) we all spend more time in unfavorable weather than we do Spring/Summer. Also, those are indeed "...the scenes I, or many people, see every day..." ESPECIALLY in the winter. I, like many others, commute from West Seneca to downtown, either by car or bus, and travel the 190, Seneca, Clinton, William, or even sometimes Abbott or South Park with some regularity. From the bus, you get an especially good view of exactly what Bourdain went for.

Like you, I agree that Buffalo has much more to offer, but he did visit 2 of the oldest establishments in metro Buffalo. Regardless of your point of view those places are our history and represent very well both the era referred to by the term Rust Belt, as well as exemplifying the remnants of that today. Matt rightly points out our status as the 3rd (2nd by some accounts) poorest city in the nation and you only need to go a few blocks from downtown and the beloved Allentown/Elmwood neighborhoods to see that firsthand on either the east or west side, as well as the 1st ward. And let's not forget our neighbors, Lackawanna and Niagara Falls, cities which people seem to entirely disregard when mentioning the more atractive suburban communities.

Western New York is indeed a wonderful place to live (and eat!) but all is far from well and all of the cheerleading in the world doesn't fix our poverty or disfunctional government bodies. And for what it's worth, Schwabl's is a Western New York gem, one that wouldn't be out of place on Main Street in Wiliamsville or in Clarence Center or Orchard Park.

Rob Castaldo :

Reading this post it seems to me that you really aren't all that familiar with the show at all. It just seems to me as though you've completely missed the point.

While the show occasionally features fine dining, when it dedicates itself entirely to one location, it often focuses on dives and street food. While Ulrich's may not be one of the finest dining experiences in Buffalo, for many it's a great bar to hang out in and get something to eat. It's exactly the type of place I'd expect Bourdain to visit, and it's one of my favorite bars in Buffalo.

While the beef on weck at Charlie's may be better, it's not in my opinion the type of place that he's inclined to visit. Given the fact that it's turning into a ubiquitous chain with stand locations in Wegmans and attached to gas stations, it's easy to understand why he wouldn't have gone there.

As far as the depiction of Buffalo; while he showed bombed out rows of empty houses in the other cities, he lauded Buffalo as "beautiful" and great architecture. They showed homes that I think were located on Lincoln Parkway. He could have filmed the Fruit Belt, but he chose to film elsewhere. On the whole, I think Buffalo came across much better than Baltimore and Detroit. He even made note on his blog that for him Buffalo, "Like Cleveland, it's become a sentimental favorite"

Sure, he showed the grain silos located along our horribly under utilized waterfront, but if you expected him to spend his time wandering Albright Knox, having brunch at Left Bank, or Dining at Oliver's you really don't get what his show is about.

I'm glad he didn't waste his time on wings. Like he said, if you want to know about the wings ask Al F'ing Roker.

Gregg: Agreed 1000% on the government comment. Probably 5000%. And no one who lives here is blind to the reality that there are many things yet to be fixed in Buffalo. It's universal truth, accepted and admitted by anyone you'd ask, in the city or any suburb. That goes without saying.

That said, No Reservations didn't film its Los Angeles show in South Central, its New York show(s) in Harlem, or its Chicago show on the South Side. In the middle of dreary weather conditions. Focusing on really old places and blowing snow is comparatively shallow and myopic.

Note also that Buffalo has award-winning and otherwise noteworthy restaurants even in its messed-up neighborhoods. (See the Golden Fork Awards for some examples.) Age is not a proxy for greatness.

Rob: We've obviously watched the show and know what it's about. But there was a slant here - the sort of bias that deems a second- or third-world country as "exotic" and the city next door as "deeply troubled" and "f'ed up."

And to avoid Charlie's "[g]iven the fact that it's turning into a ubiquitous chain..." Some people would call this "success." But the original location on Wehrle is comparatively old-looking, so I'm sure No Reservations would have been thrilled to film it. For reference, they offer Beef on Weck _and_ hot dogs from both Sahlen and Wardynski there. And given that it's so close to the airport, it would have been downright easy to hit even on a rushed schedule. As with Starr's suggestion of Ted's, the places on my list are ones that are major local success stories, with reputations that extend far past the city's borders.

Cory :

I completely agree with the last post. Save the anchor bar/duff's for those tacky "fried food paradise" shows. People who are bashing the portrayal on show are missing the point. The show's aim isn't to go to every so-called "unique" food joint or fine dining establishment in town. Its to find off-the-beaten path, interesting, and in this case, foods that have endured through hard times. Buffalo is hardcore rust belt and anyone who thinks otherwise is kidding themselves. Its certainly not a bad place to live, but don't ignore the facts.

I am still trying to figure out why someone would suggest that Bourdain visit Wegmans. Bocce pizza, come on? While I didn't understand the snowy pigroast(?!), I found the overall segment to be a fair depiction of Buffalo. What I did find annoying was the number of people at Ulrich's and Nietzche's trying to get their face on TV.

Garrett :

I personally loved the episode. I have lived in inner city Baltimore 5 years, and in the Buffalo area most of the balance my life. Both very idiosyncratic places that can't be summed up in a whole episode, let alone a third of one. I thought he hit the main points of both places*. I specially liked when he told Nelson that he picked Buffalo to finish the show because of him, and his it was suggested he wasn't allowed to do an exclusively Buffalo show. He hit on the suburban winter culture that we know is the heart of the area. Maybe you don't go outside in the winter, but they had fun. And Buffalo loves a winter sports related party, whether it's at a Sabes game, a Bills tailgate, or outdoorsy. You know, he skipped the Polish Villa, but it's not that much different than the place in Detroit, which looked awesome btw. And Fish Fry Fridays should just die, plus he did Lake Trout (neither lake, nor trout) in B-more, and Whiting is just so much more No Reservations than Haddock. I don't know, I'm in Olean, but I can't name 5 places that are more representative of Buffalo than Schwabl's and Ulrich's to which I've never been too, but I loves me some Liberknodel. Fine dining isn't what the shows about. Our fine dining scene isn't really edgy or unique enough for Bourdain. Ted's is boring. I don't care enough for Bocce. When I go to Buffalo, I usually spend money in the couple solid ethnic places I know, and I don't think I can name two of any ethnicity worth visiting, except maybe Greek.

Tom :

I think that many of us who had been anticipating this episode of No Reservations have been sorely disappointed. It is simply not the depiction of the city that many of us wanted to see broadcast to the rest of the country.

We are proud of our city. We love our distinct, culturally diverse neighborhoods and certainly the endless culinary gems to be found at every corner of the city.

I think that we had hoped that Anthony Bourdain would come into town like a knight in shining armor and give us our credit where credit is long overdue. He didn't.

In our hearts and minds, we saw sweeping camera shots of Allentown and Elmwood Village. Panoramic views of the mansions on Delaware Avenue. We would have seen first hand the old-school italian feel of Hertel Avenue with its abundance of bistro's, deli's and bakeries. The waterfront, the unique architecture, the Olmstead Parks. The list goes on and on.

Old grain elevators and run down factories are not who we are. Not anymore. I for one wish we could move on and stop comparing ourselves to what we once were. That time is long gone.

We must accept the fact that Buffalo is viewed through a narrow lens by everyone who has not spent time here. I truly hope that perception changes over time, but for now, it is what it is.

Christina :

I find it amazing how Bourdain can visit impoverished countries, with unclean water and little to no health codes, speak with such high regard to the lifestyle, such as Cambodia or Vietnam (where he is currently moving his wife and daughter to live for the next year) yet spends his 'Rust Belt' episode focusing on the slums and economic disaster that he claims define Buffalo. Every US city has 'bad areas' and Buffalo is no exception; however, I fear that Mr. Bourdain has nationally, and possibly even internationally, given Buffalo a bad name, which is undeserved. Unfortunately, this will no doubt hurt our tourism industry, which we so desperately need.

Orlando Monaco :

Whatever Mr. Bourdain.. don't waist my time.. love WNY and all it has to offer.

Matt Marcinkiewicz :

Gregg: nice post
Rob: ditto

Jeremy: Wegman's? Really? Maybe if he had gone to Rochester...sure, Wegman's is a great asset to the community, and I certainly love the place, but the store is in no way unique to Buffalo. By this point, you can find your imitation Dibella's and antibiotics giveaways anywhere from the Rust Belt to the Beltway (metro DC)--and maybe further south than that, I'm not sure. So if the company was based here, then I could see a trip to Wegman's being a consideration, but since Wegman's was founded in the Rochester area, I wouldn't see the point of making a visit. And really, I don't think there's a whole lot of appeal in the investigation of grocery store culture, anyway...I know that I personally never completed (or even started) a linguistics paper for which I was charged with creating a taxonomy of the dairy aisle at Tops.

Anyway, as was said above, Ted's is relatively boring...and who wants to go there in the wintertime? Hot dogs are seasonal foods, to the point where I'm amazed that Ted's can operate year-round in the first place. But even ignoring the season, Ted's has the all the ambience of a cafeteria. Maybe it could've been a consideration if the Porter Ave. location was still open (much like how you said that the original Charlie the Butcher location could have been a destination--I agree with you on that). But really, if Bourdain was to go to a random Ted's location, he might as well go to Mighty Taco (hey, they serve loganberry there, too). Essentially, both of those places are local chains that I and many other Western New Yorkers enjoy, but neither of them are fit for an at-most-20 minute segment of No Reservations. The food is good, but they don't tell you a whole lot about local culture. And I think Bourdain did attempt to get a grasp on the culture of Buffalo (not that Nelson Starr helped him out a whole lot when he forgot to mention the Irish as a significant local ethnic group). The culture ultimately matters more than the food or drink. Ulrich's is maybe the oldest establishment in the city (and it sure looks like it is); Schwabl's is also quite old, serves a local delicacy, and can boast of a very intimate atmosphere thanks to its inability to seat more than 50ish people; and Nietzsche's has had live music every night for the last 27 years. If those aren't places that help to expose the heart and soul of the region, I don't know what are.

Lisa Lee Powers :

How many of you sent in tapes to the show for review / consideration? It takes time & iniative to do this .Why would you bash someone who is doing something positive?

Its Anthonys show , not yours an he chose what he chose. They visit multiple cities and perhaps it would be better that he skipped Buffalo all together?
No he's not coming back , he doesn't care. Lets all start treating each other with some respect instead of arguing and being so negative.

Jason :

Did he blow it? Of course. I lived in Buffalo and it's suburbs for the bulk of my life. Watching a 15 minute segment on your hometown has to be disappointing in a way. I gotta think some folks in Baltimore are damn sick of 'The Wire'.

The 'you didn't tell the whole story' and 'you forgot to show ' comments are, really, kind of invalid. There's no way 3 guys and a quarter hour can develop an appropriate tribute. The show made me hungry, and hungry to travel. I always thought that was the goal.

Matt: Many of the things Bourdain features on his shows aren't unique to just one place. Wegmans is a Western New York original, albeit a little more to the East, but let's face it - the chances of a Bourdain show on Rochester are pretty slim. And re: "grocery store culture," 3 minutes on Wegmans would have been far more interesting and worthwhile TV than, say, an examination into bare-knuckle feather bowling.

Re: Ted's, Nelson Starr's video was right to highlight the place. The hot dogs they serve are locally legendary and a hundred times better than the stuff Bourdain glorifies in New York City at places like Papaya King. Boring ambience? And you think the scene at Schwabl's is exciting? The sight of people walking down abandoned streets in Baltimore is thrilling? If it's supposed to be a show about places where locals chase good food ... without reservations ... the story of how a grilled hot dog place _could operate during winter for decades in a place with snow_ would be a really interesting story. But I suppose it's not as TV worthy as a snowmobile ride to a pig barbecue, which people around here do every winter.

One final comment on this topic: the places on my very brief list were selected specifically to meet the narrow "working man, simple food" angle that Bourdain was obviously pursuing. A list that better represented this area's culinary trends would have included something Italian like Chef's, a wings and weck place (I'd say Duff's any day), and a place like Ms. Goodies, which keeps winning awards at the Taste of Buffalo. Bourdain's angle tends to include a bar in the mix, so to keep it City of Buffalo-focused, which he didn't, swap Anchor for Duff's. Those three places would have been extremely representative of local trends, and deserving of the attention, even if they're not the most mindblowing choices.

Lisa: Actually, a lot of people (see Bourdain's blog for comments on Baltimore, especially) wish he had never come to these cities, so yes, perhaps that would have been better. Buffalo really doesn't need to be portrayed as one of the three most messed up cities in America, in an episode that will likely air for years on television, even if the episode ends with some backhanded "you're not so bad, after all" praise. I'm guessing that Nelson Starr had no idea when he optimistically submitted his video for a "do an episode on Buffalo" contest that it might lead to a "do one-third of an trainwreck cities episode on Buffalo" consequence; that's entirely Bourdain's fault, not Starr's.

Christian :

I have traveled to Buffalo and the Niagara Falls area several times over the past few years. While it is true that there are many run down areas like any big city, I have found much to love about the area and the variety of food as well. (Though on one trip I must have had at least six Beef on Weck sandwiches, all a little different, yet all tasty!) Also having been in Buffalo when it is warm, this is the best time to visit as the city comes alive with people walking about everywhere. Visit a booming metropolis like Chicago in the dead of winter and it looks like an abandoned ghost town as well. After watching Anthony Bourdain’s Rust Belt episode, I was disappointed as it portrays Buffalo poorly and the place I know a Buffalo is far better. Again just like any big city, you just have to know where to go. One thing that has impressed me about the city is the US pride shown in the vehicles driven!

I've been following this mostly sad discussion over here for days just biting my tongue. I really have always admired this site and the reviews are invaluable. However, I think that BuffaloChow has blown it!!! ...not only in their rather self-serving panning of the No Reservations show but also in their way-outside-the-bell-curve of public opinion slamming of Schwabl's. ...which is just very transparently biased and from left-field. In fact, the bias against both of these entities, connected to a program (No Reservations) that BuffaloChow actually lobbied to accompany Tony on a food tour of Buffalo (to no avail), that you did not disclose in your article slamming No Reservations, was an act of NON - disclosure that hurts your otherwise fine reputation as food bloggers/journalists. And, sorry I didn't go to Charlie the Butcher and wherever else you deemed better. That seems like a lot of childishness and sour grapes to me. As for the surprise over the aesthetical choice of Tony Bourdain to cover the three cities in a way that corresponds to his own personal shtick, the ethos of his show, and his punk-rock instincts, I think that all the critics here should've known better. It's as if you don't watch the show...? That's what Tony does, period. Tony's style is very consistent, and for folks to expect him to do a presentation that is not fitting with his "f----- up" style, is just naive. ...a categorical error really.

Anyway, there is much more that could be said here, that I planned to say, but I think the praise and love FOR Buffalo that this program generated obviates, prima facia, this entirely speculative discussion about how "hurt" Buffalo is by this program. The program has and will do nothing but GOOD for Buffalo for years to come except in the minds of an overly vocal minority who feels compelled by some strange force or insecurity to view it as dire. Below are REAL notes that have been sent to me or posted that show a swelling of support. [Editor's Note: This and the profanity above had to be removed; sorry, take his word for it.] Look, some people get it, some people don't. How many of you critics and haters can say that something you've done lately has helped people feel they need to move back to Buffalo??

Paranoia may destroy ya,
Nelson Starr

Nelson: To be very clear and unambiguous about this point, your suggestion that "BuffaloChow actually lobbied to accompany Tony on a food tour of Buffalo," and suggestion that we secretly did not disclose such a thing, is completely untrue.

Our coverage of this episode has been transparent and honest from the very start. A January article on the show's arrival in Buffalo said explicitly:

"After reading that Buffalo would be sharing a spotlight with two other cities - Detroit and Baltimore - and that No Reservations would be filming our city in the style of Vincent Gallo's Buffalo 66, we penned a somewhat concerned letter to Bourdain and No Reservations' production company in early December. In it, we encouraged them to portray the city in a positive light, and visit Duff's, Charlie the Butcher's, Bocce, and Wegmans."

This letter, mentioned again on Buffalo Chow this past week, was the only thing we sent to No Reservations' producer - and as noted, there was never a response. There was no lobbying for inclusion in the show in any way, shape, or form. We have, as noted before, read Bourdain's books and watched No Reservations, but had no interest in being participants.

Our hope, expressed simply and explicitly in the letter, was very simply that Buffalo's many local food specialties would be done justice, and that a nightmare scenario - Bourdain showing up and having a Romania-like experience where he had second- or third-rate renditions of the food, or portrayed the city as a dump - would be avoided. The concern was based on his blog, which as noted above mentioned that he was intending to depict the city in "Vincent Gallo" style alongside Detroit and Baltimore.

Opinions on the episode that followed have been truly mixed. No one appears to believe that Buffalo came off looking like a fantastic food destination. Some people believe that it was depicted fairly. Other people, including us, believe that it was not, and that this might have been avoided if he had visited or at least depicted better places. Without any effort, he could have filmed the Mansion on Delaware, a nationally top-ranked hotel, where his web site shows that he stayed, or the MGM Grand in Detroit. The "stay at the 5-star hotel but show people the slums" sentiment has been echoed by people in Detroit and Baltimore, who have expressed themselves loudly through a variety of message boards, including Bourdain's own blog:

And Buffalonians have done the same, with comments here, on Buffalo Rising ( ), and elsewhere.

Having said that, I personally do not blame you for the quality of the program; the choices that were made to portray the cities as "f'ed up" were unquestionably Bourdain's, and the enthusiasm you showed for bringing him here is commendable. Similarly, the emotional investment you have in seeing the show understood as beneficial to Buffalo is understandable. But all the arguing in the world - or calling people who disagree with your perception "dolts" and "tools," as you have elsewhere - isn't going to make people believe that what they saw was actually positive coverage for the city. In our view, and theirs, it wasn't. It was a great episode for Nelson Starr and Schwabl's, not so much for everything else.

Nelson Starr :


Thanks for clarifying the nature of your relationship, or lack thereof, with the production. Still, you sought to influence the production and steer him to places YOU deemed the best in the city, and when neither transpired, it was sour grapes all 'round. That's how it comes off to me.

I laud your attempt to educate Tony on matters of taste and food, and myself for that matter. Obviously, your acumen for such matters is far more refined. But, as I've stated repeatedly with no response from anyone, whether or not Tony went to Charlie the Butcher or Schwabl's - and who is better - is an entirely subjective matter. Clearly, they both have their supporters - and people can rationally disagree about which is better. Why that should be the source of so much enmity is beyond me. It's childish, it's chocolate versus vanilla, period. ...or Stones versus Beatles, if you will. It's as if I took Tony to Arby's for heck's sake! Both restaurants are approximately at the same echelon, so why it should be such a travesty that I took him to "that one" is, again, irreconcilable with common sense reasonability.

I would also like to add that, Tony's show is not and has never been about who has the BEST anything. It's not a contest. And no one website should value its opinion, no matter how informed it may be, so much as to ascribe to itself the status of final arbiter-in-chief of a contest that doesn't exist (except in one's own mind). Simply because you have disdain for Schwabl's and their excessively long bathroom lines (one of the most bizarro complaints I've ever heard, precisely because it's obviously an extreme red herring), you might have some humility to acknowledge that...reasonable people can and do differ.

On the point of food, there is a misperception that Tony's show is a "food show", per se. It's most certainly not. No Reservations is a show really about ...Tony... his travels, exploits and, yes, food. Food is an emphasis, it's clearly the main one at an obvious level. However, there is much to be argued that the show is a travel and culture show with an emphasis on food. Or even more accurately, a travel and food show where food functions as the gateway or driver to revealing larger truths about the destinations Tony visits - and the people and cultures that reside there. ...and always how Tony is transformed by riding that learning curve!

As is evident from the very episode being disputed here, there is almost always a larger narrative, aesthetic and ethos, that food merely serves to propel (ie the "Rustbelt", and all that portends, for better or for worse). Tony is a literate guy, he's trying to "say something" beyond "hey, this beef is perfect". He's attempting to do social criticism, lite-anthropology, philosophy, you name it... all in a fun way that can fit in a one hour TV show for the masses.

And when he comes to America, he has a dog, his dog, in the fight. His personal biases, his quirks and predilections, are GOING TO BE on full display. I repeat, the show is about HIM, his philosophy about life, food, and place. You take it or leave it!

No Reservations is, by it's design, necessarily 100% honest and true, again, by it's very nature, for he never claims to be showing you anything other than his personal subjective, booze-fueled stumble through this or that place, with this or that Joe or Sally, that just so happens to interest HIM. Food is really just a big excuse to shoot his mouth off about his grand or puny notions of life itself. So, whether he went to THE BEST places, or whether his selections portrayed a fair and balanced view, really, really, really, misses the point. And I have to laugh - how can people be surprised by all this when it is so evident that this is what the show is, does, and has always been, about!!?

But sure, food is extremely important to the show, duh???!! But it's also about TV or dare I say film (OK, hi-def video)? I really stand by the statement I wrote at the Travel Channel, "Alas, these restaurants have the visual and culinary feel and aesthetic that worked for what Tony was trying to "say". Schwabl's was especially perfect in this regard and was clearly the best match for a No Reservations shoot out of any WNY Beef joint. It's not ALL about food folks. It's about a much larger artistic presentation." That statement, which was only to state the obvious, and for which I got made fun of - that this is a visual medium (TV!) in which cinematography is actually equally as important as anything else(their 3 Emmy nods this season for that very category are a testament to that fact!) - is practically tautological, and thus a given . I only got it wrong by omitting, "...philosophical, and critical presentation and expression". ...because it's even so much more than visual...! And it being TV, there are numerous other considerations that need to be made, the first being "time".

Plainly, there was not enough time at all to cover, "Duff's, Charlie the Butcher's, Bocce, and Wegmans". The only restaurant he covered with any amount of detail was Scwabl's, the rest of it was practically montage. Secondly, Tony always does, since the beginning, a "sports" type piece, we did that. That ate up time. The rest of the time was a shout out to me for, in Tony's words, "inspiring the whole Rustbelt Episode" (paraphrased) and Tony's pet picks for feel and atmosphere...thus art.

Again, what can one say to mollify the disappointed? I guess be glad you got what you got. We're sorry it didn't conform to the list some people devised and sent in prior. We're sorry that some people quibble with our beef choice. We're sorry that Buffalo got Tony excited about the things that Tony get's excited about instead of, say great grocery stores and stuff that makes others heat up (and like grain elevators and row houses versus Frank Lloyd Wright). We apologize for Tony's weird tastes that are so ...what he's always been about since he burst on the scene. We're sorry that Tony's tastes in food and culture are not as "progressive" and uplifting as yours are. We're sorry that the Travel Channel only allowed the segment 15 minutes and only allowed Tony to do a 3 city, one episode show. We're sorry that Tony digs dives and dumps - like the Buffalo places that have barely survived (but have!) for over a hundred years, still serving Buffalo styled fare to packed houses. We're sorry that's not good enough.

Actually, for the record... no, we're not sorry. And certainly not sorry that this is my last post.

Okay, and we is me,
Nelson Starr

Nelson: It goes without saying that it's his show, and he can put anything he wants on it. He doesn't have to feature anything we suggested, or you suggested, or a tourism board suggested, and it is obvious that he marches to the beat of his own drummer. Sometimes, the "pick one tour guide" concept works out and everyone's happy, other times, it doesn't.

Our letter was intended simply to suggest some options. At the end of the day, so long as the city was fairly depicted, we (and others) would have been very happy.

Ultimately, the production is being judged by (most) people solely on the fairness of the complete picture it presented: "does this really show what people should expect to find in Baltimore?" "Detroit?" "Buffalo?" You and some people think it does, we and other people think it doesn't. Let's leave it at that.

One final point: this really isn't a case of Charlie the Butcher versus Schwabl's, and we uniformly reject any suggestion of bias on this point. We're not involved with either of these businesses (or any other), and have no stake in the outcome. Note that even our letter to Bourdain & Co. did not say that there was only one place to visit for Beef on Weck; to the contrary:

"Caraway seeds and salt top this roast beef sandwich's special, only locally available bun, and the meat inside - when properly served, as it is at certain local places - is amazing. It has been a local favorite for decades."

No specific place was named; a link to Charlie's was provided as an example. So it was acknowledged that there were multiple places to get this great sandwich. But there's probably only one or two that also serve a "highly alcoholic Buffalonian version of egg nog known as a Tom & Jerry."

Anyway, peace, and happy eating and drinking to you.

Rob Castaldo :


You and the few other people that feel as though the show fails to "really show what people should expect to find in Baltimore?" "Detroit?" "Buffalo?" continue to miss the point. The show was never intended to provide that, and to expect that from a 15 minute segment seems foolish.

I really can't fathom why that's so difficult to understand? It's just not what "No Reservations" is about. Especially in the context of the show titled "Rust Belt". It's like being upset that the Easter Bunny neglected to bring you Christmas gifts.

It can't be stated anymore simply than the way Tony referenced it in his blog, or more thoroughly than the detail in which Nelson describes it.

If you should be disappointed in anything, perhaps it should be your expectations.

Mark :

Nelson makes some very good points and should be commended for his efforts to bring in AB and show him some of the area.

By the way, to many of the haters out there, pig roasts even in winter are big in the area. Perhaps you did not have one with muffy and biff after attending the blue blood schools, but in a good portion of the area, especially the southtowns, pig roasts are the thing.

And if you watched the show you would realize it is not really a food show but a travel show that talks about the local people, what they do, and yes, the food they eat. So to those who say it is just a food show it just goes to show that you really don't watch the show, but probably tuned in to watch it after hearing Buffalo was going to be on it. I consider it more a travel show and one man's diary of his travels that highlights the local food.

To those who think AB pictured too much blight, I don't think he did, considering Buffalo, no matter how great we all think it is, has the 2nd HIGHEST rate of poverty among any major American city. Now if you never leave the suburb of Amherst or the Elmwood Strip (it is not a village, sorry), you might never know that. But venture out, drive down Genesee, Sycamore, Woodlawn or even Elk & Seneca Streets and you will see boarded up buildings and abject poverty. Then again, its tough seeing that when you are ordering a grande cappucino from one of the many coffee shops in the nice areas.

Finally, if you know the Buffalo Music scene you not only have heard of Nelson Starr but should realize how blessed we are to have someone of his talents in our town. If you have done work with local not profits you might have heard of Nelson Starr from the countless hours he volunteered in the past. If you sit on you a$$ drinking lattes or eating at the latest fashionable restaurant (here today, gone tomorrow) and complaining about the world without doing anything about it you probably criticized him here.

To Nelson: great job getting AB to Buffalo and good luck with the music career. And to Anthony Bourdain if he should read this blog: nice episode as it revealed a bunch of interesting sidenotes and good food from major American cities that are not humdrum strip malls and Applebees.

Rob, we (and the many other people who have commented on this topic elsewhere) have watched plenty of No Reservations, and we know what the show is about, so please don't try to make this into a "you get it, we don't" sort of conversation. Your basic argument seems to be that if a show is titled "three junk places," it's okay to stay at nice, cushy hotels in three cities, then show footage that depicts them all as old and worn down. You have suggested that the show is "about" this sort of thing - providing slivers of life that, especially in the base of Baltimore, would literally scare most people away.

Your perspective is what it is. Comments from TV critics, foodies, and unaffiliated citizens here, on Bourdain's site, Buffalo Rising, and elsewhere, suggest that there's a very decided split of opinion on this topic. You've had your chance to trivialize other people as living in a fantasy land because they don't agree with you. Acknowledge that reasonable people can disagree and move on.

Brian Horvath :

The two camps can be summarized:

Camp 1 - Would have said the show was great no matter what its content was. This camp includes Nelson Starr.

Camp 2 - Knew the joke was on them from the first minute of segment dialogue.

Burnt pig? Chicken wings he didn't even often does he not eat what is offered? Anyway, I'm banned from BRO, but at least it's good to know that some folks still just don't just grin and bear it without some push back. You don't get credit for trying in the real world, you have to have some type of success. Unless of course you confine yourself to the EV and square mile of inhabitale space in Buffalo.

Lin :

I finally saw the episode yesterday, having just returned from a trip, to Buffalo of all places. As a former resident and frequent visitor, I was disappointed for two reasons. First, it was too short: 10 minutes is not enough time to do more than make a tiny scratch in the surface of anyplace. Secondly, it was one person's view of the area. Now that may be due to the lack of time, but the Baltimore and Detroit segments had more than one native guide. This is not a knock on Nelson Starr: everybody has a different opinion on what's the best in the area to show off to visitors (I'd take him to see the Buffalo Psychiatric Center and the McKinley assassination site, but I'm sure those don't appeal to everyone).

From a non-native's perspective it wasn't too bad: my husband, a former Alabamian who has come to appreciate the marvel that is beef on weck, thought it made the city look interesting. Anyone who's been there and had the courage to visit anyplace other than a chain knows there's good food in Buffalo: the problem is getting people to come to the area in the first place. If the local visitors bureaus had any smarts maybe they'd use the footage of the winter sports to the region's advantage.

When did pig fries get big? I've been away a long time, but I do visit semiannually and keep up with some local blogs, and these are news to me. How does one get invited?

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