I don’t often do this, but there’s a web site that has had me absolutely infuriated lately, and it has done for weeks. Some changes that they make to their site has a direct impact on many of our subscribers, thanks to an unfixable WordPress glitch that I’ll explain momentarily, and the extra work that this site creates for me, in turn, creates aggravations for our readers. The baffling part is that I am livid with the actions of a site that I have spent years praising and recommending. It’s Roadfood.com, of all places, probably one of the last places on the internet about which you’d expect me to get a hackle raised.
“Roadfood” was coined by Michael and Jane Stern almost forty years ago, and I suspect that every single person who regularly reads Marie, Let’s Eat! would enjoy their work if they haven’t found it already. The Sterns have been living the life that we, and many of you good readers, I believe, would love to have. They drive around the country and eat and report back on regional treats and local favorites and out-of-the-way restaurants, sharing stories and having fun. They made their way to prominence via magazine and syndicated newspaper articles, and a series of terrific guidebooks. Any “flaws” in their work are really minor, and probably down to the reader’s own biases and perceptions. They have done fantastic work, led us to at least a couple of dozen terrific meals, and, through their branded website and forum, made us lots of internet acquaintances and friends. I check it daily and post there frequently.
I noticed a problem not long after we started our blog. People with long memories may recall that Marie and I hoped to visit every single Roadfood-reviewed restaurant in Georgia, with just two exceptions – one we know (it’s in the Atlanta suburbs) and do not like and do not wish to include at our blog, and one up in the mountains has such a solid negative reputation for every aspect of itself (excepting Roadfood.com’s review) that I simply don’t feel like risking a two-hour drive and a forty dollar meal just to say we’ve got a full set. Still, we did well before we got distracted with other, more fun goals like Buford Highway and regularly breaking bread with our fellow bloggers. As of today, we’ve got 29 of 33 Georgia restaurants under our belt.
The problem is, that number keeps changing.
In January 2011, Melear’s Barbecue in Fayetteville closed after a very respectable run of 52 years. We did not make it there before they shuttered. The overwhelming opinion was that the venerable place was no longer what it was. The sadly-retired blogger 3rd Degree Berns gave it a particularly harsh review in March of 2010.
I don’t remember the exact numbers, but I became aware that Roadfood.com was purging its own site when they “archived” their review of Melear’s. This is the fate of restaurants that close. Their page vanishes. At the time there were, say, 31 restaurants to tackle for our goal and we’d done maybe fourteen of them. Every once in a while, I’d visit the Georgia restaurants page (it’s here, if you would like to see it) to see whether they’d added any new reviews for places that we needed to add to our own to-do list. (Fat Matt’s, Manuel’s Tavern, and Village Burger are all restaurants that Roadfood.com added after we started our blog, for instance.)
So I popped by one day in early 2011 expecting to see 31 restaurants, at least, on the list and there were only 30. It took me ages to figure out which one had vanished. This really, really left a bad taste in my mouth. They call it archiving, but it feels like purging, in a rewriting-history way. Some of those reviews and photos are better than others – at their best, they are downright wonderful – and it never occurred to me before that Roadfood.com was simply deleting access to this sense of history. I’ll come back to this point, but let me speak selfishly before speaking of the more important picture.
Unless I’m misremembering, the only other Roadfood.com restaurants in Georgia to shutter since we launched the blog in 2010 are The Georgia Pig in Brunswick, and Harold’s Barbecue in Atlanta. Our regular readers know that, when feasible, we include a small number of links to other blog posts about the restaurants that we’ve featured. When anybody deletes their blog or restructures their URLs or purges the page, it creates dead links. Since Marie and I aspire to having accurate information, I clean up dead links as we come across them or as readers report them. Since there’s some idiot design flaw in WordPress that doesn’t let us fiddle with an old entry without “republishing” it, then we have to employ a silly workaround that works most of the time, but any (newer) subscriber who never received the entry for, say, the Georgia Pig before might suddenly get this old entry in their feed or box because we had to remove the link to Roadfood.com.
As problems go, it’s a minor one, sure. Seems to aggravate a subscriber or two, which is why I keep the fiddling with old entries to a minimum. Aggravates the heck out of me, mind.
Look, it’s one thing if I link to somebody’s personal blog and they decide sometime later that they don’t want to have that on the internet anymore. That happens. But this isn’t some bored undergraduate’s time-waster, Roadfood.com is a recognizable brand that is built around history. It’s why, if you get a chance to interview us, or if we make a personal appearance or something – last month, I gave a lecture to students at the Galloway School in Atlanta about regional cuisines and blogging and stuff – I will recommend Roadfood and Chopped Onion and the works of Calvin Trillin, and John T. Edge and the Southern Foodways Alliance. This sense of history is really important, and the people and organizations who preserve it should be celebrated. Purging it, or, sorry, “archiving” it, is wrong.
This is why, when the image below showed up at Roadfood.com, my heart skipped a beat and smacked straight into a wall.
Pilgreen’s, which called itself “The T-Bone King,” opened in 1932 and closed in 2003. It was one of my dad’s favorite restaurants, particularly because they had a bartender who, he claimed, made the finest martini in Atlanta. They briefly flirted with opening other locations. They all failed, save one, in McDonough, a suburb south of the city. It’s still there, in the clubhouse of a golf and tennis community of all places. A few months before Marie and I married, we rode down there with my parents for an evening of nostalgia and pretty good steaks and a martini that did not meet Dad’s complete approval, but he enjoyed the night anyway.
Now, over at Roadfood’s main page, apart from various bits of news and polls and things, there’s a rotating selection of links to reviews from the site. Something hiccuped on May 22 and threw up this photo of the Pilgreen’s sign and a quickie blurb, along with a dead link to the no-longer-existent review. So perhaps “archived” is indeed accurate; the site’s software can find these pages and spotlight them, but they are not publicly accessible.
You’re probably wondering why in the world Roadfood.com purges – no, I like that more than “archives” – the pages. Earlier today, I noticed that the site was announcing that a restaurant in Patterson, New York called Magnolia’s has closed, and I protested the planned purge of its review. Bruce Bilmes (whom I believe is one of the site’s administrators) answered “I’d also like to see a section of site reserved for reviews like these but, until that happens, we really have to archive them. People do visit the Roadfood database to find places to eat and we don’t want to lead anyone astray.” I had heard that reply – slash – excuse many months previously, but could not quote it. Now that I can, I’d like to answer that it is balderdash.
I know all about visiting the Roadfood database to find places to eat. 29 in Georgia, plus two that’ve closed, along with at least another dozen in Alabama, South Carolina and Tennessee, yeah, I know all about that. You know what I also know? I know how to pick up a telephone and call a business to confirm their hours before I make a drive. You can’t depend on anybody’s web page or Facebook (ahem, Crazy Cuban) to give an honest answer as to whether a place will be open. Sometimes, you can’t even depend on a telephone either (ahem, Back Porch BBQ of Jackson, Alabama). (Or, well, you should probably make your phone calls the week before your trip and not two months before, because their hours might could change. Okay, that fumble’s on me.)
One thing that makes the website superior to any of the Sterns’ guidebooks is that it does have the flexibility and functionality to update listings. But seriously, if anybody went looking for a place to eat today using the 1997 edition of Eat Your Way Across the USA and pulled up at The Georgia Pig and found it had been closed for more than a year, whose fault would that be? The book’s, or the dimwit who drove to Brunswick without ringing them first?
Come to think of it, the Georgia Pig has been closed for a year, and yet not a single administrator from Roadfood.com has shown up at my house with a pair of scissors asking to see my 1997 edition of Eat Your Way Across the USA. You know why? You don’t purge books. And you shouldn’t purge websites either. Not like this.
Look. Roadfood.com, I love you. I don’t know much about HTML, but I know how to do this:
THIS RESTAURANT IS CLOSED.
Roadfood should be about history. In a world of celebrity chefs on TV shows who jump from one media-hyped business to another inside eighteen months, where most restaurants are lucky to last three years, where the dominant, driving force is how blandly and how efficiently and how cheaply restaurants can shovel tasteless fuel down diners’ gullets and shove them out the door, celebrating decades-long success doing things the right way is something to be proud of. When a place like Pilgreen’s or Melear’s or Harold’s or the Georgia Pig goes away, same with any other Georgia restaurant that vanished from the site before I started paying attention – I think that Midtown’s Silver Arrow Grill might’ve been one of them, too – then they deserve a little respect, not a purge. This is a tough business; restaurants shouldn’t get on Roadfood.com in the first place without a few solid years of standing. They should damn well stay there. You lose that sense of history, then you’ve lost perspective.
So I’m urging Roadfood.com, publicly, to knock this off immediately. Do not purge Magnolia’s. Place a colored notice underneath the name of the restaurant that says, what’s that line again?
THIS RESTAURANT IS CLOSED.
And at the head of the review, first paragraph, two new sentences in bold: Unfortunately, we have learned that this restaurant is no longer in business. They closed in October 2012 after such-and-such years in business and we’ll miss their egg cream.
Or something like that.
If somebody’s still “led astray” after that kind of update, I think you can safely absolve yourself of any and all responsibility, the same as you would if anybody drove to Brunswick based on a book, or the same as Guy Fieri would if anybody drove to the Cabbagetown Market based on an old episode of his TV show. Heck, we have to leave a comment rather than actually updating any of our stories; that’s the only way to keep from “republishing” something. Roadfood.com doesn’t have that problem, so they certainly don’t have that excuse.
How about it, guys? Can we celebrate history, or must you bury it?
You can see all the restaurants that we have visited for our blog on this map, with links back to the original blog posts. It has this totally awesome function that lets me change the pin from red to white when a business closes. It defaults to “featured” but you can display just the ones that are “closed,” and even a rarely-used “wishlist” group. Or all three. But the pins remain, no matter what happens to the restaurant. Just saying.