My first, faltering, fatal step as a serial entrepreneur was taken in 1972 when I and some foodies started a monthly newsletter called “A Gourmet’s Notebook.” It was modeled on “Jack Shelton’s Private Guide to Dining” in San Francisco. Like the model, ours offered long, pedantic, multi-visit reviews of local restaurants. A few hundred people actually subscribed.
This was the seed-time of Seattle’s culinary revolution, and great restaurants such as Robert Rosellini’s The Other Place and Peter Cipra’s Prague were just appearing. As it turned out, “A Gourmet’s Notebook” was the seed from which a notable book-publishing enterprise was to grow. Pour yourself a glass of wine and I’ll tell you that story.
After we had produced a hundred or so “Notebook” reviews, I got a call from Dan Levant, publisher of a new local firm, Madrona Publishers. Dan, who died last year and was a wonderful figure in Northwest publishing, had the idea of a guidebook for restaurants and lodging covering the whole Northwest. It would be called “The Best Places: The Gourmet Notebook Guide to the Pacific Northwest.” I got a contract to edit the book, incorporating much of our early research.
I and a band of discriminating reviewers hit the trail, prospecting for good and distinctive eateries across the region and amazing ourselves with how many good, and sometimes “best,” places we found. The book (322 pages, $5.95) came out in November 1975. As the first real guidebook for the region, it was an immediate big-seller. It turned out to be the first of 17 editions.
My inspiration for the book and its eyebrow-raised, insider-y tone came from mystery writer Raymond Postgate’s “Good Food Guide,” which had rescued a trip my wife and I took in England by steering us from indigestible tourist fare to tasty eccentric places locals love. At the end of most reviews were short, always-be-an-England remarks from members of the Good Food Club, who would make snooty comments about stale tomatoes or clumsily boned sole. In short, none of the travel-book gush and lots of local guff.
I noted in the way-too-cheeky introduction that the Northwest was relatively free of tourist ghettoes, “a relatively unspoiled and uncharted land, where formula restaurants and conglomerate resorts have not taken such a chilling hold as they have elsewhere in the country. Conversely, individuality and character still survive.” My roaming with our family over the Northwest in search of places such as the Windmill steakhouse in Wenatchee (where the red wine came directly from a refrigerator) and The Ship Inn in Astoria (Exeter expatriates doing proper English fish and chips) rewarded the premise.
Madrona Publishers eventually ran into difficulties and so Seattle Weekly, which I was running, bought the rights to “The Best Places” and used the guidebooks (including city versions and “Cheap Eats”) as the mainstay and cash-cows of a book publishing company, Sasquatch Books. Sasquatch Books is thriving today under publisher Gary Luke and owners Furman and Susan Moseley and Chad Haight, the original publisher.
But if “The Best Places” guidebooks once powered the company, just as Nancy Pearl’s “Book Lust” series was to later, that’s no longer the case. The last edition of “Northwest Best Places” came out in 2009, its 558 pages packed with reviews, and publisher Luke says there will be no more editions. The research costs of doing such a book honestly (no complimentary meals or lodging to reviewers) and updating it each two years had outrun the sales revenues, Luke told me, the saddened begetter.
At Elliott Bay Book Co. you can still find a copy, but where once there were stacks of Best Places up front in the store, they now sell maybe one a month.
Karen Maeda Allman, one of the veteran book buyers at Elliott Bay, recently gave me a tour of the guidebook section. Oddly, there really are no guidebooks to Seattle restaurants, even though th city's restaurant scene is exploding with creativity. People seeking restaurant advice now have Yelp and Urban Spoon to turn to. What does sell are books with lots of good pictures (such as “Seattle Insight Guide”), or off-beat books such as “Fearless Critic,” and “Cheap Bastard’s Guide to Seattle.”
Much bigger sellers are books aimed at unearthing hidden Seattle and popular with locals. “Seattle Stairway Walks” (Mountaineers) is a good seller, as are guidebooks focused on urban nature, architecture, and walking tours. Michelin used to do a Seattle version, but now it’s a pocket-size guide to the Northwest with just a few restaurants. The Zagat guides, aggregating foodie recommendations, are another victim of online services.
So “The Best Places” ends with a whimper. I can think of three factors for its diminuendo. One is the way non-local publishing houses moved into regional markets, creating name-brand competition for an indigenous publishing house. A conventioneer is going to go for Fodor’s before a non-generic book with an oddly named publishing house. “Individuality and character,” which I had extolled for the sheltered Northwest, is in shorter supply once national imitations move in.
A second factor is loss of trust in guidebooks, since so many are done to formula and with low research budgets. Guidebooks have partially deserved this mistrust. Some are badly dated, the reviewers recognized or treated unusually well. (The pseudonym I used to make reservations was “Dan Hunter,” the cover name for Daniel Ellsberg.) Some reviews have been subtly “purchased.” One nefarious trick is for publishers to suggest to places about to be reviewed that they really ought to buy a bunch of books for sale at the counter.
The third factor, true for all book publishing, is online competition. Why pay for reviewers when eaters file good-bad-and-mixed reactions for free? Why believe a book, with a year’s lead-time, when places and chefs and prices are changing rapidly? Who wants to lug around a 558-page book when you can get it all on a smart phone?
Still, glad to have had my excellent adventure. The book spawned a leading regional publishing house. It was an authentic book about authentic places. It taught my two daughters how to smuggle out a menu; and to this day our family is careful to order four different entrees at restaurants.
I still laugh at the adventures in remote places, and how we all learned to treasure the variety and originality of the Northwest. One favorite memory came from “tiny, ugly” Le Petite French restaurant in West Richland whose formidable manager fixed me with her cold eye after hearing my order (apparently worried that I’d send it back): “You know what coq au vin IS?” Delicious, by the way.