Okun steps away from the table; After 38 years, The News' iconic food critic submits her last review - The Buffalo News

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Okun steps away from the table; After 38 years, The News' iconic food critic submits her last review

On Jan. 8, 1974, under the heading "Adventures in Dining," this newspaper published its first restaurant review.

The restaurant was The Cloister, at 472 Delaware Ave., and our restaurant critic dined on French onion soup with melted cheese in a pottery crock, and flaming tournedos of beef en brochette. Her companion sampled the oysters.

She pronounced the atmosphere attractive and the service friendly. As for the food? Despite the place having recently been named to a list of the 100 best restaurants in the nation, it was merely "good to fair."

The critic was Janice Okun, the only restaurant reviewer The News has ever had.

Now -- more than 38 years and well over a thousand meals later -- Janice has decided to step down from that post.

"It's been a long haul," she told me last week. "I guess you could say that I'm just ready to stop."

Janice retired as The News' food editor in 2009 but continued writing the review and, more recently, a column for the weekly Taste section on Wednesday. She will continue with that column, expanding it beyond its question-and-answer format to broader food and dining issues.

Her successor as food editor, Andrew Galarneau, will begin writing restaurant reviews in the March 9 issue of Gusto. The Gusto cover story that day will feature some of Janice's restaurant-reviewing memories.

Because of her long tenure and a well-established reputation for integrity, Janice has become an iconic figure on the local restaurant scene -- criticized, feared and respected.

While she rejects the idea that her review could make or break a restaurant, she undoubtedly has been influential, sometimes in unexpected ways.

Mike Andrzejewski, perhaps Buffalo's most admired chef, remembers his first Okun review -- about 30 years ago -- as if it were yesterday.

Disappointed in the fare at the Cricket Club in Alden, Janice delivered a scathing 1 1/2 -star review. (At that time five stars, rather than four, was the ceiling).

"It was devastating," he recalls. "She slammed us for not having homemade desserts and how the vegetables were overcooked. I'm surprised I didn't get fired."

Andrzejewski said he was crushed -- but also motivated.

"It was like a slap to the head," he said. "I decided to never let that happen again."

Janice's dining experience spans the globe -- she has traveled to every continent except Antarctica. Her most memorable meal, she says, was eating snake in Canton, China. One of the most elegant was at Fredy Girardet near Lausanne, Switzerland, which before Chef Girardet's retirement in 1996 was often called the greatest restaurant in the world, earning a rare three Michelin stars.

Janice grew up in North Buffalo, graduated from Bennett High School and, in 1954, from Cornell University. Almost always, her reviews have featured "the companion," her husband, Buddy Seidenberg.

With every review, Janice tried to keep the reader in mind. "That was always the top priority," she said.

But she soon found that she couldn't please everyone.

"With every review, there would be people who agreed and people who disagreed, and they could get pretty excited about it one way or the other," she said. "And, especially at the beginning, there was a lot of suspicion about the whole idea of it."

Janice's first reviews -- the result of conversations between her and News Editor Murray B. Light -- appeared in the paper's lifestyle pages.

Eventually, they moved to Gusto, the Friday entertainment tabloid, where many readers made Janice's review their first stop.

"It's so hard for a reviewer to walk that line between tact and honesty," said Nina Barone, a 27-year-old food enthusiast who writes for Spree magazine and on her website, BuffaloFoodie.com. She credits Janice for "creating the standard in Buffalo" for professional restaurant criticism.

"She's been a local institution," said Joel Lippes, the longtime owner, with his wife, Dedee, of the legendary Rue Franklin restaurant. "For years, everybody grabbed that Friday paper to see what Janice Okun had to say."

Janice "certainly has her detractors," said Lippes, "but she never became jaded and was always very fair. She never abused the position or threw her weight around."

The couple recently sold the restaurant, so Lippes says he understands Janice's decision.

"There comes a moment," he said, "when you realize it's just time to make that change."

For many years, I've admired Janice Okun as a sophisticated woman of accomplishment, endless curiosity and joie de vivre. I'm also happy to call her a friend. While I'm sorry to see the Okun era of restaurant reviewing come to a close, I send her off with a deep sense of thanks and appreciation.

email: editor@buffnews.com

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