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What makes a restaurant the "best," according to the Post-Dispatch advertising department

Is Fio's La Fourchette the best restaurant in St. Louis, as readers of Gourmet magazine have sometimes anointed it? Or does Tony's deserve that title, one it has earned in numerous media polls year in and year out?

According to our local daily newspaper, neither is even eligible for consideration. Nor is Annie Gunn's, Faust's, Trattoria Marcella, Harvest, the Crossing or many other of our town's finest. However, if you look really closely at the recent "ballots" for the Post-Dispatch's "People's Choice Restaurant Award," and then turn the page to look at the restaurant ads in the "Get Out" section, you'll find an exact one-to-one correspondence between advertisers and eligible candidates, with no place for a write-in (although write-ins are permitted on the Web version of the ballot, which is not publicized in the hard-copy form of "Get Out").

And although newslike copy in the classified-advertising sections is always denoted as "prepared by the advertising department," and external ads that even remotely resemble news typefaces always get nailed with an "advertisement" slug, there was no mention of this on the full-page poll.

In fairness, I should note that the index at the back of Restaurants 1999, the results of the RFT restaurant poll, comprises advertisers only. But the ability of people to vote for the restaurants in the published Top 10 lists was not in any way influenced by which restaurants happened to be advertisers. (Nor, by the way, is the weekly list of recommendations in the RFT "Cafe" dining guide, found on the next few pages.)

Reached for comment, Post managing editor Arnie Robbins says, "It is supposed to say "advertising.' We had nothing to do with it in the newsroom at all." He adds that he has twice pointed out the need for an "advertisement" label on the page and that he expected the insertion in this week's paper to carry such a label. (Early versions of the poll changed slightly from week to week, adding the names and phone numbers of two ad-department staffers as "contacts" but not identifying them other than by name.)

In addition, the categorization of restaurants in the Post poll is inconsistent and confusing. Some Vietnamese restaurants are listed as Asian, some as "Other Ethnic"; a Bosnian restaurant is described as "Middle Eastern"; and two barbecue restaurants with the same owners and name occupy separate ballot spots, ostensibly because one is in Missouri and one is in Illinois.

Meanwhile, as was the case last year, in a few weeks the winners of this "poll" will start promoting themselves by noting that they were chosen "best" by the readers of the Post-Dispatch. That's misleading, and it diminishes the credibility of the Post's professional news and features reporters, critics and editors -- even though they were excluded from the process that allowed such confusion to occur.

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