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Best of Rochester 2015: Critic Picks 

Best sandwich that is unquestionably a sandwich

The Turkey Melt at Harry G's

In case you haven't seen the debate, Google "Is a hotdog a sandwich?" The question went viral earlier this year, and you'll find that what constitutes a sandwich for one person is something else entirely to another. Still, there is little better to satisfy an appetite for flavors than a well-crafted sandwich piled high with carefully curated meats, cheeses, vegetables, and condiments on any manner of bread. Harry G's in the South Wedge is well aware of this. It is especially true of an item one cashier recently wasn't even sure the restaurant made: the Turkey Melt. It's hidden under the panini portion of the menu as a result of being heated on a flat top. Lying between crisp slabs of bread is a thick mound of superlative Ovengold turkey, shaved red onion, tomatoes, hot peppers, pepper jack cheese, and spicy mayo. The heat melds the juices from the tomatoes and turkey with the melted cheese and warm mayo to form a spicy concoction you might wish would never end. The red onion and hot peppers augment each bite with their crunch and strong flavors. Sandwiches are the perfect foodstuff. And so is Harry G's Turkey Melt.


Best ubiquitous independent concert venue

Bop Shop Records

Bop Shop Records has always been a great place to find vintage records, and the old Village Gate location sponsored adventurous jazz concerts in the atrium. But in recent years, and without much fanfare, the new location on Monroe Avenue has become a major independent concert venue. Bop Shop owner, Tom Kohn, has become a leading impresario at multiple venues. With acts ranging from straight-ahead ensembles to avant-garde groups, Kohn's shop has grown into a stop on many Northeast tours. While Kohn is happy to give up-and-coming acts a chance, he also brings in established players like Dave Liebman, Matthew Shipp, and Joel Harrison, and groups like the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble. His interests stretch way beyond jazz to contemporary folk artists like Jen Chapin and Rory Block and world music bands like the Musette Explosion. But the Bop Shop is just part of it. Kohn puts on larger shows, like the upcoming visit of the legendary Sun Ra Arkestra, at Lovin' Cup. And he brings folk legends like Michael Hurley to Abilene Bar & Lounge. Looking over the dozens of shows Kohn's presented over the last several years it's clear; Rochester would be a dull place musically without Kohn and Bop Shop Records.


2015 food trend most deserving to die in a grease fire

Everything fried in duck fat

Last year, Laura Rebecca Kenyon took on the "add-on egg" as the food trend that just needs to stop. I'm taking umbrage this year with the trend of deep-frying every damn thing in duck fat. It's everywhere, shouted loud and proud on menus and special boards: duck fat fries; duck fat gravy; duck fat bread! It needs to end. It's not that I don't understand why chefs want to use duck fat — it's a "healthy" fat and has a rich flavor — but how about we not put it in the appetizer, the entrée, and dessert? Ducks need a break. And we're going to get burnt out.


Best under-the-radar neighborhood

Upper Monroe

A recent local news article claimed, "All your friends are moving to Victor," but many DINKs (that's "Double Income, No Kids") are choosing to live within city limits and still enjoy a healthy, affordable lifestyle. The Upper Monroe neighborhood — nestled near the Swillburg and Park Avenue neighborhoods and right near the Brighton town line — is a natural progression for young couples or even families who want to move beyond renting in the trendy Park Ave or South Wedge areas. (Full disclosure: I recently moved to Upper Monroe after several stints in Park Ave and one in Marketview Heights.) Cobbs Hill is within walking distance. The Culver Road Armory boasts high-end shopping and eateries — with another expansion in the works. Street parking is always available. Single-family homes are affordable and sit on tree-lined lots. The city's largest community garden, Wide Water Gardens, is located between Rosedale and Hinsdale streets. Upper Monroe? More like Upper Fun-roe.


Best ladies' room

The Cub Room

While I can't speak for the men's room, the ladies' room at The Cub Room — a newer, upscale restaurant in the Edge of the Wedge building on South Clinton — is one of the best public restroom experiences in the city. For the ladies who don't travel in packs, there are small, single stalls that provide privacy and (get this) reading material in the form of wallpaper. In fact, the entire text of F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby" lines the walls. For novel lovers who've downed one too many G&Ts, it may be a legitimate struggle to pull away from the plight of Gatsby and Daisy so you can return to your rather average date at the bar. Ah, well. At least The Cub Room rewards you with real towels to dry your delicate hands.


Best ambitious window display

Useless Objects

Last year, the space that formerly held the vintage shop Metro Retro was taken over by a new, similar business called Useless Objects. The name doesn't really do justice to the quality of goods sold there, but it matches the irreverent humor of the proprietor, Bruce Davie.

And this humor is reflected in his window displays. The best display so far was one he put together last winter, featuring a carefully set table enduring what seemed like the tremors of a quaking earth. The table and chairs were positioned as though mid-buck, with shining settings pinned in place but seemingly about to fly away, all under an elegant chandelier suspended mid-swing.

The dynamic display caught my eye every time I passed the shop at 1241 Park Avenue, and despite the implied destruction, the tilt of the table cleverly showed off the kinds of finds offered at Useless Objects. There are a few other local stores that raise the window display game from average to artful (honorable mention to Thread on South Avenue), but frankly, I think Rochester could be doing a lot better in this department. Let this stand as encouragement for others to step up their game.


Best lost-and-found shopping

Bug Jar

Bug Jar is known as one of Rochester's beloved watering holes that also offers music by local and touring acts almost every night of the week. But what you may not know is that it's also a great spot to score a free piece of clothing. Whether it's because they got overheated while dancing, or some other reason you probably don't want to picture, loads of people have left their scarves/sweaters/hoodies/jackets/shirts/shoes (no joke) behind. And as far as I've been able to tell, few people come back for their discarded attire.

"The strangest thing left there was an extra-large set of bra and panties," says Bug Jar barkeep Ian Andrews. "But what I don't get is who leaves their shoes at the bar — the shoes you wear on your feet?"

If you want to access the pile of apparel, ask a bar tender (but only when they have some down time) if you can see if you left your hoodie or hat. They might ask you to describe it (bad luck), or you might get escorted to go look (yay). But if the item you select isn't truly yours, be prepared for a potential awkward moment on the streets.

Now, I wouldn't advocate taking someone else's stuff unless it was already languishing in the territory of the long forgotten. And if you look at it the right way, you'll be helping the owners regain some real estate and saving them a trip to the thrift store. So, consider this a heads up for free wardrobe supplements, and a gentle prompt for the drunkies to go collect their shit.


Best Preservation Success

St. Joseph's Park

At last, St. Joseph's Park is open. "St. Joe's" is significant in Rochester history, and the Landmark Society of Western NY should be lauded for the achievement. The project's success results from what the Landmark Society does best: conscientious planning and creative collaboration. Generous grant funding and private donations facilitated meticulous restoration, with vibrant landscaping donated as well. The downtown scene is enlivened with free concert series and special events, including The Yards' Spectral Carnival, a magical evening heightened by the structure's surreal atmosphere.

Just to be there — whether attending an event or in quiet contemplation — instills wonder of what once was and of what is yet to be.

St. Joseph's Park is located at 108 Franklin Street, and the Landmark Society's 2005 book, "The Oasis of Grace: A History of Saint Joseph's Church and Park, Rochester, NY" offers in-depth history. For more information, visit


Best way to find "splendor and ease" that's always been there


Thanks to Frank Costanza, I've been on a search for serenity ever since I first heard him yell for it in his garage. My mantra "Splendor and Ease," though phrased a little differently and not invoked with clenched fists held high, has been achieved with yoga. I have Parkinson's disease and have had many, many people recommend yoga over the years to combat the drugs that combat the symptoms that combat me. Well, I never had the time, or it was too boring, or based on the one or two times I had tried it, too hard. And I looked terrible in yoga pants. But being a recovering Catholic I had no interest in getting in touch with my inner self, inner child, or inner peace. Not for me, man.

Then I met Yvonne, my super-cool instructor who taught me how to breathe and focus and balance. Yvonne shared my affliction so we were able to dive right in to the ancient art without a lot of useless preamble. It's been six months and my movement, balance, and mood have changed drastically. Yvonne and Yoga have helped me reclaim a good portion of my life and dignity back. To look at me, you wouldn't think I'd be such an advocate, but I'm here to tell you if you want your own version of "Serenity now," try yoga anywhere you can ... even if you look terrible in yoga pants.




Best medium for making a pass that's coming back

Cassette tapes

Like a lot of lovelorn teenagers growing up in the 1970's and 1980's, I used music to express myself. I strapped a guitar between me and the rest of the world. But before I could serenade my romantic prospects with my own music, I relied on others' music and I put it on a cassette tape; a risky practice on a medium that is returning to the fore.

You see, bands with no shortage of irony are back releasing albums not only on vinyl, but cassette tape. I figure it's just a matter of time before we start seeing blank cassettes in stores again. And teenagers can start pitching woo once again with a carefully selected set of songs on a cassette tape. "Mixed tapes" is what we called them and each song we shoe-horned on them had a special meaning as did the order the songs were loaded onto the cassette. The Thompson Twins' "Hold Me Now" or Cheap Trick's "I Want You to Want Me" didn't need a lot of interpretation. Songs by Sinatra showed your sophistication, while anything by Judas Priest showed anger issues. The Doors, dark and moody, and anything by your tape's recipient's favorite band like Simon & Garfunkel showed desperation. Hopefully these little windows to the soul will make a comeback, for love or lust. Say what you want with someone else's music. Just no Taylor Swift or Kanye West, please.


Best place to tell a personal story 

First Person Singular

It was back when First Person Singular was called Wham Bam Story Slam that I first got up in front of a group of strangers and told the tale of how I was almost murdered by an exploding thermos of chicken noodle soup.

That was in July 2014, about nine months after Rochester comedian Dewey Lovett started the storytelling event at the Rochester Brainery with Woody Battaglia. The final Wham Bam Story Slam was held in December 2014, just before Lovett moved away from Rochester. But that's when a different show, with the same concept was born: First Person Singular debuted in January 2015, and Kristen Stewart, and later, Sarah Reedy, joined Battaglia as co-hosts.

The concept is simple: People go up in front of a room full of people and tell a true story. It can be funny, weird, utterly heartbreaking, and ideally, last no longer than 5 minutes (give or take). Battaglia says storytellers have ranged from teens to septuagenarians; comedians to people who have never performed on a stage before. All are welcome to share their tale. Plus there are free cookies. (Side note: E.L. Fudge cookies are forever underrated.) There usually is a prompt for the storytellers (e.g. "_____ was a DISASTER"), but the brave souls who stand on the Brainery stage can deviate from that suggestion, if they choose.

But you may be thinking, "Chicken noodle soup almost killed you?" Yes, yes it did. Another great thing about First Person Singular is these moments of raw honesty are recorded and placed on YouTube. Check out the stories online, and handle your soup with care.


Best waiting room experience

Duffy's Penfield Automotive

In this world of smartphones, on demand TV, and "Gotta have it right now" mentality, one of the worst experiences we put up with in our daily lives is waiting. But for some reason, I find myself looking forward to going to Duffy's Penfield Automotive (1847 Penfield Road) to sit in the waiting room while I get my car fixed.

The waiting room is tiny, but the atmosphere isn't. It's a got a funky dive bar-ish charm about it — from the license plates and Rochester paraphernalia on the walls to the unlimited cups of fresh coffee and pastries and the trusty confidant who knows everyone.

Like your favorite watering hole, Sue Duffy confidently mans the counter, greeting everyone who walks through the door like an old friend she hasn't seen in forever, eager to hear about your day, your problems, your life, your story. And while most waiting rooms are like torture cells, where you're left with nothing but a few magazines and drab elevator music to entertain you, Duffy's also comes complete with its own pup to play with. Murphy has mellowed over the years, but he'll still scamper after his favorite ball or chew toy if you toss it around.


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