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Is this the ‘Best’ Philly Mag can do? | Stu Bykofsky

Once upon a time, maybe when Ronnie Reagan or the better Bush was president, getting named a "best" by the mag meant a lot. There's less luster now.

Philadelphia Magazine editor Tom McGrath stands outside of the magazine's new offices near Washington Square.
Philadelphia Magazine editor Tom McGrath stands outside of the magazine's new offices near Washington Square.Read moreTRACIE VAN AUKEN

If it's August, it's Philadelphia Magazine's  "Best of" issue, which peaked a couple of decades ago, I think. (Philly Mag thinks the same about me.)

Back when Ronnie Reagan or the better Bush was president, getting a Philly Mag "best" meant a lot. There's less luster now.


Because almost everyone has been named "best" by now. Even me: Best Columnist, 2011.

The out-of-town vultures who owned the papers back then were so impressed, they gave me a big raise and a Ford F-150 as a bonus. (#FakeNews. What I got was a laminated placard from the magazine.)

Deputizing yourself arbiter of "best" requires arrogance, to which Philly Mag pleads guilty.

Listen — any time any publication lists the best, or worst, reach for a grain of salt. The lists are done by writers, and if writers had other marketable skills, we'd use them to earn a better living.

The concept of "best" is subjective outside of competitive sports, where the score tells you who is "best."

Philly Mag's problem is that it has been naming "bests" for 45 years. I'll crunch the numbers in a minute. Naming the same people, products, and services over and over again would be tedious. The mag has a couple of ways to avoid that trap.

One is to keep changing or adding categories. Example: The city's vector control, for best rat catcher. Ewww. Or best modern dumpling shop. That category is as narrow as a worm's waist.

To keep things interesting, the mag throws a curve ball or two. Instead of La Colombe or Starbucks for best coffee, it selects Wawa. Or Whole Foods for best beauty store, rather than Sephora.

In each of the 15 years he's been there, editor Tom McGrath says, the mag has picked 250 to 300 bests. That's an average of 275. Multiply 275 by 45 years and that's 12,375 "bests," almost as numerous as registered Republicans in Philadelphia. That's more than the number of seats in the Academy of Music.

The massive listing often mistakes snark for sharp.

I doubt that Alan Halpern,  the editor who led the magazine to national prominence, would have imagined the gimmick would have such long, sturdy legs. No one can kill it, because it's the best-selling issue of the year.

Despite its sales success, the issue bears the burden of suspicion in some quarters that the fix is in, that the "best" list is a nest of advertisers.

No, non, nein, nyet, wrote senior reporter Victor Fiorillo on Facebook. "NOBODY at the magazine has EVER instructed me to give a Best of Philly award to anybody," adding that Philly Mag invented the "best of" gimmick for city magazines.

What else can he say, you may be thinking, he works there.

Larry Platt no longer works there, but was the editor from 2002 to 2010. "There was a real Chinese wall between the editorial and business side," says Platt. Current editor McGrath concurs. The "best" is pure, but still partially hokum.

When it started, the "best" issue also contained "worsts," but "at some point 'worst' went away and would come back once in a while," says McGrath.

"If not done well, it falls flat," says McGrath, adding that listing worsts "can be too much into the negadelphia attitude." The mag, he says, chooses to celebrate "what is awesome about Philadelphia."

Like best rat catcher and Wawa coffee.