Dear Ace: What’s the deal with those cute little racks of restaurant menus that are at the Visitors Center and in hotel lobbies? Who’s putting them up and how do restaurants make the cut?—Food Man Chu

Food: Wow, this sounds like an infomercial setup if Ace has ever heard one. “Hey Ace, why is this valuable service so great and how can I find out more about it?” “I’m glad you asked, friend. With five easy payments of—” Well, you get the idea. But yes, humble reader, those little things are quite a curiosity. Where did they come from? How did they all get to be the same size? Is there some secret cabal of a couple dozen restaurants threatening the nice folks over at the Visitors Center with broken thumbs should they take down the display case? If Woodward and Bernstein taught Ace anything, it’s to follow the money. Given the Deep Throat-level of investigative journalism this story requires, Ace hit the receipts. Hold on, because Ace is about to blow this thing wide open.

The Visitors Center directed Ace to City Select, the not-so-shadowy organization to which the funds for those little booklets flow. Roy Van Doorn, a partner in Virginia Welcome, the parent company of City Select, told Ace that City Select started in Charlottesville and has since branched out to 10 cities. They’re the people who publish and stock the menus, and they’re the people whom restaurants pay for the privilege of getting a menu published.

O.K., it sounds bad for City Select right now, but it turns out that they’re not just a bunch of fat cats playing favorites with the restaurants lucky enough to have the money to write a check each year. Van Doorn explains, “Our objective is to find the 30 best independent restaurants in the city. Through our evaluation system, which includes referrals, secret shop and kitchen inspections, we determine which to recommend to visitors. It’s all by invitation only. You have to qualify, and it is possible to fall out of the top 30.” If restaurants qualify for the list and sign a contract with City Select, the company designs those cute little menus and puts ’em in a handsome display case.

So City Select figures out which are the best local restaurants and lets people know about them, in exchange for a little palm grease from the restaurants. Ace is no shill, but capitalism has certainly seen worse.

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