Remembering Chowhound, an Early On-line Meals Discussion board for NYC’s Restaurant Obsessives

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Regrettably, the web site Chowhound is shutting down after a distinguished 25-year run. The location developed by the years, however not sufficient will be stated about its founder Jim Leff. Again then, most meals writing in New York centered on fancy eating places, and Chowhound was no less than partly answerable for setting us on the culinary path we’re on as we speak, one which’s extra inclusive and fewer Euro-centric.

I met Leff someday round 1994. We had been launched by Sylvia Carter, a restaurant critic for Lengthy Island’s Newsday, who lined lesser recognized locations within the 5 boroughs and on the Island. Her evaluation outings had been typically attended by a crowd she curated for his or her love of what had been then typically dubbed ethnic eating places — primarily small mom-and-pop locations that served meals you wouldn’t discover in a diner. Leff was an itinerant trombone participant who primarily did wedding ceremony gigs, and I wrote a meals fanzine referred to as Down the Hatch. I’d additionally just lately begun a weekly column within the Village Voice, whereas Leff wrote a competing column within the New York Press.

Being a Lengthy Islander, Leff owned a automotive, and we quickly made use of it to take a look at new eating places. I had many different methods of attending to the eating places I lined, however an invite from Leff offered an expertise to be relished. He would possibly say, “Hey, I’ve heard of a man that sells Thai skewers from a cart on a dead-end avenue in Rego Park. Need to go?” I’d say sure, figuring out {that a} Leff meals journey all the time turned out to be a affirmation of Zeno’s paradox: On the way in which to the vacation spot, he’d preserve considering of different locations price visiting, and also you’d cease at them one after the other. Quickly, you had been zigzagging throughout town, so that you simply approached, however by no means fairly reached, the unique goal. “One other day,” he’d say as we halted an expedition out of sheer fatigue.

Leff cobbled collectively freelance jobs writing about meals, taking part in his trombone all of the whereas, however he by no means discovered his raison d’etre till he co-founded Chowhound in 1997. To these extra aware of as we speak’s meals web sites, social media panorama, and digital newsletters, the early Chowhound would appear hopelessly crude. It was a digital bulletin board of kinds, divided geographically and in accordance with food-related subjects, equivalent to What Jim Had For Dinner, to which contributors initiated threads that could possibly be answered by different contributors. There have been no photos, and the web site could be accessed by phone modem when it launched. On the positioning, contributors, generally known as “hounds,” established reputations by discovering little-known eating places and extolling them.

A cult fashioned round Chowhound. Volunteer moderators would police the positioning to forestall foul language and different infractions. For instance, the unhealthy conduct and even prison actions of restauranteurs won’t be talked about, or certainly any authorized issues involving eating places, particularly well being division closures. There have been different guidelines, too. Mentioning the total names of restaurateurs was discouraged if their immigration standing appeared unsure. Destructive opinions of eating places, if deemed too harsh or unfaithful, had been typically excised. Nonetheless, the dialog flourished.

Pork leg over rice

Pork leg over rice at Sripraphai in Woodside.
Robert Sietsema/Eater NY

Leff’s model of restaurant criticism on the boards and in print concerned choosing a restricted variety of good locations and hyping them incessantly. He lifted a handful of small eating places from obscurity and made them well-known. He first instructed me about Sripraphai in 1996, when it was a tiny Thai bakery in Woodside. He talked the place up till it started evolving into the sprawling restaurant advanced it’s as we speak.

Di Fara was one other discover he raved about on Chowhound, a neighborhood pizzeria that may have been of no explicit curiosity apart from for its remoted location. The primary time he took me within the late 90s, I instructed him, “Jim, I may level to twenty different neighborhood pizzerias inside a three-mile radius which are simply pretty much as good.” Perhaps that was the case, however Dom DeMarco was a colourful character, who did certainly preserve pots of basil rising within the window and passionate about the quantity of cheese he sprinkled on each pie. Because the years glided by and his fame elevated, DeMarco’s pizzas grew to become even higher by Leff’s encouragement.

Different Leff finds included the Arepa Woman, Kabab Café, Donovan’s, David’s Brisket Home, and Charles Southern Kitchen — all benefitted from his cheerleading. Extra importantly, Chowhound allowed Leff and fellow commenters to direct public consideration to a complete class of eating places that had been largely ignored earlier than, creating a brand new tradition of meals curiosity, culinary internationalism, and a love for vernacular eating.

Each Jonathan Gold and I had been common contributors to Chowhound within the late ’90s, when Gold was based mostly in Los Angeles and visited the Chowhound board for that metropolis, and later when Gold was the critic at Gourmand and lived right here. We gave and acquired a lot of good suggestions, however we discovered ourselves working afoul of the moderators, in order that on separate events we had been every requested to depart. Each of us had been responsible, at instances, of being a bit of too vehement about our restaurant opinions. After a discreet interval, we scampered again, as a result of Chowhound was greater than an internet site, it was an dependancy.

When Calvin Trillin revealed “New Grub Streets” within the New Yorker in 2001, which prominently featured Chowhound, it thrust the main target of meals obsessives on cheap and eclectic consuming to nationwide prominence and triggered an inflow of latest contributors to Chowhound. However regularly, the bulletin boards appeared much less a set of familial meals nuts, and extra a throng of strangers demanding restaurant recommendation with out giving any in return. Its sale to CNET/CBS and the departure of Leff and co-founder Bob Okumura (the tech man who constructed the positioning) in 2005 appeared to me like an finish of an period, and I not often visited after that.

With Leff now not haunting the boards, and the gradual exodus of avid followers, the web site underwent the anticipated technical enhancements, design improvements, and content material growth from 2005 until the current. Recipes, dietary recommendation, historic accounts, essays on kitchen gear, and have tales on journey and different random subjects crept in as the unique bulletin boards giving restaurant recommendation receded into the deep background. Chowhound had misplaced its soul, and in doing so had forgone what made it distinctive and magnetically enticing. Finally, it grew to become simply one other normal meals web site, of which there at the moment are too many to rely, making its unhappy departure from the scene an inevitability.

Within the interim, I misplaced observe of Leff, however heard rumors he lived in Connecticut, after which he’d purchased a farm someplace down South and gotten married. However as soon as he’d given up Chowhound, and stopped driving round in search of restaurant suggestions I may use, I actually wasn’t too curious of a hound anymore.

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