We’re all Chowhounds now
TEAR Chowhoundborn in 1997, deceased 2022 – although some say its demise began when the rambling independent restaurant website was bought by CNET in 2006. Or maybe it was 2015, when a redesign by the then owner, CBS Interactive, has made the site so difficult to use that many longtime devotees simply left. In 2020 it was acquired by Red Ventures, which recently announcement it will permanently close the site on March 28. An artifact of the primitive food internet, with a barely designed interface and a simple, photoless message board format, Chowhound looks very quaint next to TikToks, Instagram, and more. of today. But it worked – and how – exactly as expected. It gave users an early space to congregate online and engage in heated, sometimes heated conversations about faraway cuisines, little-known restaurants, foolproof recipes, favorite cookware brands, advice travel books, cookbooks on desert islands, dark liqueurs, etc. Continued. In the process, over his 25 years, he molded a different type of food obsessive – not a “greedy” but a chowhound, or, simply put, a hunting dog – and became a real community.
“Chowhounds know where the good stuff is, and they never settle for less than optimal delight, whether it’s dining in splendor or grabbing a quick slice,” reads the Chowhound Manifesto. “We are not talking about foodies. Gourmets eat where they are told. Chowhounds blaze trails. They roam the neighborhoods in search of culinary treasures. They despise the hype. And if they appreciate the ambiance and the service, they can’t be fooled by the flash.
At the time, it was revolutionary. Food Network was only four years old. Yelp was launched in 2004, Eater the year after. Co-founders Jim Leff and Bob Okumura started Chowhound months before the term “weblog” was coined, and the “What Jim Had for Dinner” feed, a diary of Leff’s meals, could be considered the first culinary blog. Leff, a jazz trombonist and writer, was the spiritual leader of the site, called Alpha Dog. His songwriting – itself a series of jazzy riffs bubbling with ideas, a reflection of a busy, visionary thinker with an inexhaustible appetite and sense of humor – helped popularize culinary discoveries such as SriPraPhai, a Thai restaurant now renamed in Queens; Di Fara Pizza, a Brooklyn haven for pie snobs (when founder Domenico DeMarco died last week, he was greeted by all New York media); and the Arepa lady, Maria Piedad Cano, who sold her Colombian corn cakes from a street cart (now a brick-and-mortar run by her family). Like Pulitzer Prize-winning food critic Jonathan Gold in Los Angeles, Leff raised the profile of immigrant-owned small businesses, helping to ensure their success. He also invited everyone to join him, spreading the Chowhound philosophy and shining his spotlight on the whole country and beyond.
“It was a very, very different world for a food geek looking to find fellow travelers, obsessives who would spend an inordinate amount of their disposable income dining out,” says MC Slim JBa food critic whose writings have appeared in boston.com, Boston Magazine, Boston Phoenix and other local outlets. This pen name? That’s his Chowound username. The website is how he started as a professional food writer: DigBoston and Stuff Magazine editors who frequented the Boston board read his prolific articles and asked him to contribute. .
Chowhound was Yelp before Yelp, but out of the crowd of people who are very knowledgeable about food. It was also an inexhaustible and flexible digital cookbook, complete with its own support team, ready to offer culinary advice.
“No one can know everything about everything, so it was great to find someone like [user] Galangatron, who had a great in-depth knowledge of Southeast Asian cuisine and had haunted all these Southeast Asian places in Lowell, or people who had in-depth expertise because they grew up in a Taiwanese American home,” says MC Slim JB. “I could claim some knowledge of Coney Island hot dogs because I ate one every day at the end of my paper tour as a kid. It was that kind of very joy-oriented experience. The pre-internet aspect meant it was a much more civil place.
Usernames were part of the beauty of Chowhound: you could talk about burgers or banh mi with a magazine editor, teacher, molecular biologist, chef, radio DJ, or politician, but you wouldn’t know it. not. You would just know it was Allstonian, Hotoynoodle, Joanie, Limster, Nab, or any of the names that have become familiar to posters (and prowlers, myself among them) over the years. Last week, I was discussing Chowhound’s disappearance with a food writer friend when he dropped his username: No way! It was you?
Online conversations have also turned into IRL encounters: dim sum feasts, taco crawls, Peking duck extravaganzas — meals eaten at moms and pops all over town. Angela’s Cafe, Chacarero, King Fung Garden (whose co-owner Doris Huang took her famous Chowhound duck with her to China King), Peach Farm, Strip-T’s, Taqueria Jalisco… all booed on the board.
“Taiwan Cafe, I feel like I discovered Chowhound for the first time. It has become one of my favorite restaurants. I always like to go there when I go to Boston,” says David Pistrang, aka Dave MP, who came to the website when he was a student at Tufts, after his grandparents sent him a 2001 article Calvin Trillin wrote about it in The New Yorker. “Everywhere I ate, practically, after 2001, I discovered a place on Chowhound.” He started dating in Boston and continued when he moved to the Bay Area, where he is now an elementary school math specialist. While spending time in London, he met former Boston dog Limster, who recommended one of Pistrang’s favorite restaurants. He attended the wedding of a good friend he made through Chowhound. He even worked for the website for a few years and posted about the first date he had with her husband.
“It had a major impact on my life,” he says. “What’s unique about this, and why I’m sad it’s gone, is that it has really good people who can answer really specific questions and come up with ideas. It’s still not really possible to do this through Yelp or any other site. They were people who were so passionate and enthusiastic about sharing what they loved. On the Home Cooking board, you would post a random cooking question, and people would come up with ideas and lots of strong opinions.
There are alternatives, like eGullet Forums, Food Discussion Centerand hungry onion. But they don’t have the traffic Chowhound saw in its heyday. At the time of the redesign, according to a 2015 Globe article, it had 10.2 million monthly unique users, compared to 7.8 million for Eater.comand continued to grow at a good pace.
Former Chowhound user Sampson Shen started the nonprofit Hungry Onion in response to the revamp. It has seen an influx of users since Chowhound was announced to be shut down. “I went to Chowhound looking for this in-depth knowledge. That’s what I think we’re going to miss about Chowwhound,” he says. “There really isn’t a great successor to replace him. I wish Hungry Onion was that, but obviously it doesn’t operate on the same scale as it did during the golden age of Chowhound. At the same time, I don’t know if I really want it to be that big. It is a hobby, after all, a labor of love, run by a group of about 10 volunteers.
But the Chowhound spirit is far from dead, even as the website fades away. As an artifact of the early food internet, it bridged the print and online eras, guiding fine dining’s transition to a more populist notion of what the restaurant could and should be – what we wanted it to be. What we wanted and want it to be was shaped by Chowhound’s boards, frequented by so many in its heyday, including the food writers who would influence today’s food writers and online influencers: they were all on Chowhound. When we talk about cultural appropriation, we’re continuing an old Chowhound conversation about “authenticity.” When restaurant critics praise Chinese noodle joints or pho pop-ups or roadside taquerias, they do so because Chowhound helped pave the way for the viability of these establishments.
And we eat them with joy, because we are all Chowhounds now, looking for an optimal delight.