Unfortunately, the Chowhound website is closing after 25 years of operation. The site has evolved over the years, but not enough can be said about its founder Jim Leff. At the time, most New York food writing focused on fancy restaurants, and Chowhound was at least partly responsible for setting us on the culinary path we are on today, a more inclusive and less Eurocentric path. .
I met Leff around 1994. We were introduced by Sylvia Carter, a food critic from Long Island’s press day, which covered lesser-known locations in the five boroughs and on the Island. Her critical outings were often attended by a crowd she organized for her love of what were then often dubbed ethnic restaurants — mostly small, family-run places that served food you wouldn’t find in a restaurant. Leff was a traveling trombonist who mainly did wedding gigs, and I wrote a food zine called Down the hatch. I had also recently started a weekly column in the Voice of the villagewhile Leff wrote a competing column in the New York press.
Being a Long Islander, Leff owned a car, and we quickly used it to discover new restaurants. I had many other ways to get to the restaurants I covered, but an invitation from Leff provided an experience worth savoring. He might say, “Hey, I heard about a guy selling Thai kebabs from a cart on a dead end street in Rego Park. Want to go?” I would say yes, knowing that a gastronomic trip to Leff always turned out to be a confirmation of Zeno’s paradox: on the way to the destination, he kept thinking of other places that were worth worth visiting, and you were stopping there one by one. Soon you were zigzagging through the city, so that you came close to, but never quite reached, the original objective.” Another day,” he would say as we stopped an expedition out of sheer fatigue.
Leff cooked up freelance jobs writing about food, playing the trombone all the time, but he never found his purpose until he co-founded Chowhound in 1997. To those who know better today’s food websites, social media landscape, and digital newsletters, the first Chowhound would seem hopelessly rude. It was a sort of digital bulletin board, divided geographically and according to food-related topics, such as What Jim Had For Dinner, to which contributors started threads that other participants could to respond. There were no images, and the website would be accessible by dial-up modem when launched. On the site, participants, known as “hounds,” have established reputations by unearthing little-known restaurants and touting them.
A cult has formed around Chowhound. Volunteer moderators would monitor the site to prevent foul language and other infractions. For example, misbehavior or even criminal activity by restaurant owners may not be mentioned, or even any legal issues involving restaurants, especially health service closures. There were also other rules. Mentioning the full names of restaurateurs was discouraged if their immigration status seemed questionable. Negative restaurant reviews, if deemed too harsh or untrue, were often deleted. Nonetheless, the dialogue flourished.
Leff’s style of restaurant review on the boards and in the press involved picking a limited number of good spots and bragging about them endlessly. He brought a handful of small restaurants out of obscurity and made them famous. He first told me about Sripraphai in 1996 when it was a small Thai bakery in Woodside. He talked about the place until it started to evolve into the sprawling restaurant complex it is today.
Di Fara was another find he raved about on Chowhound, a neighborhood pizzeria that wouldn’t have had any particular appeal if not for its isolated location. The first time he took me in the late ’90s, I said, “Jim, I could point out 20 other neighborhood pizza places within three miles that are just as good.” It might have been, but Dom DeMarco was a colorful character, who indeed kept pots of basil growing in the window and obsessed with how much cheese he sprinkled on each pie. Over the years and his fame, DeMarco’s pizzas got even better thanks to Leff’s encouragement.
Other Leff discoveries include Arepa Lady, Kabab Café, Donovan’s, David’s Brisket House and Charles Southern Kitchen – all benefited from his encouragement. More importantly, Chowhound enabled Leff and his fellow commentators to draw public attention to a whole class of restaurants that had previously been largely ignored, creating a new culture of food curiosity, culinary internationalism and love for vernacular meals.
Jonathan Gold and I were regular contributors to Chowhound in the late 90s, when Gold was based in Los Angeles and visited Chowhound’s board for that city, and later when Gold was the reviewer for Gourmet and lived here. We gave and received a lot of good advice, but found ourselves in conflict with the moderators, so that on different occasions each of us was asked to leave. We were both guilty, at times, of being a little too strident about our opinions about restaurants. After a quiet interval, we came back with a bang, because Chowhound was more than a website, it was an addiction.
When Calvin Trillin published “New Grub Streets” in the New Yorker in 2001, which featured Chowhound prominently, propelled the food-obsessed’s focus on inexpensive, eclectic eating to national prominence and sparked an influx of new Chowhound attendees. But gradually, the message boards seemed less like a collection of family food freaks, and more a crowd of strangers asking for restaurant advice without giving any in return. Its sale to CNET/CBS and the departure of Leff and co-founder Bob Okumura (the tech who built the site) in 2005 felt like the end of an era to me, and I rarely visited after that. .
With Leff no longer haunting the forums and the gradual exodus of avid fans, the website has undergone the technical improvements, design innovations and content expansion expected from 2005 to the present day. Recipes, nutritional advice, historical tales, kitchen equipment essays and reports on travel and other random topics crept in as quirky restaurant advice billboards swirled around. moved away deeply. Chowhound had lost his soul and in the process had given up what made him unique and magnetically attractive. Eventually, he became just another general food website, of which there are now too many to count, making his sad departure from the scene a foregone conclusion.
In the meantime, I lost track of Leff, but I heard rumors that he lived in Connecticut, then he bought a farm somewhere in the south and got married. But once he ditched Chowhound and stopped driving around looking for advice on restaurants I could use, I really wasn’t too curious about a dog anymore.