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FOOD

We are all Chowhounds now

It’s the end of an era for the food website. But its influence lives on.

RIP Chowhound, born 1997, deceased 2022 — although some say its demise began when the scrappy, independent food website was purchased by CNET in 2006. Or perhaps it was in 2015, when a redesign by then-owner CBS Interactive rendered the site so difficult to use that many longtime devotees simply left. In 2020, it was acquired by Red Ventures, which recently announced it will shut the site down forever on March 28. An artifact of the early food Internet, with a barely designed interface and simple, photo-free message-board format, Chowhound appears highly quaint beside today’s TikToks, Instagrams, and the like. But it functioned — and how — exactly as it was meant to. It gave users an early space to congregate online and engage in passionate, sometimes heated, conversations about far-flung cuisines, little-known restaurants, foolproof recipes, favorite cookware brands, travel tips, desert-island cookbooks, obscure liqueurs, and so much more. In the process, over its 25 years, it shaped a different kind of food obsessive — not a “foodie” but a chowhound, or, simply, hound — and became a real community.

“Chowhounds know where the good stuff is, and they never settle for less than optimal deliciousness, whether dining in splendor or grabbing a quick slice,” reads the Chowhound Manifesto. “We’re not talking about foodies. Foodies eat where they’re told. Chowhounds blaze trails. They comb through neighborhoods for culinary treasure. They despise hype. And while they appreciate ambiance and service, they can’t be fooled by flash.”

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At the time, this was revolutionary. Food Network was only four years old. Yelp launched in 2004, Eater the year after that. Cofounders Jim Leff and Bob Okumura started Chowhound months before the term “weblog” was coined, and the “What Jim Had for Dinner” thread, a diary of Leff’s meals, could be considered the first food blog. Leff, a jazz trombonist and writer, was the site’s spiritual leader, referred to as Alpha Dog. His writing — itself a series of jazzy riffs bubbling with ideas, a reflection of a busy, big-picture thinker with an inexhaustible appetite and a sense of humor — helped popularize food finds such as SriPraPhai, a now-renowned Thai restaurant in Queens; Di Fara Pizza, a Brooklyn haven for pie snobs (when founder Domenico DeMarco died last week, he was saluted by all of 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). Sure, it could sometimes feel like a bunch of white guys opining about other cultures’ food. But Leff boosted the profiles of small, immigrant-owned businesses, helping ensure their success. And he invited everyone else to join him, spreading the Chowhound ethos and shining its 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 chunk of their disposable income dining out,” says MC Slim JB, a restaurant critic whose writing has appeared at Boston.com, Boston Magazine, the Boston Phoenix, and other local outlets. That nom de plume? It’s his Chowhound username. The website is how he got started as a professional food writer: Editors at DigBoston and Stuff Magazine who frequented the Boston board read his prolific posts and asked him to contribute.

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Chowhound was Yelp before Yelp, but crowd-sourced from people who were deeply knowledgeable about food. It was also an inexhaustible, flexible digital cookbook that came with its own vast support team, ready to offer culinary advice.

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“Nobody can know everything about everything, so it was great to find someone like [user] Galangatron, who had great depth of knowledge about Southeast Asian cuisine and had haunted all these Southeast Asian places in Lowell, or people who had deep expertise because they grew up in a Taiwanese American household,” MC Slim JB says. “I could claim a certain connoisseurship of Coney Island hot dogs because I ate one every day at the end of my paper route when I was a kid. It was this very joy-driven kind of experience. The pre-Internet aspect of it meant it was a much more civil kind of place.”

The usernames were part of Chowhound’s beauty: You could be talking about burgers or banh mi with a magazine editor, schoolteacher, molecular biologist, chef, radio DJ, or politician, but you wouldn’t know it. You’d simply know it was Allstonian, hotoynoodle, Joanie, Limster, Nab, or any of the score of names that became familiar to posters (and lurkers, myself among them) over the years. Last week, I was talking about Chowhound’s demise with a food writer friend when he casually dropped his username: No way! That was you?

The online conversations turned into IRL meetups, too: dim sum feasts, taco crawls, Peking duck extravaganzas — meals eaten in mom-and-pops all over the city. Angela’s Cafe, Chacarero, King Fung Garden (whose co-owner Doris Huang took her Chowhound-famous duck with her to China King), Peach Farm, Strip-T’s, Taqueria Jalisco … all were ballyhooed on the board.

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“Taiwan Cafe I feel like I first found out about on Chowhound. That became one of my favorite restaurants. I still like going there when I go to Boston,” says David Pistrang, a.k.a. 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 was a place I found out about on Chowhound.” He started going to meetups in Boston, and continued when he relocated to the Bay Area, where he’s now an elementary school math specialist. When he spent time in London, he met up with former Boston hound Limster, who recommended one of Pistrang’s favorite restaurants there. 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 went on with his now-husband.

“It’s had a major impact on my life,” he says. “What is unique about it, and why I’m sad about it going away, is that it has really knowledgeable people who can answer really specific questions and come up with ideas. It’s still not really possible to do that through Yelp or any other site. These were people who were so passionate and so excited to share what they liked. On the Home Cooking board, you’d post a random cooking question, and people would come up with ideas and a lot of strong opinions.”

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There are some alternatives out there, like eGullet Forums, Food Talk Central, and Hungry Onion. But they don’t have the traffic that Chowhound saw at its peak. At the time of the redesign, according to a 2015 Globe story, it had 10.2 million unique users per month, versus 7.8 million for Eater.com, and was still growing at a good clip.

Former Chowhound user Sampson Shen started the not-for-profit Hungry Onion in response to the redesign. It has seen an influx of users since the announcement of Chowhound’s closure. “I went into Chowhound looking for that in-depth knowledge. That’s what I think we’ll miss about Chowhound,” he says. “There isn’t really a great successor to replace it. I would like Hungry Onion to be that, but obviously it’s not operating on the same scale as during Chowhound’s golden age. At the same time, I don’t know if I really want it to be as big.” It’s 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 that artifact of the early food Internet, it bridged the print and online eras, shepherding in the transition from fine dining to a more populist notion of what restaurant-going could and should be — what we wanted it to be. What we wanted, and want, it to be has been shaped by Chowhound’s boards, frequented by so many in its heyday, including the food writers who would influence the food writers and online influencers of today: They were all on Chowhound. When we talk about cultural appropriation, we are continuing an old Chowhound conversation about “authenticity.” When restaurant critics laud Chinese noodle joints or pho pop-ups or roadside taquerias, they are doing so because Chowhound helped blaze a trail of viability for these establishments.

And we eat at them with joy, because we are all Chowhounds now, in pursuit of optimal deliciousness.


Devra First can be reached at devra.first@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @devrafirst.