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The Subtle but Powerful Influence of Chowhound

  • s

Many times I have heard about Chowhound being referenced in the media or ideas being straight-out lifted from Chowhound without attribution. These are obvious signs of Chowhound's influence.

Let me give you an example of something more subtle, but even more powerful.

Last week in the Washington Post, restaurant critic Tom Sietsema uncovered a secret Lao menu at a non-descript Thai restaurant run by a Lao woman who figured nobody wanted to eat her cuisine. You could waltz into this restaurant on almost any given night and see very few or no customers.

Now the restaurant has a steady stream of new customers asking for the Lao menu. Every new face is asking about it. Who knew so many people might be interested in eating Lao food that was being kept under wraps?

The competition for food info is intense now. Bloggers and other websites are jumping on new restaurant openings and tidbits of info as if they were Wikileaks. But the pressure to scrounge for a secret menu at a restaurant that has been open for four years comes from Chowhound. No other media outlet has this kind of focus and influence. And the food critics know they have to work hard to get the scoop.

This is an example in which the Post got to it before any Chowhound did, so kudos to Tom Sietsema for the investigative work and original scholarship. But this would not have happened at all in the days before Chowhound.

The landscape is changing. To paraphrase from "Inherit the Wind:" All motion is relative. You can move away.... by simply standing still.

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  1. I think writers of all stripes have to find another gear, because so many contribute pro bono. (As I do, to WP and numerous magazines).
    Cool story about Lao lady being fours years alone, alone, all all alone, alone on a wide wide sea, then rock star overnight. Apologies to Coleridge.

    1 Reply
    1. I went to the WP site to read this story for myself, because I couldn't figure out why someone would create a menu if she thought no one would ever order from it. If this is what you're referring to:

      http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/...

      your description is not quite accurate. Sietsema mentions that a reader tipped him off to the restaurant's "secret menu," but there doesn't seem to be one. Rather, because the cooks at Bangkok Golden Thai Restaurant are Laotian, they will make Laotian dishes upon request. And I found no reference to "very few or no customers" in the review. Maybe that's your personal experience, but this

      "I've never seen more than two servers in the mango-colored dining room; you might wait a few minutes for your beer or your bill, especially at peak hours, as the small staff juggles answering the phone, clearing tables and delivering dishes."

      implies that the place was often crowded.

      11 Replies
      1. re: small h

        They do have an informal separate menu. Now they will print up a big one with increased demand. They can also make dishes not on the Lao menu.

        I've been by the restaurant many times and hardly noticed customers. I'm sure they had some (they survived this long), but it was under very limited circumstances. I live nearby and frequent a popular Sichuan restaurant in the same strip. My bank branch and closest post office is there too. I am sure I've been to that strip at least a hundred times, certainly more than Sietsema. I ate at the restaurant once, and I had some mediocre Thai food.

        There is surely a big upswing after the article.

        Yes, a reader tipped him off. Getting tips is part and parcel of journalism. I still credit him with investigating the tip, following up, and the scholarship involved in writing the article.

        1. re: Steve

          Then the upswing is due to the Washington Post review, not to Chowhound. I don't see any clear connection between the existence of Chowhound and Sietsema's discovery, unless you're asserting that without Chowhound, no one would think to ask for "secret" menus. And that's simply untrue. Twenty-five years ago, I asked for the "secret" menu in a Chinese restaurant on 1st Ave. & E. 29th St. in Manhattan, because I looked around and saw that other diners were eating something (stony wok, as it happens) that was definitely not listed on the paper in front of me. There was no Chowhound at that time. There could not have been, since there was no widely available internet at that time, either. And yet somehow I, no genius, not even that curious about food, came up with the brilliant idea of asking my waiter what was up.

          I don't mean to undervalue Chowhound. But Chowhound's influence cannot be separated from the influence of the internet in general. Think what MySpace did for music, or Atom did for short film. Further, in recent years, people seem to be discussing food in greater depth than they did in the past (or I'm just noticing it more - it's hard to tell). Chowhound is not the engine driving this train. It's one of the passenger cars.

          1. re: small h

            Sorry, but you misunderstood. I am saying that without Chowhound, the Washington Post food critic would probably not be investigating the tips of a secret Lao menu. I mean, he does less than fifty restaurant reviews per year, most of those locked into major downtown restaurant openings, of which there are many. In this case, he devoted a review to a suburban restaurant that had been open for many years, the last four under the same management, and he featured a menu that you have to ask for. I don't think it is the "internet in general." This speaks specifically to the kind of info on Chowhound.

            Of course I can't prove that, but as someone intimately familiar with the food scene in DC, I have a strong feeling the pressure to make discoveries like this originates from Chowhound.

            1. re: Steve

              I understand you perfectly well. I just disagree. You yourself refer to "the kind of info" on Chowhound. That info is available in places other than Chowhound and always has been, as my example about the Chinese menu illustrates. I don't know why you are so bound and determined to prove that Chowhound was the reason Sietsema reviewed that particular restaurant, but I obviously can't disavow you of that notion and will stop trying.

              1. re: small h

                I am saying it is out of character for The Washington Post to devote one of their dining reviews to such an obscure topic. Although the information is available elsewhere, it takes quite a bit of pressure to build up before the main critic feels compelled to go out on a limb like this. Form what he has written, he gets a backlash from people who prefer him to focus only on new restaurant openings downtown. In DC, that is mostly mainstream dining.

                Your own ramblings in NYC may have had a part to play, since you are part of Chowhound as well. but I can't think of a combination of other sources on the internet, or anywhere else, which would have lead to this article. It is a progression, and a bunch of independent bloggers or others doing their thing probably would result only in a nod in his Post internet chat session, not a full-blown article.

                I applaud him for his original research, at the same time I have to think that Chowhound's influence is subtle but unmistakable.

                1. re: Steve

                  Steve, there's also the DonRockwell boards for those in the DC area. Not sure if Tom is aware of them, but seeing as DR actually knows Tom, I'd be surprised if DR and other food journalists/bloggers in the area don't also help Tom out. But I also doubt that Tom has the time to read either the DR board or Chowhound regularly.

                  1. re: yfunk3

                    Tom Sietsema has been a guest on DR.com, so I am positive he is aware of it, and it influences him. However, DR.com has less talk in general of things like a secret Lao menu, though that board has made tremendous strides since its infancy. Some of the changes at DR.com are influenced by Chowhound, I think, and some posters have gravitated from Chowhound over to that board as it promotes a collegial relationship between chefs and customers.

                    Journalists don't like to be scooped, and they don't like to scoop themselves, meaning to let the cat out of the bag before their article is published. So I would imagine that a high-profile critic like Tom Sietsema keeps an eye on who is saying what. That's one way he gets tips, and a major food site like Chowhound will be a source. However, it is also big enough to be 'competition.' A smaller site, like DR.com, an independent blogger, tipster, or even a small neighborhood journal, is far more a source than competition.

                    1. re: Steve

                      Sorry if I wasn't being clear, but I wasn't talking about the BOARD influencing Tom, but rather DR (the person) himself (and people like DR). People like DR who devote a large chunk of their time eating out, maybe even as the main part of their job. So obviously these people will have incentive to dig deeper or talk to people actually working in the industry (such as the restaurant owners, other food critics from around the region/country, etc.). It's a very big possibility that Tom didn't find out about the Lao menu from a casual diner like most of us on Chowhound, who don't eat out everyday/night, and definitely not at the same restaurant every single time, but rather from someone closely associated with either the restaurant itself or connected to it in some way.

                      As has been mentioned before, there are other avenues and have always been other avenues for this type of information to reach the masses. All it takes is one person, no matter what the medium. I don't think Chowhound is really that expansive or all-encompassing that it would reach Tom Sietsema's radar unless someone directly told him that a certain issue is being discussed. Hence my mention of the DR's board probably being more on Tom's radar than CH, because while Tom might not know anyone directly associated with CH, he certainly knows lots of the industry insiders who post on DR's board and DR himself.

            2. re: small h

              Chowhound is not the engine driving this train. It's one of the passenger cars.

              Spot on!

              1. re: HillJ

                Anyone care to join me in the caboose for a Chartreuse?

        2. A little unrelated to the main theme of this thread, but it's worth mentioning that many chowhounds (at least the ones I know) aren't here to compete for food info or gain influence. The goal is still finding delicious things to eat.

          1. Tom Sietsema grew up across the street from me in Minnesota. I ran into his mom a couple of years ago, but haven't talked to Tom in years. I have read some of his reviews in the Washington Post however. I don't often get to DC so I don't pay much attention to his restaurant reviews. I have seen the same sort of thing happen here in the Twin Cities where a little restaurant will get a positive review in the newspaper and it can really boost their business. The restaurant reviewers here usually aren't too brutal, so I don't know how much of the reverse is true.

            1. Sounds like gratuitous self-promotion to me.