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The Subtle but Powerful Influence of Chowhound

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  • Steve Dec 5, 2010 04:49 AM
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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. re: Veggo

      Albatross or Tiger, Tiger?

    2. 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?

                1. re: Veggo

                  ; o ) i'll bring the limes.

        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.

              1. That story is similar to the story of an LA Thai restaurant with an untranslated, southern Thai menu. A CHer translated the menu and now the restaurant is kind of a mecca.

                1. steve,

                  This thread strikes me as silly. As the other posters have noted, there is no evidence whatsover that Sietsema was influenced to write the article referenced by CH. Your responses seem to indicate that the connection that you purport between the Sietsema article and CH are based solely on your own speculation.

                  1 Reply
                  1. re: toomuchfat

                    Yes, it is my speculation. Did I say otherwise? Not overt. No direct evidence. That is exactly how I open my OP! Please read again, if you didn't catch it the first time. This is not a thread about direct sourcing of info or even the implication someone lifted a specific idea from Chowhound.

                    "As other posters have noted?" You don't have to read that far! As I have noted in my OP.

                    However, it begs the question: where does the pressure to publish come from? Yes there is a lot of competition out there, not just Chowhound. But for a dining review which will surely interest fewer readers, there has to be a compelling reason to publish.

                    An independent blogger's mention might lead to a casual reference on Sietsema's chat session, but to devote one of his dining articles to this comes from a changed landscape. And I give Chowhound credit for that since it is the most prominent site on the internet devoted to striking out on your own and investigating unsung opportunities. For the major critic to in DC to devote an article to a secret menu is a bold move, and one that comes subtly but unmistakably from the Chowhound Manifesto that Jim Leff wrote.

                    It's a long journey, a long time in coming, but I point this out to people, not for a silly reason, but because I think it is a surprising indication of the subtle influence of Chowhound.

                  2. i think you're giving chowhound way too much credit for a food journalist/restaurant critic's article. it's his JOB to turn people onto new restaurants and explore dining venues that may not have otherwise been noted before.

                    11 Replies
                    1. re: selenster

                      Yes, you're right, that is his job. And for one person in the DC area, that is quite an enormous workload. New restaurants, food trucks, and other spots are opening at a dizzying rate. You need to have three mouths and a dozen stomachs to even begin to make sense of what's out there. And you not only have to eat it, you have to write about it in a cogent way that is not the kind of spontaneous blather I am expert at.

                      I am not positive if I can convey the idea that this article is a significant departure from the norm.

                      The Washington Post weekly dining column has long covered obscure places in many different locations around the DC area. That's nothing new. So why am I making a fuss?

                      There are other spots in the Post to hand out this information: there is a Food Section with quick tidbits about foraging tips, an online dining chat, perhaps even a small feature in the style or weekly local living section.

                      For the weekly dining review, this represents a sea change. The TOP SPOT reserved for a secret Lao menu? Yeah, that is something to raise eyebrows.

                      So I do not think it is business as usual.

                      Now as to the emphasis on credit, I do think that there is a difference between sourcing information (which is available in so many forms) and the idea that maybe the general public wants to know about this.

                      This is where Chowhound's popularity and its manifesto come into play. It was the bull elephant trumpeting to the herd. The herd may have been slow to come along, but I think Chowhound has had significant cultural impact and enough of a megaphone (pardon the mixed metaphor) to make a difference.

                      1. re: Steve

                        I honestly don't see it as that big a deal. It's well known that Tom Sietsema (and other professional food critics, of course) goes to a restaurant quite a few times before writing the review for the paper, so it very well could have been a natural chain of events:

                        1st visit - Sietsema orders from the regular menu, looks around, sees people eating other foods that look better than what he ate, vows to try them next time he visits.
                        2nd visit - Sietsema wants to order a dish that he remembered looking good, but can't find something with the same ingredients on the menu. Asks waiter, who informs him of secret Lao menu. Sietsema talks with waiter, then owner/manager about Lao food and what they recommend, and orders what they recommend.
                        3rd visit - asks for Lao menu again and tries different foods, to see if he is treated (or if anyone recognizes him from last time). Decides that Lao menu is much better than regular menu.

                        Sietsema is really more a sign of modern food critiquing and gastronomic culture more than Chowhound/internet culture.

                        1. re: yfunk3

                          I understand how it works, and I am sure he is not a novice at it.

                          I was underscoring the decision to use his most visible platform for talking about a secret Lao menu. If this is ho-hum news, then maybe you can tell me when he has done this previously.... or maybe you could point to the top food critic at a major daily with a similar review.

                          Maybe you're right that this is par for the course. But I'm pretty sure it's new for the Post and maybe not so ordinary elsewhere as well.

                          1. re: yfunk3

                            I think the point is: why did Seitsema review this restaurant *at all*. Of all the restaurants he could have reviewed, including high-profile new openings that he's virtually obligated to review, why did he review a four-year-old restaurant in a modest suburban location that on its face is no different than dozens of other restaurants? Clearly he had a tip that there was something there worth spending his limited resources writing about.

                            And of course reviewers read food sites. Some of them even credit these sites for their tips. I've personally been asked by reviewers for opinions on places they read my (and others') comments about on chowhound when they were considering reviewing them.

                            Finally, I think the important influence of sites like Chowhound is that reviewers are aware that there's an audience that's interested in something other than "mainstream" cuisine and the latest high-profile opening. Seitsema isn't going to devote his limited resources (time, money, column inches) on a topic he doesn't think (and more importantly, his advertisers don't think) his readers will be interested in. Reviewers tailor the subject of their reviews to their *perceived* audience. In the Bay Area, for example, one reviewer who started out with a mainstream suburban newspaper changed the types of restaurants he reviewed markedly when he moved to a paper with a more urban, "alternative" readership. If you change their perception of what kinds of dining experiences people are excited about, then you're going to change the types of reviews they write, and sites like Chowhound demonstrate that there are people who really do want to know about "secret" Lao menus in suburban Thai restaurants.

                            1. re: Ruth Lafler

                              Okay, responding to both Steve and Ruth, unless you ask Sietsema himself (possible through his weekly online chats), then all this speculating is just sort of going nowhere and no one is quite sure what you want to argue except that both of you view Chowhound as incredibly influential in the restaurant world.

                              Quite frankly, I don't agree considering the demographics (not age, but interest and financial). I sincerely think that Sietsema has too much to do to read CH, but if you are just saying that someone who happens to be on CH gave Tom a tip, then...only Tom can say if that is truly the case or not. Other than that possible connection, I see nothing related to the article and CH, directly or indirectly.

                              1. re: yfunk3

                                Asking Sietsema has nothing to do with it. I have no idea or even care what he would have to say on the subject.

                                I'm afraid the train has left the station.

                                1. re: yfunk3

                                  Okay, you can choose to ignore everything I said about the indirect influence of "sites LIKE chowhound" (which is what I said). But what all sites like this in all kinds of fields have done is allow providers (of goods, services, content, etc.) to get a much more accurate picture of what their customer base/audience really likes, is interested in and is talking about and to tailor their goods, services, content accordingly.

                                  Journalists in particular have always relied on tips and sources to point them to things of interest, and sites LIKE chowhound are a gold mine. As you pointed out, Sietsema is a very busy man. He can't review everything. So how do you think he decides what to review? For high-profile restaurants he gets info from publicists (directly or indirectly) or the chef grapevine, but for your basic modest neighborhood place he and other reviewers get their tips from word of mouth. Chowhound and sites like it are high-tech forms of word of mouth, and Chowhound is one of the best known and best respected.

                                  1. re: Ruth Lafler

                                    I didn't choose to ignore it, I just personally think that Sietsema and the restaurant world as a whole doesn't really care that much about what is said about them on sites like CH where they don't have a strong public presence.

                                    As for word of mouth, I am guessing that Sietsema and other food critics in popular publications get MOST of their customer comments via e-mail and whatever online chats they partake in (Sietsema has never, ever mentioned online forums like CH in his chats unless one of his readers brings it up directly. On the other hand, he tells people to e-mail him at his WaPo e-mail address all the time).

                                    And like it or not, the people on CH are NOT and will never be the majority of customers at any given restaurant, no matter the type of restaurant. Restaurants know this, food critics know this. It's all well and good if you think CH has this over-arching influence on the world at large, but it honestly doesn't because the majority of people on CH do not represent the same tastes, interest and financial demographic that restaurants rely on to maintain a solid customer base. If you were to go to any high end, well-respected restaurant on any given night and take some sort of poll about who is familiar with or has read CH, I bet you it'd be less than 15% of the diners, and that's being generous.

                                    1. re: yfunk3

                                      "If you were to go to any high end, well-respected restaurant on any given night and take some sort of poll about who is familiar with or has read CH, I bet you it'd be less than 15% of the diners, and that's being generous."

                                      I'm not exactly sure how we got from a secret Lao menu to polling customers at high-end restaurants. I applaud Tom Sietsema for going out on a limb. I've eaten at the restaurant, and he did a great service to his readers and fellow Chowhounds because it really is a gem, and I hope it will open up people to the idea that there is more out there than meets the eye. The same message that Chowhound has been sending for years.

                                      1. re: Steve

                                        It sounds suspiciously like you're claiming there were no adventurous eaters before CH. I'm also sure that Tom has reviewed other ethnic restaurants of limited popularity and this review isn't as out of the norm as you proclaim. Basically I see this thread as you giving yourself a pat on the back.

                                        1. re: Worldwide Diner

                                          I take no personal credit, only as part of a large community that I first found out about.... because Tom Sietsema recommended it in The Washington Post years ago. In fact, the start of his tenure at the Post coincided almost exactly with the birth of Chowhound. He acknowledged it early on as a good source of food knowledge.

                                          As with any critic, his relationship with Chowhound is stormy; Chowhounds like to take pot-shots at the critics. So I imagine he has some bitter feelings, though Chowhound has been good about deleting most of that garbage.

                                          I have followed many of his tips over the years, always crediting him when I do so (as with the secret Lao menu), so I am intimately familiar with his coverage and writing. I have already stated in this thread that covering obscure restaurants is not new for him, so I am unclear why you are regurgitating this.

                                          The big deal is something he had been reluctant to do for many years: talk about a secret menu. Serious Thai restaurants in the DC area have a menu in Thai and many Chinese restaurants have an alternate menu in Chinese, and ordering off-menu is a common practice in many of these restaurants.

                                          In this article, he not only mentions it, but it is the focus of the article. This is a pretty big leap from the usual coverage. So unless you have some other article to point to, I still will believe that this sets a precedent for his weekly dining column.

                                          Now on to the question of how Chowhound has changed the landscape: it has done so because of its unique mission, its popularity, and the specific content that has found its way onto the Washington DC Board. Chowhound did not create the restaurants, but it did foster a climate of discovery and wider acceptance that manifests itself in other places.

                                          \

                        2. Well, FWIW - I've noticed that eater.com quotes quite a few CH discussions on a regular basis.

                          4 Replies
                          1. re: linguafood

                            Indeed they do, in their "Board Wrap" section. But Chowhound is by no means the only board in the Board Wrap. NY Eater also quotes, among others, Yelp, Midtown Lunch, Serious Eats, and eGullet.

                            1. re: small h

                              exactly. and for some gosh dang reason they keep linking my threads :)

                              1. re: selenster

                                The first time a post of mine was "permalinked" I was very, very proud. It doesn't take much to make me happy.

                                1. re: small h

                                  hahah i know that feeling. we are obviously both big food dorks. keep up the good work! :)