.Chowhound Comes of Age (For Better or Worse)

Bay Area users chime in on popular web site's revamping.

When Lillian Hsu moved to Oakland in 2003, she says she had never heard of a pambazo. She didn’t know the difference between a seascape and a Chandler berry. Nor had she ever tasted a goose intestine.

But all of that changed when she found the discussion boards at Chowhound.com, a discovery that propelled her into what has since been an all-consuming love affair with food — a single-minded pursuit of deliciousness that is characteristic of the “chowhounds” who frequent the popular online food discussion board.

“The passion of the hounds was contagious,” Hsu said in a recent interview. “After reading a post, I’d think nothing of tackling the 880 in rush hour for a Blenheim apricot from CJ Olson or making a beeline for Santa Rosa early on a Sunday morning in search of a Crane melon.”

Log on to the Chowhound message board for the San Francisco Bay Area and you’ll find lengthy threads about where to find, say, the most decadent slice of chocolate cake or the best pajeon (Korean seafood pancakes) in the East Bay. You’ll find highly technical analyses of the roasting and brewing methodology of local coffee purveyors. You’ll even find a heated debate about whether it’s appropriate for an acclaimed local restaurant to charge $8 for one beautiful nectarine, unadorned, rolling around on the plate.

Up until fairly recently, one thing you wouldn’t find on Chowhound was the kind of star ratings system favored by almost every other restaurant guide, whether in print or on the web — from Frommer’s to Zagat to Yelp. On Chowhound, you couldn’t give a restaurant any kind of quantitative rating. There was no graphic displayed prominently at the top of the page indicating a restaurant’s average “score,” and there was no way to sort restaurants in a particular neighborhood or of a particular cuisine by rating.

Instead, Chowhound has built its reputation almost exclusively on long (occasionally meandering) food-focused discussions, where a single thread about one obscure dish may be kept alive for years and where information on a particular restaurant may be spread across dozens of different threads.

It’s an approach that may seem counterintuitive, and somewhat intimidating, to visitors who stumble upon the site for the first time. And so, on September 29, Chowhound launched a new look for its interface that, among other changes designed to make the site more user-friendly, unveiled a new “quick review” feature and a five-star rating system.

Immediately, many longtime chowhounds, including a few from the Bay Area, protested. In one thread, Robert Lauriston, a South Berkeley-based technical writer who has posted on the board since 2002, proclaimed, “I think this is the end of Chowhound as we know it.” Others accused the site organizers of selling out to advertising interests — a direct consequence, they implied, of the site going corporate, with its 2006 sale to San Francisco-based media company CNET Networks, before CNET itself was acquired by CBS Interactive in 2008. A few users swore that if corporate bigwigs were trying to turn Chowhound into some sort of cash cow, they’d be done with the site for good.

Why all the fuss, when it might seem par for the course that a corporate entity would want to turn a profit on a site that it’s running?

To understand the backlash at Chowhound, you have to go back to the site’s somewhat iconoclastic beginnings. Jim Leff, a freelance writer and jazz trombonist from New York, founded the site in 1997 as a virtual gathering place for folks who would, in the words of Leff’s Chowhound Manifesto, “grow weak from hunger rather than willingly eat something less than delicious.”

The site was never just about food obsession, though — at least not in a traditional sense. One thing Leff was always adamant about was the difference between a “foodie” and a “chowhound.” For Leff, foodies are people who have bought into the hype machine of the restaurant and food industry, who blindly follow the latest trends — the latest star chef or artisanal ingredient — and feel a certain amount of self-satisfaction for doing so.

Chowhounds, Leff asserts, are food lovers who look past, or simply ignore, conventional wisdom. These are the people who are going into unfamiliar neighborhoods to try that promising-looking pizzeria or taco truck — to uncover hidden gems that have been ignored or unnoticed by the food media. “They’re trying to find treasure,” Leff wrote, “and have learned to never expect it to be thrust upon them.”

In those early days, Leff, the self-proclaimed “Alpha Dog,” ran Chowhound as a labor of love. There was no advertising and no consistent revenue source — groups of hounds would simply hold periodic get-togethers where folks would donate what they could just to pay the ever-mounting server bills. (At the time, Leff promised in a spirit of independence that no food advertising would ever appear on the site — a stance that obviously wasn’t sustained through the CNET and CBS acquisitions.) The message board’s interface was notoriously unattractive and difficult to navigate, requiring the user to scroll down, down, down through endless threads to find relevant information.

But in spite of these drawbacks, or perhaps because of them, the site built a growing and loyal user base of people with whom that whole antiestablishment ethos really resonated.

Take the Singapore-born molecular biologist/geneticist/neurobiologist who posts under the handle “Limster” — he first discovered Chowhound in the late Nineties, when he lived in the Bay Area. What appealed to him was that the site was about more than just a passion for food. “Importantly it was more about being able to direct and satisfy that passion with independent and critical thinking/eating,” he wrote in a recent e-mail. “I stayed because I found that ethos intellectually satisfying.”

Bay Area user “rworange” embodies that treasure-seeking aspect of the prototypical chowhound. Those who follow the board have grown accustomed to her steady stream of extensive reports on restaurants that many folks simply haven’t heard of yet — at least three or four new discoveries each week, it seems. For her, the appeal of Chowhound had much to do with its willingness to challenge conventional wisdom. After feeling underwhelmed by a meal at some hot new restaurant that a local food critic had raved about, she Googled to see if a different review might reflect her experience, and that’s how she stumbled upon Chowhound.

“This was in 2002, before the proliferation of food blogs and restaurant review sites,” she said. “Diners had no voice. … It was fantastic to have a place to give an opinion.”

While the Chowhound message boards gave users an opportunity to weigh in on restaurants, Leff and his team of volunteer moderators also established strict posting guidelines that have remained in effect to this day. Posts deemed to be not strictly food-related or otherwise off-topic are deleted. Posts suspected to be written by “shills” — either restaurant owners themselves or their friends or investors writing glowing reviews of their own restaurant — are deleted, often without notice. Do even a cursory Internet search and you’ll find dozens of blog entries by current or former Chowhound users complaining about the board’s “fascist” moderation policies.

Chowhound’s supporters point out that this hyper-aggressive approach to monitoring the board for suspicious testimonials is the only way to preserve the integrity of the information the site provides. And the removal of non-food-focused posts means that the site has a high signal-to-noise ratio that just isn’t possible at unmoderated or loosely moderated sites.

As Robert Lauriston explains, “The heavy censorship meant that useful information wasn’t swamped by off-topic cliquish chitchat.”

Even before the most recent set of changes, some users felt that Chowhound was already shifting away from its roots, particularly after the CNET purchase and an interface upgrade that expanded the site’s user base. That was when Chowhound first merged with Chow.com, an online home cooking site. While the discussion boards maintained their independence, the merger likely added to the flood of newcomers who weren’t necessarily familiar with Chowhound’s particular ethos.

Yimster — not to be confused with the aforementioned Limster — is another longtime contributor to the Bay Area message board with a reputation for expertise on the local Chinese restaurant scene. What he remembers most about the early days was organizing and attending “chowdowns,” where local hounds all meet in person and try out some interesting, newly discovered restaurant together.

“It was like finding a long-lost brother or sister who loves to eat,” he recalls.

While chowdowns still take place, Yimster believes that now more and more people come to the site just to “take” rather than to share any of their own food knowledge. They’ll ask the board’s knowledgeable users where they should eat, but they may never report back on their experiences at the restaurants suggested or offer any of their own insights.

But according to many of the site’s devotees, the latest set of changes is particularly “unchowish,” in large part because of the star-rating feature. Jim Leff, who no longer has any official position with Chowhound, opposes the change. Among other criticisms, he questions how it’s possible to “rate a bakery that is horrendous except for one item so great it’s worth a 100-mile trip along the same rating scale as a pretty-good diner, an inconsistent high-end sushi place, and an exemplary Italian-ice cart.”

Limster, the molecular biologist, argues that restaurants and food are complex entities. “Simplifying that into a single star rating loses a lot of useful detailed data,” he said. “And I say that as someone who’s spent time thinking about how best to crunch large-scale data from thousands of biological experiments.” What Chowhound is particularly good for, he says, is finding out precisely that kind of detailed information: what off-the-menu dishes you might order, what shift the good chef is on.

The people currently running Chowhound assure users that there’s no murky agenda here. Jacquilynne Schlesier, the site’s community manager, has been helping to moderate Chowhound since the pre-CNET all-volunteer days. “Our users are incredibly passionate and incredibly knowledgeable,” Schlesier says. “But it can be a little daunting if you’re someone who’s not a long-term chowhound.” To help make the process less intimidating, they’ve revamped the site’s restaurant listings — individual pages that have all the basic information about a particular restaurant along with links to relevant discussions on the message boards. It’s on these pages that the star-rating feature appears.

Jane Goodman, the editor-in-chief of Chow.com, explained, “Yes, you can get a really nuanced vision of a restaurant or a type of food by wading through 200 posts, but I also think that it’s asking a lot of people — and frankly it’s asking too much of me, as a user, to do that.”

And, according to Goodman, the only real profit motive at play here is a desire to build the user base, and thus the site’s ad revenue, by attracting new people to the site who may have been intimidated by the purely discussion-oriented format.

Leff, on the other hand, argues that Chowhound’s primary value lies in a “critical mass of expert users” to whom a ratings system holds little appeal. What he fears is that the new system will be successful in attracting new users, but that these new users, who actually prefer a ratings-based model, are unlikely to be the type of discerning, independent-minded eaters who currently populate the boards. Over time, he worries, the value of the recommendations being made on the site may be eroded.

Nevertheless, whatever changes the folks at CBS Interactive implement, Leff hopes they do make money. After all, he says, “If they don’t bring in sufficient revenue to justify the operation, it will be — must be — thrown under a bus. That’s the fear for us all.”

When asked about whether or not Chowhound was, in fact, making a profit at present, Goodman explained she wasn’t allowed to comment directly.

“Let’s just say, it hasn’t been easy,” she said.


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