Blogs heat up N.Y. dining scene

Blogs heat up N.Y. dining scene

`GOSSIP' LEAVES BITTER TASTE IN PUBLICISTS' MOUTHS

By Adam Goldman

Posted on Mon, Jan. 15, 2007

Ben Leventhal and Lockhart Steele are a pair of bloggers fighting a guerrilla war against the city's publicists.

Nearly every day, the two provide restaurant information on their popular Web site, Eater.com, posting tidbits that publicists aren't ready to release and traditional journalists haven't managed to print.

Thanks to an army of hungry tipsters, Leventhal and Steele are irking restaurateurs, chefs and reporters alike with their timely scoops. They have broken stories about restaurant closings and the comings and goings of chefs, and their success has led to a new venture in Los Angeles.

There is also talk of stalking San Francisco's eateries and possibly delving into one or two other major cities.

The ascendancy of Eater.com is yet another example of the transformation in how news is disseminated in a blog-driven world. With sites like Eater.com, Chowhound.com and Thestrongbuzz.com, no longer do restaurant-obsessed New Yorkers have to wait for a weekly food and dining section in a newspaper or magazine to get the lowdown.

“I don't see Eater as a lone crusader,'' Steele, 32, said. “I see it as more of a larger trend toward the democratization of dining information.''

Leventhal and Steele's site attracts tens of thousands of readers a day and led the influential Food & Wine magazine to call Eater “required reading'' and dub them “intrepid Web masters'' for shaking up the eating scene.

“Eater is one of the sites that got it,'' said Pete Wells, editor of the New York Times Dining section. “They are using the medium to do things other media can't do as well. A big part of it is tapping into the online army that will do a lot of work for them. I'm really impressed with how much information they are able to gather with almost no visible signs of reporting.''

Leventhal and Steele came to meet about three years ago. Leventhal was doing a weekly newsletter about restaurants and nightlife. Steele had created a site in which he detailed places to dine in lower Manhattan.

Over a vodka-fueled discussion at a swank New York bar, the two soon decided to pursue Eater with a rough recipe based on what their sites had in common. The site launched in July 2005.

“We didn't know what to do with the restaurant bits,'' said Steele, who is also the managing editor of Gawker Media. “We were able to take that to Eater and amplify it.''

Eater's mission is simple: to report on the life cycle of restaurants — not whether the food it serves is savory. These guys are not food critics, and photographs of food rarely appear on the site.

“No food porn,'' said Leventhal, 28, who also works as editorial director of Curbed.com.

The site's main attractions are clever but not snarky: the “Plywood'' report (restaurant openings), “Adventures in Shilling'' (PR antics) and the dreaded “Deathwatch,'' in which the site proclaims a restaurant moribund.

The last stage is “Shuttered'' — its meaning obvious.

Publicists aren't always the biggest fans of Eater.

Jennifer Baum, an influential restaurant publicist, says she doesn't read the site but someone in her firm watches its postings. She advises her clients not to respond to Eater, because Leventhal or Steele will make fodder out of it.

Baum said Eater traffics in rumor, and there's no fact-checking. She says the site has gotten things wrong about her clients.

“It's gossip,'' she said. “They can write what they want.''

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