How Restaurant Blogs Redefined Dining Forever

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The dinner rush at the Spotted Pig, one of New York’s preeminent dining destinations. Photo: M. Cooper

For those of us who fritter away our days (and nights) dreaming up catchy top-ten listicles, posting images of our cocktails and half-eaten desserts on Instagram, and obsessively trawling the online galaxy for the latest viral food sensation, it’s easy to forget that the chaotic, maddening, constantly expanding online food world is still in its relative infancy. This month marks just the tenth anniversary of Grub Street, which went live on September 18, 2006, with a post promising hourly updates that would cover “everything from the cult street vendor, nameless yet venerated, to the latest temple of gastronomy, awash in renown,” written in an Adderall-fueled lather by our first editor, the late, great Josh Ozersky. Grub Street was a “blog” back in those dim, pioneer days (it’s a “vertical” now), founded in response to other local, restaurant-centric sites like Chowhound, eGullet, and Eater, which were popping up around town and fast morphing, even then, from sideline hobbies into mini-brands and businesses.

This morphing has continued ever since, of course, altering the business of restaurants — how they’re conceived, how they’re written about, how they’re digested by the dining public, even how cooks build their careers — in all sorts of radical and unimaginable ways.

Thanks to the great digital blog boom, there are no hidden mysteries in the formerly mysterious food world, and everyone knows everything at the same time. Cooks used to have to spend years fighting their way up the ladder of great Darwinian kitchens to attain superstar status; now they just have to come up with a few photogenic stunt dishes, and the zombie hordes will find them. In the old pre-blog days, restaurant critics were like miners, shining our creaky headlamps on discoveries for our rapt readers, but now those of us dinosaurs who still roam the dining landscape are more like carnival barkers, attempting to herd the crowds of informed, unruly diners from one ephemeral attraction to the next.

Ken Friedman, who opened his flagship gastropub the Spotted Pig just as the great food-blog tsunami was gathering force, told me his restaurant would probably be a relatively anonymous neighborhood joint serving a very good burger if he’d opened 20 years earlier: “We wouldn’t be an international destination.” Friedman, who opened the Pig with a then-anonymous English cook named April Bloomfield a little over a decade ago, came to restaurants by way of the music industry, and he compares the transformative effect blogs had on the city’s restaurant scene to the coming of MTV on the music industry in the 1980s. A formerly hidden world — the kitchen and its culture — was thrust out in the open. The appetite for restaurant content suddenly went from a story or two each week to dozens each day, and the opportunity to tell a story — about an obscure, strangely delicious fusion pork bun in the East Village, for instance, or a talented young cook from London and her Roquefort-topped pub burger — ballooned along with it.

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April Bloomfield’s Roquefort burger, perhaps the single most iconic dish of the last decade. Photo: M. Cooper

Suddenly, the autocracy of the old print publications was obliterated (unless your target audience happened to be over, say, 55). Friedman credits a small mention in the popular email newsletter Daily Candy, not one of the city’s august dining critics, with putting the Spotted Pig on the map. When the Times, and its critic Frank Bruni, finally got around to publishing a one-star review a year and a half later, lines to get in the little pub were already around the block. “The whole review was about how he had to wait two and a half hours,” Friedman recalls. “The place was packed because it became a phenomenon, and it became this new thing. Wow, restaurant-quality food in a bar setting. The blogs got that.”

When I asked the chef Michael Anthony what was more important these days to the success of his newest venture, Untitled — which he opened last year with Danny Meyer — a two-star review by Pete Wells in the Times or a much-shared and much-retweeted image on Grub Street of the restaurant’s chocolate-chip cookie, he thought for a minute, and finally said, “I think we need them both … The fact that our pastry chef made a great cookie that could be accessible to almost everyone who walks in there, and Grub Street wrote about it, was, you know, a small phenomenon. It was powerful for us.”

“Food has never been more mainstream, more about pop culture than it is today, and if you think the internet has nothing to do with that, then I think you’re not paying attention,” says Ben Leventhal, who co-founded Eater on a hobbyist’s whim, with his restaurant-obsessed friend Lockhart Steele about a year before Grub Street went online. He’s right, of course, although chefs like Anthony, who started out at Blue Hill, and Alex Stupak, who worked his way up to prominence the old-fashioned way — as an acclaimed pastry chef for Grant Achatz and Wylie Dufresne, before branching out into Mexican cooking — talk almost wistfully about the old pre-Cronut, pre-viral-food line days in the kitchen.

“The ‘sous-chef’ was like a 35-year-old dude, divorced. He’s got two kids you’ve never seen. He’s working the meat station. He’s always ordering you around. You didn’t fuck with that guy,” says Stupak, who runs three Empellón restaurants downtown and will open another one shortly in midtown. “Now the sous-chef is 22,” and he’ll probably leave in four months to open his own restaurant in Brooklyn. Stupak, whose talent and antic energy make him a natural in the fleeting, adaptable, image-conscious digital world, says digital outlets will help you find an audience, but they won’t help you keep it. And, he points out, even the city’s great restaurants, like Le Bernardin, rely on a bedrock of local, pre-blog support. “You get new really quick online, but you also get old really quick,” he explains, “so you better do well in your neighborhood.”

Like Anthony, Stupak says he’s never consciously created a recipe (or a restaurant) with an online audience in mind, but Friedman, whose story-driven, music-producer skill set is the model for the new-age world, says Salvation Taco was created that way. Ditto its much-hyped, social-media-friendly, cousin, Salvation Burger, where even this judicious dinosaur critic couldn’t resist posting pictures of the statuesque double cheeseburger before bothering to take the first bite. And while New York isn’t the country’s absolute food capital anymore, for better or worse, the dining fashions popularized here (filament bulbs, pork buns, “Brooklyn”) have never been more influential, popping up at restaurants everywhere, from Paris to Tashkent.

Do we miss those languid, dignified pre-blog days, when restaurants tended to be larger, quieter, and less frenetic, and those of us who cared about them didn’t spend every waking second fighting over ramen burgers and the outrageous spectacle of Guy Fieri’s spiky bleached hair? I guess we do a little. Sure, the grand old, idiosyncratic dining palaces are under siege, and thanks to frenetic, blog-fueled “best restaurant” lists, the new ones tend to look the same. But it’s also thanks to the blogs that a formerly hidden world is now at our fingertips, and as anyone who spends time in the ever-expanding gastronaut galaxy will tell you, there are more delicious things to consume, purchase, photograph, and fetishize than ever before. The blogosphere made the restaurant scene a more hectic, unruly place, but it’s also made it more varied, more democratic, more accessible, and more diverse.

Grub Street has changed quite a bit since we first signed on a decade ago, and the nature of blogging has changed, too, but as Old Mr. Cutlets knew after tapping out the first fevered post, the dining landscape was about to undergo the biggest change of all. “It’s a brave new world, Platty,” he would cry whenever I wandered over to his wrapper-strewn cubicle with a disapproving frown on my face. The crazed glint in his eye said it all. The barbarians weren’t at the gates anymore. They were inside the castle, and nothing in our ordered little insider world would ever be the same.

Grub is also celebrating a decade of the Grub Street Diet with new contributions from a dozen of our all-time favorite subjects.

Platt: How Food Blogs Redefined Dining Forever