Regrettably, the website Chowhound is shutting down after a distinguished 25-year run. The site evolved through the years, but not enough can be said about its founder Jim Leff. Back then, most food writing in New York centered on fancy restaurants, and Chowhound was at least partly responsible for setting us on the culinary path we’re on today, one that’s more inclusive and less Euro-centric.
I met Leff sometime around 1994. We were introduced by Sylvia Carter, a restaurant critic for Long Island’s Newsday, who covered lesser known places in the five boroughs and on the Island. Her review outings were often attended by a crowd she curated for their love of what were then often dubbed ethnic restaurants — mainly small mom-and-pop places that served food you wouldn’t find in a diner. Leff was an itinerant trombone player who mainly did wedding gigs, and I wrote a food fanzine called Down the Hatch. I’d also recently begun a weekly column in the Village Voice, while Leff wrote a competing column in the New York Press.
Being a Long Islander, Leff owned a car, and we soon made use of it to check out new restaurants. I had many other ways of getting to the restaurants I covered, but an invitation from Leff provided an experience to be relished. He might say, “Hey, I’ve heard of a guy that sells Thai skewers from a cart on a dead-end street in Rego Park. Want to go?” I’d say yes, knowing that a Leff food trip always turned out to be a confirmation of Zeno’s paradox: On the way to the destination, he’d keep thinking of other places worth visiting, and you’d stop at them one by one. Soon, you were zigzagging across the city, so that you approached, but never quite reached, the original objective. “Another day,” he’d say as we halted an expedition out of sheer fatigue.
Leff cobbled together freelance jobs writing about food, playing his trombone all the while, but he never found his raison d’etre until he co-founded Chowhound in 1997. To those more familiar with today’s food websites, social media landscape, and digital newsletters, the early Chowhound would seem hopelessly crude. It was a digital bulletin board of sorts, divided geographically and according to food-related topics, such as What Jim Had For Dinner, to which contributors initiated threads that could be answered by other participants. There were no pictures, and the website would be accessed by telephone modem when it launched. On the site, participants, known as “hounds,” established reputations by finding little-known restaurants and extolling them.
A cult formed around Chowhound. Volunteer moderators would police the site to prevent foul language and other infractions. For example, the bad behavior or even criminal activities of restauranteurs might not be mentioned, or indeed any legal matters involving restaurants, especially health department closures. There were other rules, too.