Category Archives: Eater

The Contest, Judged

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[graphical credit: Greg Morabito]

I wrote about Eater’s The Contest here the week before last, explaining that I was lining up a super-secret guest judge to help me render a verdict on the crazed Cheap Eats dining competition including Eater editors, Vox Media superstars, and Eater readers that had already gotten underway.

A few hours after publishing that post, a better idea struck me: I would adapt the ersatz scoring system devised by Verge entertainment editor Emily Yoshida for her Game of Game of Thrones recaps, and render daily judgements in that style. And so I did, though not before the judgements drove me as close to the brink of madness as The Contest did its contestants: Day One, Day Two, Day One and Two Bonus Rounds, Day Three, Day Four, Day Five Part One, and the grand finale, Day Five Part Two. For the record, that’s as many total words as I’ve written in any week since forever.

In the end, I didn’t end up judging the reader winner — Amanda and Robert handled that — which is really for the best or a week later I’m sure I’d still be scribbling scores on a napkin and trying to finish writing this damn thing. Still: The Contest! Total blast. Here’s hoping it does get renewed for a second season in 2016.

Eater’s The Contest

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I love stunts. And, delightfully for folks like me that share that love, Eater’s latest stunt is shaping up as an all-time classic. It’s called The Contest — hashtag #thecontest — and it’s part of Eater’s Cheap Eats Week 2015, which kicks off today across all Eater sites. But it’s only New York City that gets to participate in The Contest.

The gist: each participant — and there are a dozen Eater/Vox folks playing, plus anyone in the general public who wants to get in on the fun — has $10 total to spend each day on Cheap Eats out and about in the five boroughs. No home cooking is allowed. Plenty of alcohol is allowed. Check out the insanely specific rules, and the Eater editors’ report on their Day One breakfast and lunches.

Eater Editor-in-Chief Amanda Kludt asked me to judge The Contest, and honor which I accepted, only later to learn that I was the second choice. Regardless, I kicked off my judging duties a tweetstorm about it this afternoon:

Originally, Amanda and I thought judging would take place on a daily basis, but seeing how The Contest is playing out on Day 1, it’s clear that some contestants are making week-long themes a cornerstone of their Contest strategy. There’s no great way to judge that day-by-day. So: The Contest will end at 11:59pm on Friday, and I’ll spend the weekend judging, likely with a secret special guest co-judge, with the scoring and winners revealed on Eater NY next Monday.

Meantime, follow along on Eater NY, on Twitter and, perhaps most crucially, on Instagram. #thecontest

Los Angeles and #eyg15

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On Monday, Eater hosted its annual Young Guns event at the Viceroy Hotel in Santa Monica, CA. This created a reasonable excuse for me to spend the weekend in Los Angeles, which I did.

Los Angeles is always great, but I’m over Abbott Kinney. This kills me, given the amount of time I’ve spent on Venice’s main drag over the past decade-plus, starting with a night sometime around Y2K at The Brig, when it was pretty much the only establishment on upper AK (or at least felt that way). Add in two dozen lunches at Gjelina, great dinners at The Tasting Room, and endless nights finished with MOP at Hal’s, and, well, I feel like I grew up in LA alongside Abbott Kinney.

But now Hal’s has shuttered (seriously, wtf) and walking down Abbott Kinney on Saturday afternoon, the sheer mass of humanity felt as dense and annoying as pushing through the crowds on 41st Street. There’s a Vince about to open, too, not too far from that giant Intelligencia.

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Though AK may have passed into its precitable adulthood, much of the rest of Venice is still growing up. I bedded down for the weekend at a friends’ place north and east of Abbott Kinney, a short walk from the year-old Superba Food & Bread. I walked in there Friday afternoon for a late lunch to find Alex Blagg and Neel Shah in a corner, writing, natch. Ordered the soft shell crab sandwich, above — a far more manageable take on Lafayette’s massive entire-crab-sticking-out beast — indeed, Superba’s is perhaps the perfect take on this dish. I dig Superba so much that I lunched there Saturday and Sunday too. This wasn’t a restaurant-checklist kind of trip, for whatever reason. (Sanity.)

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Stuck around Venice for dinner on Friday night, dining at the nearly-empty back counter at Gjusta. Dinner is a new offering at this uberhyped Gjelina spinoff, and no one knows about it so the crowds that haunt this hall in the mornings and at lunch are nowhere to be seen at night. Food-wise, the seafood stew (above) is fantastic, and the salads, chicken liver pate, and the like that Mimi and I shared were all spot-on. No liquor license as yet, though they’re gathering signatures at the register; NB dinner ends at 9pm.

I’d be thrilled to have Gjusta right near home, but not everyone is. LA Weekly food critic Besha Roddel hit upon this in her review of the place last week, which echoes my feelings on the hood: “Gjusta’s sister restaurant Gjelina is in some ways a symbol of the vast difference between Abbot Kinney now and the Abbot Kinney of an older, weirder Venice, and so to some residents Gjusta feels like the beginning of the end, the bringer of yuppies and even higher rents… It may or may not become a full-fledged restaurant. Either way, Venice’s gentrified future marches on, and this particular future tastes better than many of the alternatives.” The woman is not wrong.

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The rest of the weekend? Saturday night dinner at Sushi Zo downtown with the Webber; it’s pretty much the perfect omakase if the price can be stomached. Sunday hiking in Malibu with Mere and new friend Wyatt, followed by early evening oysters and beer at Blue Plate Oysterette on Ocean Ave. in Santa Monica (above). Sunday later-evening dinner found Team Eater at the reliable Rustic Canyon Wine Bar up Wilshire.

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The trip wrapped with its highlight, Eater Young Guns, aka #eyg15. Enough ink has been spilled on Eater not to spill more here (though do check out Eater’s package about the worthy 2015 winners). So, final bits: this was the most delicious thing I ate all night (and perhaps all year), the chefs were all amazing, and the afterparty hang down the street from the Viceroy at oldschool Santa Monica bar Chez Jay (above) was the perfect capper.

Until next year.

#carolinaconquest: Asheville, NC

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[Fried chicken at Table in Asheville, NC.]

Wonderful things about Asheville, NC: (1) It’s the most charming little hill town in eastern North Carolina, a corner of the world I’ve never been; (2) Spring is old news here; the thought now is summer, with rhododendrons in full bloom, and temperatures floating in the 70s; (3) The Mast General Store, the place for homemade condiments and cleaning products; (4) Views to the mountains surrounding us on all sides — sublime; (5) THE EATS.

Traditionally, every spring Eater’s Amanda Kludt and I hit the road for a roadtrip designed to let us plot the the future of Eater and eat a ton of delicious things somewhere in America. Several years ago, the jaunt took us through Texas; last year, we spent a few days in Nashville before heading east across Tennessee to Blackberry Farm. This year, we’ve embarked on a #carolinaconquest, starting with two days in Asheville then moving east to Lexington and Greensboro through the first of two distinct Carolina barbecue territories that we’re going to experience on this trip before docking in Raleigh for the night tonight and continuing farther east tomorrow.

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[Pizza with house-made burrata at Cucina 24.]

The big difference this year: Amanda and I are joined on our journey by Eater’s roving national food critic, Bill Addison. Bill’s based out of Atlanta, so he knows this part of the country cold, and his knowledge is already paying off bigtime.

At the tail end of last year’s trip, a massive banks of thunderstorms up the entire East Coast trapped me unexpectedly in Knoxville, TN for the night. Knoxville was kind of cool, but Asheville — with a similar vibe of old-town main streets — is way cooler. It’s an incredible charming place awash in mountain air and, from what I can tell so far, fantastic restaurants. I’m not going to go into detail about what we’re eating, because Bill will do that in due time on Eater, but we’ve had meals at Cúrate, Nightbell, Cucina 24, Table, and Rhubarb here in town and none have disappointed. (To my mind, Cucina 24 and Table would stand apart anywhere, but let’s see what Bill has to say.)

Yesterday also took us on an hour-long drive further up the hills to the remote hamlet of Spruce Pine, NC. There, something very unexpected and wonderful happened to our little group. But that, too, is a story for another day so as not to spoil the forthcoming reveal on Eater.

Enough words for now. Back on the road. The #carolinaconquest continues.

On Media Rivalry

When the news of the death of Josh Ozersky came across Twitter on Monday night, this tweet encapsulated the place my mind went: to the pleasure of having a good rival in media. In memory and honor of Josh, some thoughts on that era, and the value our rivalry created for all of us.

At Eater, we knew Grub Street was coming long before it was called Grub Street. Or even existed. That’s because New York Magazine had signaled its intention in the space by making an offer to buy Curbed and Eater early in 2006. It was incredibly flattering but not the right fit at the time — a story for another day — but we understood that Adam Moss and his team saw the value in restaurant blogging and that they would likely pursue it regardless of whether they bought Eater. And so for Ben Leventhal and I it became a parlor game, to ferret out whatever information we could about what they were working on at NYMag.

One day Ben came up with the scoop. “They’ve hired Cutlets. Mr. Cutlets!” I didn’t know who that was, but Ben did: Mr. Cutlets was Josh Ozersky, a meat expert and sort-of-known food writer who went by that handle. We girded for battle, and then it came. Grub Street launched on September 18, 2006.

Except we didn’t refer to it as Grub Street on Eater. Ever. We called it Cutlets. Like, “Cutlets has the word that…” or “According to Cutlets…” This amused us to no end. “I remember it was very obvious that we were going to nickname it Cutlets — and would have continued calling it that long after his departure if Ben Williams didn’t make a personal appeal to us to call it Grub Street,” Ben recalled to me earlier today via GChat.

Ben also reminded me that on Grubz’ launch day, Cutlets promised posts ON THE HOUR. Given Eater’s semi-leisurely pace at this point in September 2006, this scared the shit out of us — but also gave Leventhal the fuel to do what he does so well. “BREAKING: Cutlets Misses Noon Post, 1 PM in Question,” screamed an Eater headline. “Other NYM servers appear to be stable. If anyone has info as to Cutlets’ whereabouts, and if he’s hurt in any way, please let us know and/or call the authorities.”

Man. The things rivalries drive you to do. (This still makes me laugh hysterically, btw.)

It’s often talked about how having rivals pushes you to a higher level, certainly in sports, but yes, for sure in media too. Students of Nick Denton’s memos over the years can trace the way with which he cannily sets new rivals as a way to motivate his troops. (It’s flattering that Vox Media was positioned with Buzzfeed as Gawker’s top rivals in his December 2014 “Back to Blogging” screed.)

But let’s be real: the marketplace clearly has room for Buzzfeed and Vox Media and Gawker Media, as well a bunch of other big digital media properties that have reached scale. We’re still going to fight tooth-and-nail, of course, because we are better than the next company on this list. (Fact.) But when rivalry is at its most intense is when it appears that the marketplace may not have room for more than one winner. When failure is an option, and maybe the more likely one. When it’s you or them.

Which is why Grub Street’s launch led us to up Eater’s game. I know from conversations long after the fact with Ozersky that this was probably harder on him than it was on us: Ben and I loved cranking out short hits, while Josh’s style was longer-form; getting used to the blogging grind is really hard. But for better or worse, for the next couple years, our metabolism soared as we worked liked crazy to get every scoop onto Eater as quickly as possible to beat the other guy. Every minute mattered. Hell, every second mattered.

“In that frame,” Ben continues, “I will say that 100% were it not for the arrival of Cutlets on the scene, I would have been much more lax about Eater’s pace. We needed Cutlets to, as I put it in an email to Peter Meehan, dated 12/4/06, ‘Get the blood flowing.’”

In the end, both Eater and Grub Street found their place in the ecosystem, and both thrived. But it’s a telling point about the power of rivalries that I can’t tweet a Grub Street link to this day.

The Grub Street-Eater rivalry never ended for Ozersky, either. Just a few weeks ago, after reading my interview with Lucky Peach in which I bragged about how Eater had beaten Grub Street on the opening of The Dutch in summer 2010, he couldn’t resist tweeting back at me:

Great rivalries never die. But great competitors, unfortunately, do. RIP, Josh Ozersky.

UPDATE: Here’s a great bookend to my story, on the early days of Ozersky and Grub Street as seen from the opposite trenches, by Daniel Maurer. And there you have it: I have linked to Grub Street.

It’s Eater Hack Week

Damn @qualityrye

A photo posted by Amanda Kludt (@kludt) on

Last Friday night, for the first time in years, I skipped the James Beard Book, Broadcast and Journalism Awards. This proved to be a seriously genius move on my part: with my jinx out of the equation, Eater racked up three Beard Awards, this first ever bestowed upon the publication. (Here’s a complete rundown of the winners.)

What’s especially cool about the awards that Eater won is that they came in the two main areas that Editor-in-Chief Amanda Kludt chose to invest in following Eater’s acquisition by Vox: restaurant reviews and feature writing. Eater’s lead critic, Ryan Sutton, was honored for his data-forward approach to restaurant criticism, specifically for three reviews: “Artisanal-Everything Roberta’s Defies the Stereotypes,” “Once an Icon, Per Se is Showing its Age,” and “Six Reasons Why Cosme is One of NYC’s Most Relevant New Restaurants.” For my money, Sutton’s Per Se review was his best of the year, spotlighting how his fascination with restaurant pricing can further inform a review that would already have been a powerhouse without the added angle. (Sutton remains on a roll in 2015, bestowing four stars on Momofuku Ko last week.)

On the features side, Kludt hired Helen Rosner to head the Eater features team. That move paid off in not one but two Beard Awards for the same essay, John DeVore’s wonderful Life In Chains: Finding Home at Taco Bell. DeVore won the Beard for best personal essay along with the MFK Fisher Distinguished Writing Award. Never prouder of the Eater team.

Meantime, it’s Monday morning in the big city, and the kickoff of Eater’s first-ever Hack Week. Inspired by the Hack Week that The Verge did last August — the very one that roused this blog back to life! — numerous members of the Vox Media product team and the Eater editorial team are gathering at an offsite location in Chelsea all week long for a series of workshops, brainstorms, and building. This sort of radical collaboration is what we do best at Vox Media, and what’s likely to come out of Eater Hack Week are new ways to tell stories as well as a better understanding of how we can collaborate in the future.

I’ll be dropping by the Eater Hack Week venue whenever I can, mostly just to listen. Well, and, if someone will let me, maybe to touch one of those James Beard Award medals.

The National 38

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Yesterday, while my plane from Vegas was somewhere over the Great Plains, the first-ever National 38 debuted on Eater. This is a big deal: it’s the first time that Eater has endeavored to name a best-of list for the whole country, and the culmination of several years of thinking about how best to do that.

The idea of a roving critic for Eater first came to Amanda Kludt and me during a trip to the Pacific Northwest in September 2012. We were dining at Canlis, arguably Seattle’s best fine dining restaurant, and the Canlis brothers joined our table, where talked turned to the lack of professional restaurant coverage in their city. What if, Amanda and I wondered, Eater could employ a critic to roam around the country, essentially doing for the best restaurants in America what Pete Wells does for New York City at the Times?

The idea, of course, required big resources — much bigger resources than Eater had at that time. A year later, though, when the company was acquired by Vox Media, we suddenly had a mandate from Vox CEO Jim Bankoff to think larger about what Eater could accomplish. Our thoughts returned to the roving critic idea. We’d need not just a well salaried position, but a travel and dining budget to match the ambitions. And then we’d need to find someone crazy enough to spend 40 weeks on the road, eating everywhere and anywhere the burgeoning restaurant world took them.

We found that man in Atlanta, in Bill Addison. Bill started at Eater in April, and from then through year-end 2014, by his own math, ate 263 on-the-clock meals in 29 cities during 147 days in the field. I’m not sure there’s ever been a dining binge of this magnitude, at least not one chronicled in realtime as Bill did with The Road to the 38.

When the road work was finished, it was time for the final summation. We didn’t want the National 38 to be a list just of fancy tasting menu places, as the Pellegrino 50 Best list largely is. We also didn’t want to rank the restaurants in order, because all Eater 38s are unordered. I think Bill did a brilliant job threading that needle in compiling the final list, including restaurants from Alinea in Chicago to Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack in Nashville, broken into several useful categories.

It’s the definitive dining roadmap to 2015. Get after it.

The Year in Eater

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[The garden at Narcissa. Photo: LS.com]

Every year, Eater asks its colleagues and friends to sum up the year that was in New York City dining, and publishes the results in the week leading into the new year. Here now, my selected responses excerpted from the full shebang:

Top Restaurant Newcomer
I tend to binge on restaurants when they open, which is what I did this summer at Bar Primi and Claudette, and this fall at Dirty French and Marta. Love all those spots, but my newcomer of 2014 is the restaurant I wish I’d dined at way more often: Narcissa. I first ate at John Fraser’s reinvention of the haunted Standard East Village restaurant space in January, right after it opened, and was blown away. I dined there again early in the summer, and then outside, tucked into the garden, in early September. Each meal was among the best I had all year. Three times just didn’t cut it; I’m doubling down on Narcissa in 2015.

Top Restaurant Standbys
My lunch standbys rarely change from year to year — Lure and Rosemarys, now and forever — but my wife and I did discover a new dinner standby in 2014, right under our noses: Mark Joseph Steakhouse, on Water Street in the South Street Seaport. Living in the neighborhood, we’ve long been fans of Mark Joseph, a chophouse cast unapologetically in the Luger tradition (albeit with better wine and drinks). But we’d never made a go-to move of dining at the bar at Mark Joseph as often as we did this past year. Becoming a regular at a steakhouse is a strange and wonderful thing, good for the soul if not necessarily the diet, but I expect us to be perched there as often next year as we were this year past.

Best Dining Neighborhood
Midtown West. When Eater HQ relocated from its longtime perch near Astor Place to the Vox Media offices on West 40th Street near Bryant Park last spring, let’s be honest: we feared for our stomachs. First we sussed out Culture and Cafe Grumpy, two real solid coffee shops. The sandwiches and salads from Maison Kayser almost made us forget Il Buco Alimentari. (Almost.) Then someone figured out that Szechuan Gourmet delivers, a fact which changed the life of Eater’s head of product, Eliot Shepard, and everyone on the 10th Floor forever. Toss in this fall’s opening of the Midtown outpost of sandwich shop Alidoro, and well, dude, it’s all happening in Midtown West.

Single Best Meal of the Year
A year of eating across the country and the globe proved again that we’ve got the best of it in New York City. My meal of the year came unexpectedly in November, when a group of old friends gathered for a new monthly tradition of enjoying dinner at a restaurant deemed special by one member of the group. Our first month’s organizer deemed that we’d dine at the original Blue Ribbon on Sullivan Street, for all the reasons that are obvious to anyone who’s ever dined there. They gave us the big circular booth near the front of the room, and oysters, and from there it unfolded into the kind of night that confirms why we dine out so often in this crazy, beautiful city.

A few additional notes that didn’t make it onto Eater: I haven’t dined at Bâtard, Drew Nieporent’s upscale Tribeca addition to the New York City dining scene, but it topped Pete Wells’ list of the 10 best restaurants of the year and, back in November, won the Eater Award for NYC Restaurant of the Year. I’m pissed I haven’t made it to Bâtard yet; Drew Nieporent is pretty much the fucking greatest.

That said, it’s now clear that the NYC Restaurant of the Year is Cosme. That it didn’t open until September cost it from consideration in the Eater Awards, and Wells hasn’t even filed his review. I didn’t make it in for my first proper meal until early December, when Ben Leventhal invited me to join him and Charlie Bird impressario Robert Bohr at Cosme for dinner. We ate practically the entire menu, hit after hit. This is Mexican cuisine like I’ve never tasted in this city, which explains why this has become one of the toughest reservations in New York recent memory. The move: the bar, of course, which recently started serving the full menu. When we showed up at 8:45pm for our 9pm reservation, we easily grabbed two bar seats.

(You know this, but the restaurant of Winter 2015 is the new Mission Chinese on East Broadway. Haven’t been yet. Who’s in?)

My top meal of the year regardless of locale was, yeah, Noma. Other nights that register strong in the memory in the five boroughs: a January night at Blanca, the tasting restaurant behind Roberta’s; my first meal at River Cafe since Sandy, with ice floes floating by on the East River; an ribeye large format at Momofuku Ssam Bar with a big fun group in the spring; and the string of meals at Dirty French in September and October when I almost made good on my plan to dine there 93 consecutive nights.

Beyond NYC, I remember sushi omakases in Los Angeles at Sushi Zo and Sushi Park that reminded me why it’s almost not worth it to bother with serious sushi omakases on the east coast; my two meals at April Bloomfield’s Tosca Cafe in San Francisco, which might be the most perfect dining room in the country; the fascinatingly odd dinner at Odd Duck in Austin (Eater’s restaurant of the year); every meal ever at Hominy Grill in Charleston, the best pure southern restaurant in the south, for my money; a summer-finishing meal at Portland, ME’s new standout, Central Provisions; and everything in Nashville.

(Final bonus/new year thing: I contributed a thought to Doree’s What People in Media are Excited About in 2015. Now, enough recapping and predicting; on with it.)

The Eater 38 (Redux)

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The Eater 38 debuted on October 3, 2006, with entry No. 1, Balthazar. Soon after, entry No. 2, Nha Trang, joined it. The feature then sat fallow for the better part of two years despite near-monthly conversations between Ben Leventhal and me about jump-starting it. Finally, we did, and the feature grew into one of Eater’s most beloved. It’s a genuine pleasure every time someone says to me, “I used the Eater 38 when I went to [city] and we had the best meal because of it!”

Yesterday, I arrived at work to an email from Fred Wilson that he’d written an appreciation of the Eater 38 on his blog. I headed over there to give my two cents in the comments, but by the time I arrived — about 10:30am — the post had been live for about four hours and 125 comments had already piled up. Such is the way of the world at AVC.

The first batch of comments and responses were harshly negative. “Ouch, bad news — the Austin list is exactly the list that a clueless, foreigner would make about Austin,” commenter number one offered. Though many others critiqued Eater’s inclusions, other commenters raised fair points concerning things Eater can be clearer about, such as the fact that the 38 list isn’t ranked (in fact, it’s in no particular order).

(As an aside: mad love to the various Eater editors who waded into the fray to correct misconceptions about the 38s, including Eater’s editor-in-chief herself. For good measure, I added some deep background.)

Separate from what one might call The Philosophy of the 38, this comment addressed Eater’s user interface: “I am minimally interested in how good the restaurants are — but the site functionality (mobile+ lists+ maps) is pretty cool.” I appreciate the props, but tend to agree more with this commenter: “I too love Eater 38 but the new UX detracts from its usefulness.”

In the month-plus since Eater’s relaunch, we’ve come to the same conclusion. One initial issue — a map zoom that was just too tight — has already been resolved. Among other improvements, Vox Product is working on a far more robust List view, as well as smoother mobile swiping. I’m reliably informed that the next round of upgrades will be rolling out across all Eater maps next week. Stay tuned.

And now, a final lesson: if at any point in its lifespan you can get your product critiqued by the raucous crowd at AVC, you and your product will be the better for it.

Yours,
Clueless Foreigner

A Defense of Schiller’s

Well, he was.

I am duty-bound to respond. Which I did immediately with a Schiller’s playbook tweetstorm. But the more I thought about it — and the more the Eater team prodded me — the more I realized I had more to say on the matter. So I wrote a blog post intended for publication in this space.

Under new terms and conditions recently negotiated with Eater’s Amanda Kludt, however, I offered right of first refusal on the Schiller’s blog post to the Eater NY team. They accepted. Which is why my Defense of Schiller’s now appears over there, my first blog post for the Big E since relaunch.

You mad? Stay mad.

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