Media: Food Fight: A Look at Philly Food Bloggers

The most over-covered beat in Philly isn’t crime, politics or even sports: It’s restaurants, where bloggers now jostle to snag the latest “scoops” about everything from menus to matchboxes. But what, exactly, are we being fed?

It’s a Wednesday night in mid-July, and though the air is as moist and thick as vichyssoise, the help is scrambling to set out tables and chairs on the steamy sidewalk at 5th and Bainbridge. It’s so unfashionably early that many restaurants would still be offering the early-bird special, but here, all the seats inside are already taken, and the bar is clogged.

This is the official opening night of Adsum — that’s Latin for “I am here,” though the folks who read already knew that. It’s a “refined neighborhood bistro,” the owners say, the brainchild of chef Matt Levin, the thick, burly, owlish chef with the sleeve tattoo whose look and profane persona seem at odds with his previous position, cooking at the ultra-white-tablecloth Rittenhouse Square aerie Lacroix, where the Inquirer’s Craig LaBan awarded him the coveted four bells.

Levin and his partner, Kar Vivekananthan, have secured a big-windowed storefront here at this corner and turned it into a sleek little food laboratory, with a back bar lined with books and chemistry beakers, clean tiled floors and soapstone tables, recycled from an actual science classroom. But readers of the Inquirer’s online Insider blog knew that, too.

Fans of the City Paper’s Meal Ticket blog knew, a full five days before the opening, exactly what the menu would be tonight: friendly, neighborhood-y prices and dishes ranging from an $18 fried chicken with collards to a top price of 22 bucks for short ribs and mussels in a Worcestershire/brown-butter sauce. They’d learned of the quirky cocktail list concocted by young mixologist Preston Eckman that includes a gin/green tea/lime juice/honey/absinthe mix called Logical Consequence, garnished with — get this — a sprig of dill. Advance attention focused on Levin’s decadent appetizer twist on the French Canadian indulgence poutine: potatoes fried in duck fat, then doused with gravy and cheese curds, with the daring chef dolloping on a few lobes of foie gras to up the ante. As someone once said, “Bam!” There was a time not long ago when a skilled and ambitious cook like Matt Levin would have found a little spot of his own, bought some tables and chairs, worked up a menu, and had what the restaurant business called a “soft opening,” unlocking the front door one night without much fanfare and hoping that a handful of satisfied customers would spread the word, and wouldn’t take too long doing so. Maybe he’d hire a PR person to alert the couple of critics in town to come and eat there someday soon.

The menu has changed. “Nowadays, it’s just about impossible to do a soft opening,” says one restaurant insider. “You can’t fly under the radar.”

Now, food, restaurants, chefs — the whole gastro-industrial complex — might just be the most hyper-examined subject in this city. At least five different food blogs were breathlessly scanning the skies to pick up Adsum’s every movement, from the time the contract was signed for the storefront space back in March, to Levin’s choice of a name, to his decision to serve homemade pierogies (with thyme and smoked buttermilk). And that’s just the pros at work. Philadelphia has scores of amateur food freaks who fill the Web with reports of their every meal, either through blogs with cute names like Foodzings and Fries With That Shake, or in the Wild West of the growing “community” sites like Yelp, where, truly, everyone is a critic. When it comes to food, the Web has become the clogosphere.

There’s a genetic disorder called Prader-Willi syndrome that affects children, making them always hungry, insatiable, for food. Nowadays, it seems some mutant form of Prader-Willi is becoming epidemic in the population. We are always hungry, insatiable, for food information: the next hot chef, the new restaurant, the unlikely, surprising dish. Whatever strange bacillus causes the obsession seems to thrive in the host of the Internet, which is the natural home of any virus.

When did you first notice the symptoms? Was it that table of diners who kept asking the waiter about Chef? Not the chef. Chef. As in, “What does Chef recommend tonight? Is Chef making anything off the menu?”

Or was it the day you realized you could name more chefs than members of the Supreme Court? Was it the evening you decided to splurge for the grand tasting menu at Vetri, and were nearly blinded as the couple next to you took pictures of every dish that came to their table? I have a specific moment that confirmed my Prader-Willi theory. It was when my -fiancée came home from a doctor’s visit and informed me that her gynecologist was now writing a food blog.

“Over-covered?” asks Michael Klein, poking his chopsticks into a bento box tempura lunch special at Doma, a bright sushi joint just down Callowhill Street from the Inquirer. “Hmmm,” he muses. “Hmmm. I guess that would be like asking the Eagles writer if the Eagles are over-covered.”

An age ago, all the way back in 1993, Klein was working as a copy editor at the Inquirer when he saw an opening. John Corr, a longtime newsman who’d penned a sleepy and desultory column called “Table Talk” about his ramblings through Philadelphia’s bars and restaurants, was being transferred to a suburban bureau. “I asked the editors if anyone was going to pick the column up, and they said, ‘No, nobody wants to do it.’

“I said, ‘Are you kidding me? This is the most exciting time for restaurants coming up. The Convention Center is being built. Striped Bass is being built. The Rendell years are in full swing. Philadelphia is about to pop.’ I said I would do it for free.”

Klein had grown up in Philly, and his parents ran a luncheonette on Sansom Street. “I am not a foodie,” he maintains. “Not at all.” But childhood experience and his reporter’s instincts told him that restaurants could be a big, ongoing story. All those mom-and-pop luncheonettes, all the food franchises, all the fancy white-tablecloth eateries … added up, they formed a big chunk of the local economy. And restaurants could have all the intrigue and drama of politics and sports. “After a couple of years,” he says, “I realized that the city runs on its stomach. The deals are made in restaurants; whatever passes for a ‘celebrity scene’ happens in restaurants. Restaurants just sort of morphed into that.

“And people have a passion for restaurants,” he adds. “They have a sense of ownership: This is my place. They have theories about why places succeed or fail. Theories about the people working in them. There are heroes and villains. There’s a great story going on there.”

He didn’t know it at the time, but Mike Klein was catching the incipient swell of a great wave in the zeitgeist. In late 1993, a fledgling cable channel called the TV Food Network started production. Soon, the gourmets were galloping across the screen 24/7.

“The rise of the Food Network was a big thing,” says Aileen Gallagher, a Newtown Square native who’s now a professor of journalism at Syracuse University, and who until this summer edited a group of food-focused regional websites called Grub Street, including the one in Philly. “Emeril Lagasse was the first contemporary breakout star. Later, they started doing the competitions like Iron Chef. You had food people with personalities.”

Restaurants had always been theater. But theater has always been a rarefied art form with a relatively small audience. Once restaurants became television, there was a massive change in public consciousness.

Before he stepped down as chief restaurant critic for the New York Times, Frank Bruni told me, in a conversation, “Over the past decade, the number of Americans who have become sophisticated about food — for whom making and eating great food is a principal pastime — has grown and grown. That’s reflected in the popularity of shows like Top Chef, in the kind of books you see on the best-seller list, and in the advances doled out for food books. We’ve become obsessive about food and restaurants.” There was a certain skeptical, nearly sarcastic tone in his voice when he said this. Not long after that, Bruni wrote a best-selling book about his life and — what else? — food.

While the obsession with food and restaurants — this peculiar Prader-Willi epidemic — was spreading elsewhere, in Philadelphia, Klein pretty much had the food beat to himself. His editors didn’t even think the subject warranted his full attention, so he was charged with also covering celebrity gossip, or, as he emphasizes, “what passes for celebrity in Philadelphia.” Then, in 2005, a La Salle student named Drew Lazor landed an internship with the City Paper, where he took over the weekly restaurant-news column. After getting a full-time job at the weekly, he took over all food coverage, and started a food blog in 2008. “It was kind of an arbitrary assignment in the beginning,” Lazor says. “But it just so happened that I’ve always been really interested in food and restaurants in Philly.”

Around the same time Lazor came on the scene, Art Etchells, an information-tech guy who loved food and beer, decided to start his own website, called Foobooz, that would report on restaurant specials, events and gossip. In 2009, the Grub Street franchise run by New York magazine hired a Philadelphia-based blogger (she’s now this magazine’s food editor and says any comment she would make for this article would be “the pot calling the kettle black”) to manufacture up to eight posts a day on the local food scene. Around the time a New York publication decided Philadelphia was ripe for a restaurant blog, this magazine decided it couldn’t miss all the fun and started a blog called Restaurant Club.

Suddenly, the field of play has gotten awfully crowded. Though the City Paper has appropriated the phrase for one of its blogs, it’s impossible not to call this sudden appetite for foodie news a feeding frenzy. “It went from scarcity to overabundance pretty quickly,” says Etchells.

“Before the advent of food blogging, people didn’t have the notion that they needed to know this stuff,” Lazor tells me. “There’s more material than I could ever dream of. Readers tip me off, restaurant owners, chefs, bartenders. There’s this constant feed of information, and somehow, suddenly, it becomes interesting.”

We’ll have to take his word for it. Like any obsessive subculture — the daily denizens of sports-talk radio, say, or the faithful followers of political gossip — the foodies very quickly start caring a lot about a little. Topics that are on their face arcane turn gargantuan in this particular Lilliputia. The new linen napkins? The source of the crème fraîche? The secret ingredient in that zingy new cocktail? It’s all fair game in the new Philly foodie blogosphere.

“When I was really into it, I would get so excited,” says one former food blogger. “I’m going to get the menu first from the new wine bar. Score! But you really do see a spike in readership on days you break news. And you kind of get obsessed with seeing that spike in traffic. The biggest story I ever broke was that we were getting our own cupcake truck here in Philly. This was huge!”

Stop the presses. Yes, admits Drew Lazor, who was scooped on the cupcake-truck story — “It seems kind of silly. But people are really crazy about that fuckin’ cupcake truck.”

With this new corps of reporters fighting for every last morsel of food and restaurant news, the traditional relationship between journalists and PR people has flipped. Instead of publicists fighting for the attention of reporters, now it’s the other way around, with harried, hungry bloggers — gotta get eight items a day! — grateful for any crumb of information that comes their way.

“When the bloggers first started appearing five years ago, we just said, ‘Huh? What’s this about?’” one top food publicist told me. “But we figured it out. Now, we make sure that everybody gets something. I’m not going to tell you exactly how we do it, because I want the competition to have to figure it out for themselves.”

Let’s go back to Matt Levin’s newly opened Adsum. On a Thursday morning a full six days before the opening, Grub Street put up the food and drink menus; the next day, at lunchtime on the Friday before the launch, Klein posted a scan of the actual menu and some raw video of the restaurant, shot with his Flip camera. The video, he admits, “was pretty lame. But the public is pretty forgiving about quality because they just want to see the stuff.”

By the end of that same day, the Restaurant Club blog posted an interview with Levin and some details of the restaurant. The next day, working on a summer weekend (“Because I’m so cool”), Lazor put up the menu plus a slide show of still photos he took of design details of the restaurant. Art Etchells waited until Wednesday to report the “news” of the food and drink menus.

“It’s a competitive environment,” Lazor says. “People can get cantankerous. I’ve heard stories of people threatening to not cover something if they don’t get it first. That’s not my style. Sometimes I’ll get a tip and I’ll call a restaurant and they’ll say ‘We’d love to talk to you, but we promised an exclusive to Mike Klein.’ I understand that, because he delivers more eyes than we do. But usually we each get our own little perks with our own little material.”

Klein, who, one publicist says, “can really be so crabby,” seems to take the power to demand information first or exclusively as simply his due for delivering the largest number of potential readers, since he’s got two platforms. “I think by design they give me stuff first,” he says. “They know it’s going to appear in print.” And “As much as I love the Web, print is still king,” Klein says. On Thursday, when Table Talk runs in the Inquirer, “There’s a potential readership of over 300,000.” Though the reporter can’t reveal the exact number of readers who see his items exclusively on the Web, he’s certain it’s a fraction of the print audience. Still, as the City Paper’s Lazor points out, Web readers seem more engaged. And that keeps the competition for those page-clicks intense.

“Nasty?” Klein asked when I told him of complaints I’d heard from other bloggers about his big, sharp elbows. “Look, everybody gets frustrated. I haven’t threatened. Did anybody say I threatened? There’s always something else to move on to … enough going on in the business to keep people employed.

“Are there rivalries?” he adds. “Yeah. Is it a blood sport? No.”

Maybe not, but Klein certainly showed his skill and experience in the arena in late July, when he broke the story that Georges Perrier had put his famed Walnut Street restaurant up for sale. It was front-page news in the print edition, and online views of the story went through the roof.

But that was a rare event.

Day to day, we often have five people fighting to be the first to post about a new appetizer special at some neighborhood BYOB. Between them, the Inquirer and Daily News have four writers covering state government in Harrisburg. If people cared enough to pore over the sausage-making of government with the same fervor they now examine and discuss, say, actual sausages, we could be living in the new Athens. Lazor says he’s often teased by City Paper colleagues who blog about City Hall and other such indigestible matters: “They tell me, ‘It must be nice to write something people actually want to read.’”

“Jose Garces just got a Twitter account.”

I heard this again and again from people I spoke with, as if it represented some sort of milestone. And perhaps it does. There are strong indications that the explosion of social media could allow restaurateurs to skip the middlemen of print and electronic media completely. Already, according to two prominent restaurateurs I talked to, who between them own several popular spots in town, the proliferation and unquestioning receptivity of the bloggers has allowed them to stop spending money on advertising. Stephen Starr, who is credited with being out front with social media, has active Facebook and Twitter accounts covering all his restaurants, and — unlike Garces early on — actually uses them.

Indeed, the food blog explosion shows little sign of abating: NBC is now launching a hyper-local site called The Feast, edited by Collin Flatt, who wrote for Philebrity’s food blog, Phoodie. Art Etchells of Foobooz already sees the absurdity of food-blogger competition being raised to new heights. “What will it mean to get something first,” he asks, “when all it means is you received Stephen Starr’s latest tweet before the other guy?”

Klein is more critical. “From a journalistic standpoint,” he says, “it’s annoying when you read about something on Twitter. This is the antithesis of journalism. The source is going directly to the readers.” Of course, Klein has more than 3,000 followers on his Twitter account.

Who knows where it’s all going to end? Maybe this food obsession will burn itself out, and one day the hordes of frantic foodies will seem as quaint and scarce as roller bladers. Or maybe there’s no stopping this Prader-Willi epidemic, and our future will resemble a kind of Zombieland, with cities populated by insatiable, vacant-eyed creatures who emerge at night to eat food and talk about food and blog about food and tweet about food.

I like food as much as the next guy, maybe a little more, but lately I’m constantly reminded of what my father used to say when I was a kid and talking too much at the dinner table: “Just shut up and eat.”