Chowhound, the website that started 25 years ago as a digital meeting place for obsessive food lovers, will close on March 21, the site announced Monday.
“This incredibly difficult decision is due to limitations in the capabilities and resources required to maintain the site on an ongoing basis,” the moderators said. Red Ventures, the media company that owns Chowhound, declined to comment further.
Chowhound was founded in 1997 by Jim Leff, a jazz trombonist and writer whose day jobs financed his ardent quest for delight, along with a somewhat quieter partner, Bob Okumura.
In its heady early days, it was a space to find recommendations for the best barbecue, arepas, or Albanian bureks in New York, alongside impassioned rants and relentless squabbles over kimchi, lengua tacos, and lahmacun.
“Chowhound wasn’t just a dinner party, it was by and for extremist people who have tried every quesadilla in Sunset Park,” said Mr. Leff Wednesday.
The 1990s were exciting for food-loving New Yorkers. A small group of hungry writers sauntered through the alleyways of all five boroughs, applying to restaurants of all kinds the lessons learned from national writers like Calvin Trillin and Jane and Michael Stern, whose delectable odes to burgoo, chess pie, and brain sandwiches. (a St. Louis specialty) revived interest in regional American cuisine
Among them was Robert Sietsema, who wrote a newsletter, “Down the Hatch,” before joining The Village Voice and eventually Eater New York; and Sylvia Carter, who wrote an excellent column for New York Newsday before it closed in 1995. I joined this group in early 1992 and started the $25 and Under column for DailyExpertNews.
Perhaps the most obsessive of them all was Mr. Leff, who, when I first met him in 1993, was writing a restaurant column for New York Press, an alternative newspaper full of interesting texts.
Mr. Leff, it seemed, always found the best Fujianese noodle dish imaginable in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, cooked by a woman who appeared on a street corner, but only on Thursdays unless it was raining, in which case she would come on Tuesdays between noon and 13.00
These were also the early days of the Internet, when floundering telephone modems could short-circuit the brain with their connection sounds. Chowhound was the fusion of these two worlds, a neighborhood meeting place for food adventurers – chowhounds, Mr. Leff called them, distinguishing them from dilettante gourmets – to indulge their quirky obsessions among a like-minded community.
The site, which provided a large, direct forum for Mr. Leff, was simple and unadorned, cheaply done, like the duct-taped Naugahyde chairs in Mr. Leff’s favorite kind of restaurants. But for those of us who cared, it was an oasis where the city’s multiplicity of cultures—the beautiful mosaic, in the memorable expression of former Mayor David N. Dinkins—appeared in delightful detail.
The discussions stimulated the imagination and an insatiable hunger. I was not an avid participant. I qualified more as a lurker. For those of us hunting for the restaurant, Chowhound was like a daily tip. A barbeque tent without a phone near Kennedy International Airport? A jerk on Gun Hill Road in the Bronx? Noodles in Vlissingen? I’m on my way.
Chowhound soon expanded beyond New York to other cities. Combative people are what they are, animosity and rivalry blossomed and splinter sites formed, such as egullet.com (also now closed) and mouthfulsfood.com. None quite grasped the vulgar compulsion that inspired Chowhound in its heyday.
Tired of running the site on a small amount of money, in 2006 Mr. Leff and Mr. Okumura sold Chowhound to CNET, which was acquired by Red Ventures in 2020. By then, the internet and the food world had changed. First blogs and then social media had given everyone the means to bypass village gatherings like Chowhound.
I started writing about wine full-time in 2004 and lost the thread of Chowhound. But others don’t. In the past few days, Twitter has been full of memories about inspirations, quarrels and friendships that originated on that remarkable site.
I asked Mr. Leff if a site like Chowhound was still needed.
“Today there are countless places to talk about food, and everyone has an opinion, but it will never be economically viable to limit ambition and target a limited, knowledgeable audience,” he said. “But one day another true believer will give it a chance, not for glory or profit, but just for its sheer utility.”
Website or not, Mr. Leff is still doing what he always did.
“Before I wrote about food, I made finds and nobody cared,” he said. “Then I became a writer, and people cared. Then Chowhound, and they cared a lot. Now I keep making great finds and nobody cares. From my perspective it was all a comfortable straight line. I am a chowhound at my core.”