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Before I Became a Food Writer, I Was a Chowhound

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A screenshot of the old, text-only homepage of the Chowhound message board, circa 1998.
A screenshot of Chowhound's old homepage layout, circa 1998, when the message board was focused mostly on New York. (Chowhound/Internet Archive Wayback Machine)


ears before I’d published a single article about food, I used to spend hours each week writing about where I’d found the Bay Area’s stinkiest stinky tofu, or the fudgiest slice of chocolate cake, or the most unusual variety of melon. In other words, I was one of thousands who regularly shared my most long-winded food discoveries on the discussion forum Chowhound, which once dominated online food conversation in the pre-Yelp internet but has mostly faded to obscurity these last few years.

On Monday, March 28, Chowhound will shut down for good, closed by Red Ventures, the media company that acquired the site in 2020. The decision marks a sad if unsurprising end to one of the few remaining relics of the late-’90s internet. But to me, the loss feels personal: Chowhound played a primary role in my path toward becoming a food writer.

Even some 15 years ago, when I first started posting on the site, Chowhound already felt like a throwback to some earlier form of internet—the dial-up modem world wide web of my teenage years, when I’d log onto the Bulletin Board System (BBS) my friend hosted from his bedroom PC and spend hours arguing with strangers about atheism, or Pearl Jam, or the designated hitter rule. 

During its heyday in the 2000s and early 2010s, Chowhound didn’t have a single bell or whistle. It was difficult to post photos. The interface was aggressively unattractive. The search bar function had a mind of its own. And for any given discussion thread, users would have to scroll through dozens if not hundreds of lengthy, often discursive posts to find the nugget of information they wanted. A casual visitor looking for a Chinese restaurant recommendation, for example, might be taken aback by the intensity of the back-and-forth conversations on hyper-regional variations on a dish and the historical roots of some seemingly obscure technique or ingredient.

In fact, Chowhound’s lack of user-friendliness was a feature rather than a bug. Founded in 1997, the site was the brainchild of a New York City writer and jazz trombone player named Jim Leff, who, along with his friend Bob Okumura, hoped to form a community for like-minded food obsessives—people who “never settle for less than optimal deliciousness.” In its early years, user discussions focused primarily on New York, but quickly grew to include dedicated message boards for most of America’s major metropolitan areas, each board a community unto itself. The Bay Area board was always one of the most active.


Leff’s belief was that “chowhounds” were fundamentally different from “foodies,” whom he despised. “Foodies eat where they’re told,” he wrote in his “Chowhound Manifesto,” which, for years, was the first post that greeted every new user to the site. “Chowhounds blaze trails. They comb through neighborhoods for culinary treasure. They despise hype.”

It was a community that, at its core, placed a premium on hedonism. Deliciousness was an equal-opportunity player. You might not find it at a fine dining restaurant, the site’s devotees believed, or an “artisanal” food spot approved by the restaurant critic at the paper of record. Instead, you might find it at a little pupusa counter in the back of a convenience store. You might find it at Popeye’s or Grocery Outlet. 

A man wearing a dog mask and glasses points to a street stall sign that reads, "Wei's Smelly Tofu."
Chowhound founder Jim Leff, a reluctant stinky tofu eater, wore a mask so he could visit restaurants anonymously during a 2006 trip to Toronto. (Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

While subsequent review sites like Yelp provided a platform for the restaurant-going masses, Chowhound prided itself on offering a home to the expert food explorer—the person who had eaten and documented every single al pastor taco in Fruitvale, or the post-doctoral researcher from China who translated local restaurants’ special menus and arcane food-related historical texts in their spare time. A super-user named “Ruth Lafler” introduced me to the pleasures of an hours-long taco crawl; another who went by “rworange” first inspired my curiosity about the culinary delights of Richmond and San Pablo. Meanwhile, Leff himself wrote that he, in fact, actively sought to repel the kind of casual posters who might fill the message board with “trendy ditz.” 

It wasn’t necessarily a formula for mainstream success. 


nd yet Chowhound endured. The creaky, mostly monochrome message board survived the rise of Facebook, Twitter and photo-driven, aesthetically pleasing food blogs. It outlived GeoCities. It outlived Michael Bauer’s tenure as the San Francisco Chronicle food critic. And its ethos stayed largely the same, even after Chowhound’s 2006 acquisition by San Francisco-based CNET Networks and, in 2008, that company’s subsequent merger with CBS Interactive. 

Eventually, as so often happens, the website’s new corporate ownership instituted a series of “improvements”—a five-star rating system, a sleeker interface, larger fonts and a tag-based organizational system. Meant to increase the site’s mass appeal, the changes ultimately alienated the site’s core users. One final flurry of market-chasing meddling, in 2015, was the final straw: A mass exodus ensued. Melanie Wong, a retired pharmaceutical executive and longtime poster on Chowhound’s Bay Area board, called it “the Great Rift.”

Almost overnight, activity on even the most popular regional discussion boards slowed to a trickle—just a few posts a day, contrasted with the peak years, when there might have been a couple hundred. In the past two or three years, especially, many of the boards would go for several weeks without a single post. 

Sampson Shen, who posted on Chowhound under the user name “ckshen,” was one of those who migrated from the site in 2015. He wound up creating his own alternative: a not-for-profit discussion forum called Hungry Onion that he hosts on a monthly budget of less than $100. It’s probably the closest thing on the web right now to the old Chowhound: It has a similar stripped-down aesthetic, and counts a large number of Chowhound exiles among its frequent contributors. 

Still, Shen admits that Hungry Onion would struggle to even come close to the vibrancy of Chowhound’s golden age when, in any given discussion thread, you might have 20 knowledgeable posters writing in-depth analyses of the merits of a particular dish. An immigrant from Hong Kong, Shen says that while he knew quite a bit about his own culture’s cuisine, Chowhound provided him access to deep knowledge about so many other genres of food. Hungry Onion simply doesn’t have the critical mass of active members to do that to the same extent.

“To have a site that resembles half the richness of Chowhound’s conversation, we would need to have twice as many contributors,” he says.

Still, Shen doesn’t quite agree that Chowhound is a relic of the past. Even if “general chatter” has migrated to social networks like Facebook and Twitter, he believes there’s still a place for specialized knowledge—for the kind of nuanced and esoteric food discussions that take place on his site. Look at the online forums for computer programmers, for instance, Shen says. “They’re doing just fine.”


erhaps no one embodies the Chowhound ethos better than Wong, the aforementioned retired pharmaceutical executive whose discerning posts on everything from döner kebab shops to the local competitive barbecue circuit on the Bay Area board were the stuff of legend—to the point that the Los Angeles food critic Jonathan Gold once wrote her a fan letter and, eventually, struck up a friendship. (Like many professional food writers, Gold would post on Chowhound under a secret alias; even after Gold’s death in 2018, Wong has kept her promise to never reveal it.)

Wong is now one of the site’s last remaining regular active users, and says she’s posted her food discoveries on Chowhound nearly every day since around 2000. “Being part of an online community is as natural for me as going out for drinks with friends after work,” Wong says. “It has been my daily habit.” Even during Chowhound’s lean recent years, when I’d check in on the site once every couple of months, Wong kept up her prodigious output. Most days, it seemed like she was the only person who was still posting on the Bay Area board.

Chowhound was an important cultural marker, Wong says, for much the same reason that people were so deeply broken up when Anthony Bourdain died. “They made it okay to be obsessed with food,” she says of Chowhound’s online community. “That wasn’t so much a part of American culture before.”

On occasion, the forum would make its impact felt in the real world, even beyond boosting sales at scores of formerly overlooked panaderías, dosa shops and arepa stands. Wong recalls one poignant example when, in 2007, the city of Salinas planned to restrict, or even outright ban, taco trucks—an effort spearheaded by area restaurants unhappy with the competition. Wong, who had praised the city’s 30 designated taco trucks on Chowhound in the past, organized an in-person “chowdown” to show off what she believed to be a delicious, destination-worthy gem of the Salinas Valley. Wong attended the city council meeting in person to speak out on behalf of the taco truck community—and other Chowhounds blitzed the council members with letters of support.

In the end, Wong says, “We convinced them that taco trucks were something people come down to the area for.” The city council voted against the ban, and Salinas’ taco trucks were allowed to stay.  

Wong says she’s now taking some time to consider where her new online home will be. For now, she’s mostly concerned with saving the old Chowhound data, and working against the clock, behind the scenes, with the folks at the Internet Archive to preserve as much of the site’s history as possible. “We’re trying to capture memories,” she says.

In 2012, when I was hired as the restaurant critic for the East Bay Express—my first gig as a professional food writer—I couldn’t have articulated a clearly defined philosophy of food journalism. But I’d already been posting my most exciting food finds on Chowhound for years at that point. I’d been hitting the back roads and spending time in the ugliest, most far-flung strip mall restaurants, because my fellow hounds had taught me that often, that’s where deliciousness could be found. Slowly, post by post, I’d grown unafraid of wandering into an unfamiliar neighborhood—of being the first person in my friend group, or even the internet at large, to try a restaurant and to weigh in on what I’d thought. 

If I could bring a bit of that Chowhound spirit into my work as a food critic, I thought—if I could speak up on behalf of the little out-of-the-way places I used to wax poetic about on Chowhound, halfway down a 200-post discussion thread—well, it seemed like that wouldn’t be a bad place to start. 


Someday, I’ll step away from my keyboard, retire my Twitter account and listen to my doctor’s advice to eat a reasonable number of meals each day. Someday I’ll quit this business. But I’ll always be a chowhound.

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