By ADAM GOLDMAN
The Associated Press
Friday, January 12, 2007; 12:33 AM
NEW YORK -- Ben Leventhal and Lockhart Steele are a pair of bloggers fighting a guerrilla war against the city's publicists. Nearly every day, the two provide restaurant information on their popular Web site, Eater.com., posting tidbits that publicists aren't ready to release and traditional journalists haven't managed to print.
Thanks to an army of hungry tipsters, Leventhal and Steele are irking restaurateurs, chefs and reporters alike with their timely scoops. They have broken stories about restaurant closings and the comings-and-goings of chefs, and their success has led to a new venture in Los Angeles.
There is also talk of stalking San Francisco's eateries and possibly delving into one or two other major cities.
The ascendancy of Eater.com is yet another example of the transformation in how news is disseminated in a blog-driven world. With sites like Eater.com, Chowhound.com and Thestrongbuzz.com, no longer do restaurant-obsessed New Yorkers have to wait for a weekly food and dining section in a newspaper or magazine to get the lowdown.
"I don't see Eater as a lone crusader," Steele, 32, said. "I see it as more of a larger trend toward the democratization of dining information."
Leventhal and Steele's site attracts tens of thousands of readers a day and led the influential Food & Wine magazine to call Eater "required reading" and dub them "intrepid web masters" for shaking up the eating scene.
"Eater is one of the sites that got it," said Pete Wells, editor of The New York Times Dining section. "They are using the medium to do things other media can't do as well. A big part of it is tapping into the online army that will do a lot of work for them. I'm really impressed with how much information they are able to gather with almost no visible signs of reporting."
Leventhal and Steele came to meet about three years ago. Leventhal was doing a weekly newsletter about restaurants and nightlife. Steele had created a site in which he detailed places to dine in lower Manhattan.
Over a vodka-fueled discussion at a swank New York bar, the two soon decided to pursue Eater with a rough recipe based on what their sites had in common. The site launched in July 2005.
"We didn't know what to do with the restaurant bits," said Steele, who is also the managing editor of Gawker Media. "We were able to take that to Eater and amplify it."
Eater's mission is simple: to report on the life cycle of restaurants _ not whether the food it serves is savory. These guys are not food critics, and photographs of food rarely appear on the site.
"No food porn," said Leventhal, 28, who also works as editorial director of Curbed.com.
The site's main attractions are clever but not snarky: the "Plywood" report (restaurant openings), "Adventures in Shilling" (PR antics) and the dreaded "Deathwatch," in which the site proclaims a restaurant moribund.
The last stage is "Shuttered" _ its meaning obvious.
While Leventhal and Steele are old-fashioned gumshoes _ pounding the pavement, taking pictures and knocking on doors to get the scoop _ Eater's success really hinges on its vast array of unpaid spies.
Many times the nugget comes in the form of a picture, providing irrefutable proof that a place is coming to life or dying.
"When we really get a hot tip, that's like a rush," Leventhal said.
Two of the bigger stories Eater has broken involved the shuttering of the famous Second Avenue Deli and Le Cirque losing its chef. Le Cirque denied the report repeatedly, but Eater's dispatch was accurate.
Leventhal says Eater tries to get it right, but the site doesn't always hit its target accurately. They recently reported a closing but soon learned the restaurant had relocated to a larger location. A reader didn't hesitate to rebuke them.
"It moved around the corner ... you buffoons," the e-mail said.
Publicists aren't always the biggest fans of Eater.
Jennifer Baum, an influential restaurant publicist, says she doesn't read the site but someone in her firm watches its postings. She advises her clients not to respond to Eater, because Leventhal or Steele will make fodder out of it.
Baum said Eater traffics in rumor and there's no fact-checking. She says the site has gotten things wrong about her clients.
"It's gossip," she said. "They can write what they want."
But she acknowledges that aspects of Eater also can affect a restaurant's livelihood like a bad food review.
"They eliminate the ability for restaurants to open quietly anymore," Baum said. "I think they're very powerful. People read it. People outside the industry read it. It's great but wreaks havoc at the same time. You put someone on Deathwatch, they can feel immediately it's lost because Eater has said it."
Wells said Eater has managed to loosen the publicist's iron grip. That's a good thing, he says.
"Eater has found an end-run around that system," he said. "As a person who believes in the freedom of the press, I love to see someone find a creative way to break the publicists lock on information."
Leventhal and Steele don't see themselves waging war against Baum and others.
"They have a job and we have a job," Leventhal said.
"Our job is to honestly chart the life cycle of a restaurant," Steele added.
And the two have no intention of quitting. Their urge to get the scoop is irrepressible.
Earlier this month, walking through the Meatpacking District on the way to lunch, they spotted a restaurant they had listed as "Shuttered." There was a heavy-duty oven and other equipment on the sidewalk _ evidence of its demise.
Both got excited.
"We should take a picture of that," Leventhal told Steele.
"Yeah, I did," Steele said, his camera in hand. "It's over!"