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Foodie Free-for-All
If you can chew, swallow and type, you're ready to join Washington's legions of online restaurant reviewers

By Candy Sagon
Sunday, May 3, 2009

PassionFish has been open for only three months, but Joe Heflin has already been to the Reston eatery three times and posted lengthy reports about its offerings on local online review sites.

Tonight will be his fourth visit, and it's evident on this January evening that the restaurant staff is aware that he and his wife, Carol, are in the house. The hostess has reserved Heflin's favorite table, the one her computer records show he has requested before. She leads him to his favored perch on the second level of the restaurant, which features a view of the entire first floor.

"The first time I came, they put me at a table in the back. I asked to be moved to this one, because you can watch everything that's going on," he explains.

Heflin, known on local Internet food sites as Joe H., is no ordinary diner. At 62, he is the dean of Washington's influential cadre of self-appointed restaurant critics and food commentators, a group that includes Don Rockwell, founder of the foodie-free-for-all DonRockwell.com, and Amanda McClements, creator of a relentlessly upbeat blog called Metrocurean.com. Unlike Rockwell and McClements, Heflin doesn't preside over his own Web site. But he has been posting snippets, reviews, comments, suggestions, advice, tips and tirades on Chowhound.com and DonRockwell.com for nearly a decade -- an avocation that hasn't gone unnoticed by Washington's restaurant owners and chefs.

Heflin first got a taste of the food at PassionFish in October, when Washington chef and entrepreneur Jeff Tunks invited him to a preview reception that featured free appetizers and introduced him to the chef. It didn't take Heflin long to return to the restaurant for dinner on his own dime. Afterward, he immediately posted a glowing review of PassionFish on DonRockwell.com, calling it "the best in western Fairfax County" and gushing that "as a 20-plus year Restonian and native born Washingtonian I am honored that a great restaurant has finally come here." On Chowhound, he wrote that, "the fried calamari rivals Baltimore's Charleston for the best I have had. This is frying as high art. Serious. Jeff Tunks also makes outstanding gumbo, perhaps a throwback to his days [in New Orleans] as the chef at the Grill Room of the Windsor Court in the early and mid-'90s (when this was considered by many to be NOLA's best room)."

He is, he acknowledges, infatuated with food and restaurants. And that's not the only thing that's notable about Heflin: He earns his living selling amusement park rides around the world. Though his profession has nothing to do with food, it has allowed him to travel widely and dine at scores of Michelin-starred restaurants in countries such as France, Italy and Spain. He brings those experiences to the table when he eats out in Washington. In the past, he says, this area had some restaurants that measured up to Michelin standards -- the now-closed Maestro, for example, and Michel Richard Citronelle, which remains open but has, in Heflin's assessment, slipped in its attention to detail. At the moment, Heflin argues, Komi is the only restaurant in Washington deserving of a Michelin star.

At PassionFish, Heflin closely quizzes the waiter about the menu, asking if the Norwegian crab legs are available and if the clams are whole-belly rather than strips. Told that the crab legs didn't come in, he is briefly distraught.

"You don't have them?! Oh, my God, that's too bad. They are fabulous," he says glumly. When the waiter recommends ordering the cioppino, Heflin quickly shakes his head. "The gumbo is much better," he declares.

Heflin resembles the gentlemanly "Pink Panther" actor David Niven. He has a mustache and neatly combed brown hair that is lightly gray at the temples, and he wears rimless aviator-style glasses. He's wearing a dark blue blazer with a silky red pocket square and a crisp blue-striped shirt with a white collar. Dressing nicely when eating out is important to him. He can't abide it when people show up at fine restaurants wearing clothes better suited to doing yard chores. "It's disrespectful," he says.

We end up ordering three appetizers, a soup and the gumbo, which Heflin says is as good as he remembers. Then we choose three entrees, but executive chef Chris Clime sends out a complimentary fourth -- a terrific beef dish that's not on the menu. Heflin samples it without hesitation. For dessert, we try the brown butter ice cream. Heflin is underwhelmed by it. "Not enough flavor," he asserts, "and I can taste ice crystals." But an order of freshly fried doughnut holes is sublime; Heflin is right, frying is an art here.

When we finally get up from the table, Clime rushes out to say goodbye to Heflin and gauge his reaction to the meal: "Did you like it? Did you like the turf I sent out to have with your surf? It was great to see you."

Heflin is greatly embarrassed by this, calling me several times in the next few days to insist that this has never happened before. He worries that I'll get the wrong impression -- that he likes to draw attention to himself or considers himself a reviewer. But Clime is no dummy; Heflin is not only a regular, which all restaurants appreciate, his online opinions carry weight with other diners. Heflin ultimately agrees that, after all these years, "I have something of a following," but he adamantly adds: "What I write are not reviews. They're more like essays. I just want to share my experience with other people who share my passion."

***

Call them reviews, posts, essays, whatever. Basically, anyone can be a food critic now. If you can chew, swallow and type, you're good to go. Start your own blog with photos of your meals. Post a rant or rave under a cutesy pseudonym on a restaurant review site. Twitter as you eat. It's all part of the rowdy online food world that has dramatically changed the dynamic between restaurants and the public.

In the past, professional restaurant critics made up a fairly small group who typically worked for a newspaper, magazine or other publication. They tried to dine anonymously and were forbidden to accept free meals -- or even free dishes. The Post's food critic, Tom Sietsema, waits a month after a new restaurant opens to visit it and dines there at least three times before writing a review. These rules are intended to prevent restaurants from currying favor with critics by plying them with free food or special service that regular diners don't get. They also protect new restaurants from negative magazine reviews while a kitchen is still getting its act together or having one bad night.

But the idea of the professional critic as sole judge of what's good or bad has changed dramatically in recent years. Now, customers want to know what other customers think about a place, and they want to add their own voices to the mix. They're also impatient; they don't want to wait weeks or months to find out if a new restaurant is worthwhile; they want to know the day it opens.

The new food commentariat doesn't bother with the rules of the mainstream media. When posting reviews on sites such as Chowhound and Yelp, diners rarely use their real names, and free meals are often welcomed, particularly now that restaurants have begun courting food bloggers and do-it-yourself reviewers with preview parties and other special events to try to get positive publicity.

Ellen Gray, co-owner with her husband, Todd, of Equinox in downtown Washington, hosted a reception about 18 months ago for the top reviewers on Yelp, dubbed the Elite Squad by the site. "I like that Yelp is trying to create a community of people. This town has had one, two or three critics, and it's not always been fair," Gray says.

Restaurant publicist Amber Pfau of Pfau Communications has arranged receptions for food bloggers at 2941 Restaurant in Falls Church that feature free appetizers, and a set-price dinner for regular reviewers on DonRockwell.com at Evening Star Cafe in Alexandria. "Bloggers are reaching out to me, requesting to be put on my press list, and I feel they're supportive of the restaurants I work with," she says.

"I absolutely get offered free meals," acknowledges blogger Amanda McClements, the creator of Metrocurean. "I do go to media dinners." Her blog, she says, isn't intended to critique restaurants, so she doesn't consider it unethical to accept free meals. She calls Metrocurean "service-oriented," because it sticks to providing information on new restaurants, special events, customers' favorite dishes and notable products. By avoiding any criticism of the restaurants she writes about, McClements argues that she's able to sidestep all of the sticky ethical issues on other restaurant sites.

"I don't have an editor to answer to, but I try to keep a journalistic level of integrity in what I write," says McClements, who has a bachelor's degree in journalism from the University of North Carolina.

Chowhound addressed the issue of free meals in February, when a frequent poster from Los Angeles named Pat Saperstein, who goes by the online handle Chowpatty, raised questions about the practice. "As restaurants get more aggressive in courting bloggers with free meals, could the site moderators clarify the policy for posting about comped meals?" asked Saperstein, who also writes a blog called Eating L.A.

The moderators responded that the site's goal is to publish unbiased reviews from everyday customers and that anyone receiving "special attention or treatment at a restaurant" should refrain from posting about it.

"If we allowed members to post about comped meals, we'd essentially be offering restaurateurs a free ... opportunity to engage in marketing by proxy," they wrote. Posters who do write about free meals could be banned from the site, but Chowhound acknowledged that it would be difficult to detect if posters simply failed to mention their special treatment in their reviews.

Although the explosion of online food sites has opened new opportunities for restaurants to gain exposure, it can also be a liability, says Vidalia chef R.J. Cooper. Because most posters use made-up names, "you can have a disgruntled ex-employee writing trash about you, or you can have a person who is passionate about food and wine writing about you."

Patricia Wallace, a psychologist at Johns Hopkins University and author of "The Psychology of the Internet," says that the anonymity of user-generated review sites unleashes people's aggressive side. She likens it to online road rage. "There are some pretty brutal posts out there. It's amazing what people will say when they're not tied [by name] to their words."

But Melissa McCart, an English teacher at Langley High School who blogs about food under her own name, supports the democratic ideals of blogging. "It allows a lot of people's voices to be heard," says McCart, whose blog is called Counter Intelligence. "It encourages us to question the traditional means of dining criticism, which is just one person's experience."

Sietsema, The Post's food critic, says he welcomes the competition. "It keeps the mainstream press on its toes," he says. He pays attention to what's being posted online, though he's wary of anonymous reviewers who get seduced by chefs and restaurant owners: "You don't know people's agendas."

***

Heflin says he has never accepted a free meal or asked for one, though he doesn't turn down free hors d'oeuvres at restaurant previews or decline to sample a dish that a chef sends to his table free of charge. "Chefs love people who are passionate about food," Heflin says. "Those are the best people to cook for."

Heflin, who grew up in Silver Spring, has been fervent about food his whole life. His stepfather was a hotel chef, and his mother was a waitress at the original Hot Shoppe, where she loved the Mighty Mo burgers. He vividly remembers his family driving to visit the first area McDonald's when it opened in the late 1950s in Hybla Valley in Fairfax County. He also knows the downside to constantly focusing on food. "At one point, I weighed 332 pounds," says Heflin, who is 6-foot-1. "I lost 140 pounds, then regained it, then lost it, then regained it again." Eventually he hit on a solution that has allowed him to stay trim for the past 30 years: "I walk five to six miles a day and count calories."

He does cook, and well enough that two of his favorite chefs, Roberto Donna and Fabio Trabocchi, have come to his Reston home for dinner -- a reward for Heflin's loyal patronage of Donna's Laboratorio and Trabocchi's Maestro. Heflin also knows his wine. But he's not a food snob. When he and his wife got married in Los Angeles 13 years ago, they celebrated with big, sloppy burgers at Tommy's Chili Burgers. He once drove to 12 cities to try 12 versions of barbecued ribs just for the heck of it.

Heflin has been selling amusement park rides, including roller coasters, water slides and carousels, for 30 years. As a kid, he had loved riding roller coasters, and when he got older he began researching the amusement parks of the 1920s and 1930s. He even discovered blueprints for what he calls "arguably the greatest wooden roller coaster in the world," which once stood at Playland in Rye, N.Y. He approached the Swiss company, Intamin, that had made the coaster about rebuilding it and profiting from its fame. The company turned him down -- and then hired him as a salesman. Now a representative of Whitewater West, he sold all the rides to Hersheypark's East Coast Waterworks, which opened two years ago. His most recent sale: "a looping waterslide that will be the first one in North America," he says, to a water park in Wisconsin.

His job has allowed him to eat at some of the world's finest restaurants, including Le Calandre in Rubano, Italy, known for its coffee powder risotto, and L'Ane Rouge in Nice, where he had a life-changing bouillabaisse that "is like nothing you can find in the U.S." He estimates that he and his wife spend $10,000 a year on eating out -- more than twice that if you count the business meals he arranges for clients during the 200 days of the year he spends traveling. "I even write a little restaurant column for my trade association on the best places to eat in the cities where we hold our conventions," he says.

Heflin has been posting on Chowhound's Washington, D.C./Baltimore discussion board since about 2000, he says. He's been a member of the DonRockwell site since it began four years ago.

He admits that perhaps he's gone a bit overboard in the past in his zeal for Washington restaurants in general and certain chefs in particular. He was temporarily banned from Chowhound several years ago for overly truculent posts taking issue with anyone who questioned whether Washington restaurants were the equal of those in cities such as San Francisco or Chicago. "I realize now I was wrong. I was too confrontational, and I try to avoid that now," he says. When Chowhound was sold to new owners in 2006, Heflin discovered he could post again.

In Chowhound's early days, Heflin would organize monthly restaurant dinners at which posters could meet one another. He still does that occasionally, but things are different now, he says. "Chowhound used to be a small community, and I could share my experiences with them," he says wistfully. "It isn't so small any more."

***

Don Rockwell has made the same discovery about his own site. An Arlington computer consultant, Rockwell started a restaurant review site for the Washington area in 2005. He seemed a natural. He ate out every night; he already had a following from his posts on other review sites; plus he worked from home at his computer. The new site, to be called DonRockwell.com, would allow registered users to post critiques about local restaurants, and Rockwell would monitor the discussion to make sure everyone played nice. It was something he figured he could do in his spare time.

Today, Rockwell, 47, works more than 80 hours a week juggling his paying job and the Web site, which many in the Washington food world consider a must-read for restaurant news, insider gossip and useful advice. The site, which Rockwell says gets 10,000 visitors a month, generates zero income for him, yet he often feels tethered to it like a parent with a pack of unruly children. "There's no rest from it, even when I'm traveling," he says. "All it takes is a couple of hours of unsupervised discussion for chaos to begin."

He recently posted a warning to a new member "to reveal your identity publicly or get the hell off of my Web site" after the person repeatedly trashed restaurants, including Adour, for seemingly minuscule lapses ("the water didn't have ice," "the waiter served our coffee after dessert") and complained about meals he had eaten two years ago as though they were recent. Rockwell subsequently e-mailed the poster privately; there was a heated exchange of messages over what the poster felt was unjustified censorship; and Rockwell eventually warned the poster that any future inaccurate or vituperative comments would be deleted. However, when Nick Cho of Murky Coffee and a couple of posters got into it over poor service the posters had experienced at Cho's coffee bar, Rockwell let the sniping go on, even when one member called Cho "a complete douche bag."

Refereeing spats between chefs, outraged at what they consider unfair reviews, and posters who may or may not be working for a competitor (or may just like generating controversy), can be draining, Rockwell says over lunch at a Vietnamese restaurant in Falls Church. He also has to be wary of "chefs who get friends to post nice things about them" or posters who deliberately write that they're "coming to a restaurant at a specific time and day so that the chef will give them special treatment. Those posts, I delete."

The popularity of the site has changed some of his own dining habits. He still eats out every night -- "I'm not much of a cook" -- but he scrupulously pays for every meal, even for any extras the chef might send over because he or she recognizes Rockwell. Although he gets invitations to media dinners and opening parties, he turns them down, partly because he's worried that he could be accused of bias.

Compared with national review sites such as Chowhound or Yelp, Rockwell's site is tiny. Yelp recorded 6.6 million visitors in February, according to the Web measurement firm comScore, while Chowhound logged 1.4 million. Still, DonRockwell's growth -- as well as the constant need to police his site for fraud or inappropriate commentary -- are representative of the issues that all online food sites have been grappling with over the past few years. "It's like a town hall meeting with everyone yelling," he notes. "Some are just more effective at being heard."

***

Among the new voices being heard online is a younger generation of food bloggers. According to the blog search company Technorati, there are now 58,345 food- and wine-related blogs, including one called, appropriately enough, Not Another Food Blog. Blogs can range from the look-what-I-cooked-today variety with no mention of restaurants -- such as The Bitten Word, written by two Washington men who chronicle their successes and failures cooking from popular food magazines -- to the purely restaurant-driven, such as Amanda McClements's Metrocurean.

Model-slim, with long, ash-blond hair and a friendly but self-effacing demeanor, McClements, 30, is not a critic. Her blog avoids passing judgments on restaurants.

Having dinner with her at Marvin on 14th Street NW points up the contrast between her studiously neutral stance and Heflin's opinionated one. As we eat, she's careful not to say anything much stronger than that she likes the "nubbly texture" of the grits in the restaurant's signature shrimp-and-grits appetizer.

Part of the reason she's hesitant to criticize is because she worked her way through college as a waitress in Chapel Hill and knows how tough the business can be. When she moved to Washington in 2000, she worked as a waitress at the Brickskeller near Dupont Circle before eventually finding work writing about restaurants for Roll Call and AOL's CityGuide. She's now a Washington-based contributor for Food & Wine magazine and has written freelance food stories for several publications, including The Post and Washingtonian magazine.

Although she says writing for Metrocurean is fun, the site doesn't have advertising ("I thought the ads looked ugly," she says), so it doesn't generate any income. McClements is hoping the site will eventually help her get a full-time paid job in the food world. "I think about promoting myself as a brand, maybe doing a cooking video," she says, naming Giada De Laurentiis as someone she admires for her success on television and in print.

While McClements sees her online food writing as a steppingstone to a lucrative career, Heflin sees his as something more personal: an opportunity to win friends and influence people. "For years, when I'd find these great restaurants, I'd tell a few friends, but that was it," he says. "But on Chowhound, I could talk about the fantastic frozen custard I had in Milwaukee hours after I'd eaten it. I loved that."

The Internet, he says, "has allowed me to meet people who share the same kind of obsession as I do. I like that kind of fraternity."

Candy Sagon is a frequent contributor to the Post Magazine. She can be reached at candy.sagon@verizon.net.

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