Chowhounds dish out opinions on dining

Group uses Web site to spread word on area restaurants

May 15, 2002|By Karen Nitkin | Karen Nitkin,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

The question is this: Can a restaurant that uses vinyl tablecloths have a decent wine list?

Lucien Walsh thinks it is possible, but when pressed, he admits he can name no such place in the Baltimore region. In fact, none of the five people enjoying a meal at the Brewer's Art in Mount Vernon can.

And these are people who would know. They are all frequent contributors to chowhound.com, a Web site for people obsessed with good food. The conversation is friendly and full of laughs. Before long, they are talking about their favorite restaurants, their worst meals and their eating-out pet peeves.

The Chowhound site, created in 1997, provides, in the words of founder Jim Leff, "a nonhypey haven where their fellow hounds can opine, bicker and rave to their hearts' content."

He adds: "If you'd grow weak from hunger rather than willingly eat something less than delicious, this place is for you!"

The Chowhound site is large, with many articles, message boards and links about restaurants around the country. There's a message board for the Baltimore and Washington region, where local restaurants are analyzed with enthusiasm. Electronic suggestions fly about the best place for oysters in Baltimore (McCormick & Schmick's) or a good steak spot in Annapolis (Lewnes).

Those posting opinions are supposed to be impartial, but it's hard to see how anyone would know if, for example, a restaurant owner were to persuade a friend to post a positive write-up.

Many of the postings are from out-of-towners and new-to-towners, asking about the best local restaurants. Someone recently asked for suggestions on a good first-date restaurant, and nearly a dozen people responded, with suggestions ranging from Red Maple to Planet on the Corner to the always-popular Helmand.

About a year ago, Melissa Garland culled the greatest Baltimore hits from the message board and created the Baltimore Tip Sheet (http://www.chowhound.com/writing/baltimoretip.html). Garland was the one who helped organize this meeting of the chowhounds.

It was surprisingly easy to get this group of opinionated eaters to agree on a meeting place. It turned out Garland had never eaten at Brewer's Art, but it was highly recommended by Walsh.

Though she's had some heated exchanges with other chowhounds over the years (Walsh: Charleston is worth the price! Garland: No, it's good, but not that good!), this is the first time she's met her message-board mates face to face.

The other chowhounds at the table, though, had all met before. There was Dave Butcher, Darin Lang, Walsh and his wife, Kirsten.

Lucien Walsh, 31, and Butcher, 41, both work at the Wine Source, which sells wine to local restaurants, and therefore have an inside track on restaurant gossip.

Kirsten Walsh, 31, teaches music at the Friends School of Baltimore. Lang, who went to Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas, with the Walshes, lives in Roland Park and works at BT Alex. Brown Inc.

Garland, 31, first discovered chowhound.com about three years ago. She had just read Kitchen Confidential, the restaurant tell-all by Anthony Bourdain, and she wanted to know if the author would be signing books in Baltimore.

She did an Internet search for his name, and wound up at Chowhound, where he had contributed several articles. Garland never got her book signed, but she got something better - a link to a community of fellow food lovers.

Garland, a medical illustrator at the Johns Hopkins University, said she eats out one or two nights a week, and is always grateful for advice on new places to try.

"I want to leave a place and say, `Man, that was really good,' no matter what it cost," she said. She also leads walking tours focusing on the haunted history of Fells Point, and likes to recommend restaurants to her clients, she said.

Butcher doesn't really remember how he found Chowhound. He was probably just scrolling around the Internet looking for food sites, he said. He then shared his discovery with his friends.

Occasionally, groups of the regular writers get together for a meal and face-to-face banter.

This night, several people opt for salads and an appetizer portion of fried oysters. Garland goes for the veal special. French fries are requested for the table. Lucien Walsh orders a bottle of Castelmaure 1999 Corbieres Grand Cuvee, which costs $24.

The chowhounds at Brewer's Art said they love the Web site because it helps them avoid costly restaurant mistakes. All of them love to cook, and they say restaurants have to work hard to compete with home-cooked fare.

Home cooking is cheaper, too. Price is an important consideration for chowhounds. They're willing to pay a lot for a meal, but they want their money's worth. "To go out and spend $40 or $50 a couple is getting harder to do," Lucien Walsh says.

To a devoted chowhound, there's nothing worse than snobby service and high prices, accompanied by mediocre food.

The chowhounds are very big on the distinction between being a foodie and being a chowhound, a point Leff makes clear on the Web site.

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