How The Infatuation disrupted restaurant criticism — and bought Zagat

Chris Stang looks around the upstairs dining room. It’s a wet Friday evening in November and The Coach in London’s Clerkenwell is heaving. You have to yell to be heard over the din.

Stang, arguably the most influential restaurant reviewer in America, picked the gastropub because of its high rating on The Infatuation, the international restaurant blog he co-founded.

The Coach was previously written up by his team of reviewers in London, but New York-based Stang wanted to check it out for himself. And tonight, using his phone to measure the room’s decibel levels, the noise is clearly troubling him.

When the waiter arrives, Stang asks what dish would be a mistake to miss. The waiter suggests the croziflette, an absurdly rich cheese and pasta gratin. Stang nods and turns to me: a positive sign. “If the waiter says everything’s good,” he says, “you’re f**ked.”

For the better part of a decade, Stang and his co-founder Andrew Steinthal have eaten their way across New York City, building a restaurant blog that has become a precious resource for a generation of young diners searching for answers to the eternal question: where should I eat tonight?

The Infatuation’s co-founders Andrew Steinthal (left) and Chris Stang, in 2015. ‘The traditional food media was for the 1 per cent of people who wanted read a 2,000-word New York Times review,’ says Steinthal

The Infatuation’s co-founders Andrew Steinthal (left) and Chris Stang, in 2015. ‘The traditional food media was for the 1 per cent of people who wanted read a 2,000-word New York Times review,’ says Steinthal © Chance Yeh/Getty Images for Casper

The Infatuation reviews individual restaurants but it is most famous for its irreverent guides. A random sampling includes: “Where To Go When You Just Got A New Haircut”, “Where To Eat When You’re Sick Of Being Told To Order 2-3 Small Plates Each” and “Where To Eat in West London (If You Hate West London)”.

The site began as a side hustle, a natural byproduct of jobs in the music industry in New York. Stang worked in marketing for Atlantic Records and Steinthal in public relations for Warner Brothers.

Their knowledge of restaurants grew from needing hip spots where they could take bands. “The music business is a night-time sport,” Stang says. Both loved food and had an eye for a good vibe.

Since its launch in 2009, The Infatuation reports that it now has an average of five million users globally a month. In March 2018, seduced by the opportunity to own a piece of culinary history, the blog bought the stalwart Zagat brand for an undisclosed sum from its previous owner, Google, which had picked it up in 2011 for $151m. Zagat shares a chief executive with The Infatuation (Stang) but the brands remain separate.

The witty red books, launched in 1979 by husband-and wife-lawyers Tim and Nina Zagat, were favoured by fashionable diners in the 1980s and 1990s.

The guides were innovative for their time, wresting control of who decides what’s hot and what’s not from critics and giving it back to consumers, building reviews using mail-in surveys from customers across the US. Curating the reviews at night, the Zagats created the original user-generated content.

But the guides were slow to adapt and struggled to keep their relevance in the internet age when diners turned to Google, Open Table and Urbanspoon, all of which generate recommendations based on cuisine and location.

After Zagat was purchased by Google, its brand — defined by meticulous curation — appeared to flounder in a tech company committed to data and undiluted consumer content.

“With these big companies, lots of people feel that the lights are on but no one is driving,” says Peter Harden, co-founder of the Harden’s series of UK restaurant guides. “No one goes to Google and TripAdvisor and says, ‘These guys have cracked it, they say it’s the best, so it must be the best.’”

So, how did a small, bromance-fuelled blog reviewing late-night meals gain millennials’ trust, disrupt the rarefied world of restaurant criticism, raise $33.5m since its founding and buy America’s most famous review brand of all time?

From its conception, The Infatuation realised that in dining, context is king. How customers experience a restaurant has everything to do with who they are with and what they need from that experience, things aggregated reviews cannot capture.

A restaurant might receive a one-star review from someone who found it too hip and noisy to have lunch with their fidgety two-year-old, but that same place might be perfect for a second date when things are going well.

The founders’ friends were asking for places to go on a casual first date, with a specific kind of ambience, or a place to take their partner’s parents, Stang says, “not who’s the best chef in town”. They wanted specific, situational recommendations. The kind that used to be provided by Zagat.

Some of the original Zagat guides. The pioneering and witty ‘red books’ were hugely popular with fashionable diners in the 1980s and 1990s but struggled to stay relevant in the internet age

Some of the original Zagat guides. The pioneering and witty ‘red books’ were hugely popular with fashionable diners in the 1980s and 1990s but struggled to stay relevant in the internet age

“The traditional food media was for the 1 per cent of people who really cared about chefs and who wanted to read a 2,000-word New York Times review,” says Steinthal.

The Infatuation’s rise was reliant on concurrent developments in social media. It never advertised, but used Twitter to communicate with readers and share posts.

Stang and Steinthal became expert purveyors of what is colloquially known as food porn on Instagram; irresistible images of things you could be eating, with pithy captions along the lines of “you deserve this”.

When Instagram hashtags were still barely a thing, The Infatuation launched #EEEEEATS with five Es — “something ridiculous”, Stang says — to help Infatuation readers identify themselves.

“When you’re building a band, there are two things you have to do consistently,” says Steinthal. “Write hit songs, so people want to hear more from you, and build a connection with your audience, so your fans really feel connected to the community.”

The importance of the latter was reinforced by the advent of music streaming, which Stang and Steinthal experienced first-hand. “Music fought streaming for 15 years,” says Steinthal. “It wanted to keep doing what had been working.” The duo realised that the only thing that can insulate a brand is a loyal following, says Stang.

And so The Infatuation focused on corporate sponsorships, events in New York and ways it could bring its users together. It’s first EEEEEATSCON — “like a music festival where restaurants are the headliners”, according to the publicity — sold out in an hour. “Everyone just wants to belong to something,” says Stang.

In 2015, they built an app and launched a service called Text Rex, a phone number users can text with specific parameters (“Where should I take a group of 20 for my 30th birthday?”); a real-live Infatuation employee texts back with a recommendation that fits the bill.

Husband-and-wife lawyers Nina and Tim Zagat, founders of the eponymous guides, in 2008. They are mentoring the young team put in place by The Infatuation, which bought the brand in 2018 from Google

Husband-and-wife lawyers Nina and Tim Zagat, founders of the eponymous guides, in 2008. They are mentoring the young team put in place by The Infatuation, which bought the brand in 2018 from Google © Giacinta Pace/NBC NewsWire

Yet, in a media-focused industry accustomed to page views and ad revenue, it was difficult for the young brand to pitch the value of their community and product: it took them more than a year to raise their first $1m.

Efforts to monetise continue. In 2018, the company put on 65 events, including EEEEEATSCON in both New York and Los Angeles, selling more than 17,000 tickets at $30 each. In New York this month, The Infatuation moved Text Rex behind a paywall, offering superfans a $49 annual membership for the service as well as other perks.

But as the website expanded across 12 cities, it faced criticism from food-industry insiders. The Infatuation’s team don’t mingle with chefs, says Stang, and always work from the perspective of a diner.

“A lot of people think we shouldn’t have the seat at the table we have,” he says. “People felt we weren’t respecting their craft. We’re not food writers. We’re just two guys who know restaurants really well and want to communicate that to you.”

Over breakfast with Nina and Tim Zagat at Nougatine, in a building owned by their former acquaintance Donald Trump (Tim apologises for this but insists the French toast is the best ever), they are careful not to speak in specifics about their years under Google or their departure.

It is clear that the tech behemoth, obsessed with data-driven solutions, was not the best fit for the heavily curated and scrupulously edited guides.

Zagat reviews were known for their quips from diners such as, “If this place doesn’t get you laid nothing will.” Only restaurants worth visiting were listed, but the guide also ran notable out-takes on flops with “delusions of adequacy”. “We thought it was important to be fun to read,” says Nina.

The Zagats are no longer involved with their company but they mentor the new, young team. “It’s like Zagat 30 years ago,” says Nina. Above all, they hope the brand will stay fun and reliable.

Meanwhile, Stang sees Zagat as the logical next step for his company. Whereas The Infatuation has a singular voice, knows what it likes and doesn’t care what anyone else thinks, Zagat will be the opposite, generated once again by readers using a ratings system and curated by pithy editors.

Stang’s immediate focus is the New York City dining guide for 2020, which will be published next month. (The original guides have been out of print since 2016.)

Though Stang says he no longer wears hoodies to the office, the acquisition of Zagat still has some start-up characteristics, not least his unrelenting optimism that the older brand can be resuscitated in a world where its competitors are now billion-dollar tech companies.

“The landscape for Zagat now is totally different to when it came to such pre-eminence,” says Harden. “It’s now only a baby-league big brand, which will have to survive next to all these global colossi.”

The Infatuation landed in London in April 2017 with little fanfare. The UK website has seen growth of 71 per cent since last year, though the company declines to give specific user numbers. It is competing in a market that has a much richer tradition of tongue-in-cheek reviewing than the US.

It is difficult to pin down what defines a restaurant that the site will love, but people agree that certain venues can be classified as “Infatuation-y”. “Vibe is hugely important. There’s definitely a type of place that we like,” says Stang.

In the UK, critics point out that the brand’s tastes tend to be expensive and skew towards central London and other touristy areas.

Favourites include The Palomar in Soho, Rochelle Canteen and Black Axe Mangal, a Turkish fusion restaurant notable for its hard rock/metal soundtrack. Restaurants that would feel just as at home in . . . New York.

© Aart-Jan Venema

Others question what is truly novel about its model, which can seem like a rebranding of old ideas from the likes of Time Out and Eater. But the return to restaurant guides, the rise of The Infatuation community and the resurrection of Zagat are perhaps symptomatic of a broader information fatigue — a recognition of the limitations of disruptive tech and big data.

Stang measures success in terms of foot traffic from its readers, and restaurants in London are starting to report upticks after reviews, although not necessarily from regulars.

Daniel Keeling, co-founder of Noble Rot, The Infatuation’s No 1 restaurant in London, says that during periods he would expect to be quiet, he has seen an increase in patronage. From Americans. “The Infatuation effect, if you like,” he says.

But relying on recommendations from a single source, whether a critic or a blog with distinct taste, can have consequences. A neighbourhood favourite mentioned on The Infatuation can be inundated with visitors willing to wait in line, displacing regulars or potentially harming the experience.

Even fans say that in its early London days the site tended to love, well, everything. This is due partly to a preference to review places it expects to like, and partly to the arduous due diligence that goes into a bad rating. The team will visit and revisit at different times of day, and in different company, before issuing a negative review.

“We get a feel for day and night atmosphere, consistency, the type of situation it suits — anything that gives a more rounded perspective,” says Oliver Feldman, lead reviewer in London.

Recommendations are about trust and The Infatuation wants you to know it would never lie to you. If a restaurant on its site slips below its threshold for cool, re-evaluation is part of the method.

The month after our dinner at The Coach, the site’s weekly London newsletter ran with the subject line, “We re-review The Coach and it’s not good news.” After two return visits, it had downgraded the gastropub from an 8.5 to a seven.

“We treat restaurants we’ve reviewed like we’re their semi-responsible parents hosting a dinner party,” the review reads. “If we hear noises, complaints or sounds of discontent, we pull ourselves together and see what the hell is going on. And that’s exactly what we did with The Coach.”

It concludes, like the good friend you messaged for advice: “This is definitely a place we’d recommend for a drink, but if you’re looking to drop thirty-odd quid on a meal, we can think of better places and pubs to do it in.”

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