Having Dinner With Immaculate Infatuation

Within 10 minutes of ordering a beer and munching on some introductory kale salad at Jack’s Wife Freda with Andrew Steinthal and Chris Stang, it was easy to forget just how well-known the two guys really are.

Perhaps it was their good-humored bickering over pork buns or their unbridled excitement over a really good mackerel sandwich from Momofuku Ssäm, but the effect that these music-execs-by-day and food-critics-by-night have on their fans wasn’t recalled until hours later, upon reading a tweet.

"Major #celebritysighting last night. One table away from @immaculateinfat at Jack’s Wife Freda and too starstruck to say hello."

As the forces behind Immaculate Infatuation, a website full of hundreds of national "restaurant reviews that don’t suck," Steinthal and Stang tell a story with their critiques. With their conversational quips, brutal honesty, and name-drop-free reviews, the guys have cultivated their own corner of the culinary scene, fulfilling a need that no one even knew existed. Since the site launched in 2009, Immaculate Infatuation has expanded from just reviews, to interviews with “Infatuation-approved personalities,” videos, an iPhone app, and a 65-page New York Summer Guide full of recommendations, round-ups, – and lots of pictures. 

Between our first forkful of vegetable curry, to our last bite of whole fish, Steinthal and Stang shared over dinner their first business ideas, the similarities between music and food, and why they never, ever could live together. 

You both met at a CMJ convention 11 years ago. When did you realize you could work together on something?
Steinthal: We were college music directors at our radio stations in our respective schools, and we hit it off really well. We both were super passionate about music, made sure to stay in touch, and when we moved to New York, were keen on doing something together. Did we know back then we would ever do food? Hell no. Eleven years ago, I didn’t eat anything compared to what I eat now. I was such a picky eater. But as you grow up and you’re in NYC, it all kind of comes together, and I started really liking restaurants and food. Four or five years ago, we got really sick of going to bars and started going to restaurants all the time.

And when did Immaculate Infatuation come into the picture? Was that your first business idea?
At one point we were like, “let’s do a t-shirt company,” cause we knew we wanted to do something and we were creative and driven. But in going out to dinner with our friends, we realized this is an opportunity for us to provide a service for people that don’t go to The New York Times to find restaurant recommendations. Our buddies weren’t the kind of guys perusing the dining section to find out where to take their date on Saturday night; they’d call us for recommendations. That’s when it occurred to us that this is where we can focus our energy into.
Steinthal: They don’t care if the guy from Eataly is behind the counter. Most people out there don’t know anything about these restaurant people. They just want a good restaurant. 

Which neighborhood has some of the best food?
Overall, Nolita and the West Village.
Steinthal: But at the moment, Williamsburg. I’d rather eat in Williamsburg right now for new restaurants than any other place. There are so many good restaurants there right now, it’s not even funny.

What’s your favorite?
There’s this place called Allswell.
(Both gasp.)
Steinthal: Just so good.
Stang: Really, really good.
(The food arrives.)
Stang: It’s really dark in here. This isn’t really conducive to taking photos.
Steinthal: Just do it.

When did you guys first realize, "Wow, our site has some power?"
Steinthal: When we reviewed Post Office, this little whiskey bar in South Williamsburg.
Stang: We spent our whole night there drinking and eating. It was one of the best meals we had in a long, long time. The kitchen is the size of a postage stamp.
Steinthal: We reviewed it on a Monday or Tuesday, and then that weekend, there were 10-15 tweets saying “at Post Office, thanks Immaculate Infatuation, this place is amazing.” That’s when we were like, “whoa, this is happening. We are driving people into that restaurant.”
Stang: And it’s cool because that place wasn’t going to get written up in New York Magazine any time soon. They were doing something cool and interesting and we could help.
Steinthal: Those are the places we love to find. Not the ones everyone is talking about, but yet they’re doing something really cool.

What restaurant just doesn’t get enough attention?
Steinthal: This place in the East Village called Prima. Big focus on fish. They’re not getting written about since there’s nothing really remarkable about the menu – the food is just really simple and good – but they deserve to be known.
Stang: They have this one dessert that’s a classic French puff pastry, it’s really good, but it doesn’t register on the foodie scale, for whatever reason.
Steinthal: L’Artusi also falls into that. It doesn’t really get written about.
Stang: It’s never in the conversation about must-visit restaurants in New York City. That might be my personal favorite restaurant in the city.
Steinthal: This sounds cliched, but mine is Momofuku Ssäm Bar.
Stang: That mackerel sandwich they do? Bananas.
Steinthal: I get so excited every time I eat there.
Stang: The Chinese sausage and rice cakes.
Steinthal: Yeah.

What’s the one dining experience you’ve both disagreed on?
Stang: The biggest beef we have with each other is that I think Ippudo pork buns are better than Momofuku’s porn buns. Ippudo is a Japanese chain of ramen restaurants. It’s so crazy now, there’s like a two-hour wait even at lunch.
Steinthal: I’m obsessed with pork buns. Momofuku’s are way better.
Stang: That is what we disagree on. There is nothing as divisive as the pork bun. That’ll be what ends this website one day. Like on Behind the Music, “where did it start?”

You’ve been working in the music industry for years. How does your work in that field compare with your work in the food world?
Steinthal: At our jobs, we sometimes break bands, and we nurture and develop artists. So, with this website we’re doing the same thing. We’re pulling out every stop, connecting with every person on Twitter, every person we meet, trying to make a connection with everyone.
Stang: We try to make a personal connection with the people who read our site because we’ve seen what a difference it makes when a recording artist has a personal connection with their fans.

So you two work in the music industry – in the same building – and work together in your off-hours. Have you ever lived together?
Steinthal: Oh God no.
Stang: One of us wouldn’t be alive.
Steinthal: You can only get so much.
Steinthal & Stang: Yeah.

Industry Insiders: Chris Stang and Andrew Steinthal, Food Fighters

By day, Chris Stang (left) and Andrew Steinthal work in the music industry, holding down high-pressure marketing and PR jobs at Atlantic Records and Warner Music’s Independent Label Group, respectively. But when they check out of the office, they log in to Immaculate Infatuation, a website of “restaurant reviews that don’t suck,” which they’ve been updating since 2009. Amid a sea of breathless food blogs, Immaculate is one to bookmark, if only because the writers eschew annoying culinary jargon like “speckled” and “toothsome.” (“What does toothsome even mean?” Stang asks.) Instead, they fill their reviews with humor, attitude, and a never-ending supply of pop culture references and food-focused interviews with bands like Metric and Passion Pit. BlackBook recently caught up with the duo to discuss the site’s origins, the key to its success, and their favorite New York hangouts.

On starting the blog: Stang: I honestly can’t remember who had the idea first, but once we came up with it, the sky suddenly turned black and there was lightning everywhere. Like in Ghostbusters.

On the perks of running a food blog: Stang: We don’t take free meals, but we’ve met a bunch of amazing people. Fans of our website, and a lot of great restaurant people and well-known chefs. The best part is all the cool people that reach out to us and are like, ‘hey, we use this thing all the time and we love it.’ People trust us a lot. They take our opinion and act based on that, which is crazy.

On their bosses’ reactions: Stang: They love it. It’s amazing how well our companies have taken to it. It says a lot about the people we work with. They’ve been really supportive of it and embraced it.

On making time for writing: Stang: We both have really demanding full time jobs. There’s no way we could do both during the day. We do it late at night or really early in the morning. Steinthal: I do it on my Blackberry on the way to work.

On their day jobs: Steinthal: I run the PR department, which is me and interns at Warner Music’s Independent Label Group and Stang’s the director of marketing at Atlantic. So he deals with big artists and I work with independent artists that are not necessarily putting out big hits all the time, but have been around for a while and have really good business and don’t necessarily need a major label.

On advertising and Immaculate’s success: Stang: We want to do advertising, but advertising that is right for our audience. We’re starting to get the traffic up to a level where we can have a conversation with real brands about making an impact. We’re sort of at that point where we’ve gone from a blog to a real website that has earning potential so we ask ourselves, how do we deal with all this?

Favorite New York bars: Stang: I don’t go to a lot of bars anymore, mostly restaurants, but I do like the bar at The Spotted Pig when it’s not packed, and Blind Tiger. Steinthal: I like Von a lot.

Next big buzz bands: Steinthal: I can’t stop listening to The Naked and Famous song “Young Blood.” They’re like Passion Pit on steroids. I also like Delorean, the Glitch Mob, Wiz Khalifa, and the Lonely Forest, whom I also happen to work with.

What’s better, a great show or a great meal? Stang: It’s gotta be the show, because a great show is a once-in-a-lifetime thing. If you’re an excellent restaurant you have to serve the same exact meal every single night. You have to deliver consistency and excellence.

For good food and music: Stang: Definitely the Momofukus – especially Ko, as well as L’Artusi. Steinthal: I like Barrio Chino.

Favorite eats: Steinthal: Momofuku Ssäm and Noodle are ultimate go-to’s. Can’t get enough pork buns in my life. Love Marlow & Sons in Williamsburg – that place has an amazing vibe. Torrisi is unique and incredible. Fette Sau for BBQ.