Has Eater Cofounder Ben Leventhal Gone Two-Point-Uh-Oh with NBC’s Feast?

When entering a field as crowded as food blogging in New York City one needs a great idea. Ben Leventhal thinks he has one. Again. Leventhal’s been struck by such notions before. In 2005, along with blogger-about -town Lockhart Steele, he cofounded Curbed’s Eater.com — and it quickly became the online bible for a certain segment of food-obsessed metropolitans. The buoyant effervescence of the mid-oughts-Gotham-boom dining propelled the duo to national prominence, and Eater spawned West Coast, and then last fall, national, offspring.

It was only a matter of time before the then 30-year-old Leventhal became too big for his blogger britches. By 2010, as a freshly minted New York Post Most Eligible Bachelor, he found himself leading NBC’s local blogging efforts as Managing Editor of Lifestyle for NBC Local Media, and came up with the idea for a new food site called Feast and, more importantly, Feast Rank, the site’s most original contribution to the field.

Besides posts by bloggers, aggregating the usual suspects and posting proprietary video, the site assigns restaurants a Feast Rank, a 1-100 score generated by a wholly automated algorithm and in New York comprising 75 sources — everything from the New York Times restaurant stars to Grub Street stories to Zagat listings to Yelp and Citysearch reviews to local blog and social media chatter, all apparently updating in real-time (a handy “+” or “-” indicating recent point shifts in opinion runs across the top of the page like numbers on a stock ticker, so it seems real official-like).

“Ben has been interested in that for a while now — this algorithm,” says Serious Eats founder Ed Levine. “It seems like it’s more about utility than Eater was. Which makes sense. If it’s a corporate initiative, utility is going to be driving it, because they think they can quantify utility.”

However, to some, Rank doesn’t deliver. “The base idea is fantastic. It’s experimental, its new, its ownable and represents an interesting and proprietary way to garner interest and create content out of things that are already happening anyway,” says Tom Ajello, Creative Director of Poke, an interactive and design agency in New York. “The problem is,” says Ajello, “The Feast Rank feature is buried, impossible to decipher once you find it, and not iconically or creatively represented in a way that will engage people.” Rank does give food-obsessed New Yorkers one more thing to obsess and argue over — and of course, complain about. And one thing they seem to agree on complaining about is the word chosen to represent the top ranked restaurants: “Epic” — sounding as much like the rallying cry of Psi U as it does a taste discrimination — has been the target of much scorn. Also there are some bugs in the ranking system and apparently kinks to work out in the algorithm that compiles ratings and buzz to generate Feast Rank (though, these things tend to improve over time). Instead of offering a unified voice, the Feast Rank ratings are, at least at this point in the launch, slip-shod and inconsistent. “It seems like a supremely bad idea,” says Jonathan Gold, the former New York critic for Gourmet magazine who went West to LA and on to become the first food writer to win a Pulitzer Prize for criticism. “Real-time samplings of a thousand half-formed opinions are useful to political pollsters, but not necessarily to somebody trying to figure out whether it’s going to be Motorino or Maialino after the show. It’s hard to see why it would be any more reliable than Yelp or Citysearch, which to me are most useful when it, because you can follow specific commenters, functions most like a regular review.”

But if anyone has the track record to make you believe Feast Rank will work out the kinks, it’s Leventhal. “If you think about it: Eater begot Grub Street, Grub Street begot Feast, and what do all those sites have in common? Ben — who’s really good at this stuff,” says Levine. “He’s the one link — to use a double entendre — between all those sites. There’s clearly a lot of corporate resources behind Feast and it’s too soon to know how it will turn out, but I have a lot of respect for what Ben does. He’s one of the first great minds when it comes to this stuff.”

But in the free-love world of online publishing, where there’s links enough for all (if not enough ad dollars) might there still not be something paradoxical about Leventhal sitting atop the masthead and serving as editor-at-large of Eater, the food blog he founded, while at the same time launching its most serious competition for ads? Feast is set to expand from Miami and New York and roll out to LA and Chicago by the end of the month, and, according to Leventhal and Brian Buchwald, EVP of NBC Local Integrated Media, the plan is to continue the concept in all 10 of NBC Digital’s local markets.

NBC began beating the drum for Feast in January with a faux food truck loaded with celebrity chefs such as Daniel Boulud making the rounds of Manhattan street corners (an event covered breathlessly in a series of posts on Eater.com). The truck pulled up on 23rd street, Union Square and in Soho, setting up velvet ropes manned by hyper-active clip-board-list toting publicists at each stop. Just like the halal cart. “It’s a clearinghouse of news and information,” says Buchwald, “What we’re trying to do is organize that information for the user, to make it more digestible for them to then go off to a Grub Street or an Eater. We’re going to be a good traffic source for a New York mag, or a New York Times or whomever.” There are no formal relationships between NBC and any of the sources, however. Even Eater. “They’re exactly the same as every other content source,” Leventhal says.

Not much has been said about Leventhal’s professional separation from Eater (though he acknowledged n a post on Eater in October, informing readers that he took the NBC job, that his role had obviously changed there over the previous 10 months). As recently as October, the New York Times interviewed Steele and Leventhal together on the occasion of Eater’s national launch. Rumors of discord within the happy halls of Curbed abound though. Says a writer who’s worked with Levanthal, “He seems to speak to everyone in the condescending overtones of an especially bored and precocious 14-year old.” Says another former Curbed writer when asked about Leventhal, simply, “What an asshole.” “We wish Ben well in all of his endeavors,” says Joshua Albertson, Vice President of Sales and General Manager of Curbed. When asked if the coverage of Feast’s launch on Curbed-owned Eater didn’t seem a little, um, excited (i.e. “all the glorious details have been released”), Albertson counters, “I wouldn’t say excitement is the right word. Of course, we’re interested in what they’re doing. We’ll link to them when they’ve got something good, and I expect that they’ll do the same.”

Well sure, the internet is built on links, right? But isn’t it a tad confusing to have Leventhal commenting on Feast coverage on Eater using an official-looking Eater admin logo and log-in? “Nothing seems paradoxical about this from an ad sales point of view,“ says Albertson. “Feast isn’t the first competitor to Eater in this space and it won’t be the last.”

Where Celebs Go Out: Marc Jacobs, Amanda Lepore, Adrian Grenier, Emma Snowdon-Jones

At David Barton Gym annual toy drive: ● MARC JACOBS – “In Paris, there’s a small club called Montana, and there’s a restaurant called Thiou. Bars I really don’t hang out in. Oh, there’s this great club that happens once a month in Paris called Club Sandwich. And it’s at the Espace Cardin. And everyone gets super dressed-up, so it’s really, really fun. I try to go whenever I’m in Paris, if it’s going on. And we stay out all night and just dance like crazy. And in New York, my favorite restaurants have always been the same. I love to eat at Pastis. I love the Standard. I love Da Silvano. I eat in the lobby of the Mercer a lot, the hotel. I usually go to Pastis for lunch, and there’s a sandwich that was on the menu, but they don’t make it anymore, but I always insist that they make it for me. And it’s really fattening, so I shouldn’t eat it, but it’s chicken paillard and gruyere cheese and bacon. And it’s so delicious. It’s really good. And it’s my weakness. It’s just like the most perfect sandwich.”

● DAVID BARTON – “Oh, I can’t think where I like to hang out in Seattle except my new gym! There’s a great place that just opened up in New York, up on 51st, called the East Side Social Club. Patrick McMullan is one of the partners there. He’s co-hosting with me tonight. Great place; really cool. It’s very old world, kind of like going to Elaine’s, kind of little cozy; sit at a booth; very cool. Love a little place called Il Bagatto, over on 7th between A & B — little tiny Italian place, East Village, kind of a neighborhood place that I go to. What else? I don’t know restaurants. I’m very casual. I’m so not that into food. I mean, I could eat cardboard — I’m just not into food! I like people. I like atmosphere, but I’m just not that into food.” ● AMANDA LEPORE – “I definitely like Bowery Bar and I like Hiro. Boom Boom Room. Just anywhere where everybody is, I guess! [laughs] Novita, I like, my friend Giuseppe. Any favorite dishes? I try not to eat too much! ● PATRICK MCDONALD – “My favorite restaurant in New York is Indochine. It’s been around for 25 years. Jean-Marc, I adore. I love the bar at the Carlyle. I don’t drink, but I like to go there for tea in the afternoon. And I love Lady Mendl’s Tea Salon on Gramercy Park. I love Pastis, Odeon, and everywhere. I like the French fries at Pastis.” ● PATRICK MCMULLAN – “I love going to Waverly Inn downtown. Boom Boom Room is fabulous. That’s really a new, great place. SL, on 409 W. 14th Street, down below is nice. Of course, I have the East Side Social Club that I’m involved with, and that’s great for hanging out in, for eating. Favorite dishes anywhere? Oh, I don’t know, just anything that people recommend. I usually go with what people recommend ’cause most people know what’s good — the waiters know, so I think that’s the best thing. Red wine is good to have to drink sometimes. They have a drink called the Eastsider at the East Side Social Club that’s really good; any of their pastas; their ravioli is great there. What else do I like? That new place that’s open, the English place, on 60th in the Pierre — Le Caprice, that’s a nice place. At the Waverly Inn, I like the macaroni and cheese. It was funny because the macaroni and cheese is about two dollars less than a room at the Pod Hotel, which is where the East Side Social Club is! The Monkey Bar is fun. There are so many cool places in New York. I just go where people tell me to go.”

At elf party for Santa Baby 2: Christmas Maybe:

● JENNY MCCARTHY – “In Chicago, I would have to say Gibsons Steakhouse still; in Los Angeles, Katsuya, still love that sushi; I’m addicted to it. And in New York, Koi. I’m very trendy and boring, but, hey, that’s where the good food is, so …” ● PERI GILPIN – “In L.A., we like BLT a lot. We have five-year-old twins, so we’re like in bed by nine o’clock — pretty boring. Corner Bakery for soup.” ● CANDACE CAMERON BURE – “L.A., hands down, our favorite restaurant is Gjelina, which is in Venice. And we love Craft; love Michael’s in Santa Monica. Here, in New York, my favorite restaurant is Lupa, which is a Mario Batali restaurant; love it here. And I don’t go to clubs anymore, nightclubs; I don’t ever! At Gjelina, they have a burrata with prosciutto and, usually, a warm pear or a warm peach. I love that! I really love tapas. I enjoy getting a lot of appetizers, more than just a main dish. We, actually, have had our own wine label, Bure Family Wines, for two years, which is at several restaurants, so matching the food and the wine is a big part for us. We’re big foodies” ● DEAN MCDERMOTT – “There is a great bar, Ye Coach & Horses in L.A., on Sunset. I’m so bad at this stuff! Oh, Katsuya, in the Valley, awesome sushi. It’s our favorite place. We go there like three times a week.” ● KEN BAUMANN – “In New York, my favorite restaurant is Il Cortile. It’s in Little Italy, and it’s run by this guy named Stefano, and it’s incredible, phenomenal food. In Los Angeles, my favorite restaurant’s gotta be Cut, which is in the Beverly Wilshire Hotel.” ● SHAILENE WOODLEY – “Honestly, I’m not really a club kinda girl. I’d rather go to a local bar with some friends and hang out there. Or just go back to my house and have people come over. I’m more of the congregate-at-my-house kind of chick. I’m 18, so I don’t drink, so I don’t go to bars. There’s a place called the Alamo, which has karaoke and it’s a bar, but we go and karaoke there probably once a week.” ● FRANCIA RAISA – “I’m not a big club person. I really like bars and lounges. In L.A., I like to hang out at Buffalo Wild Wings, watching sports and drinking beer with my friends. I really don’t go out that much. I hang out at home and have my own glass of wine, watching Grey’s Anatomy. Oh, I just tried this restaurant yesterday at Gramercy Park Hotel. It’s a new, Italian place — Maialino. It was amazing. And again, I’m very simple, so I like pizza, and John’s Pizza out here is amazing to me, too. And hot wings I like at Planet Hollywood. I’m obsessed with them!”

At Zeno “Hot Spot” launch party @ MTV Studios:

● SKY NELLOR – “I am a huge sushi fanatic, so I just had Katsuya three times in two days in L.A. What is it about Katsuya? It’s the baked-crab hand roll in a soy-paper wrap. It’s just so yummy. I want one now! In New York, I have a fixation with Bagatelle. I just love the fish and the veggies. Nightclubs, nightlife, oh, my God! Apparently, I’m a really good bowler, so I hang out at Lucky Strike everywhere — Miami, L.A., Kansas! We just had a bowling party, and I won, so … Oh, they didn’t let me see my score. I just kept getting strikes to the point where they were, like, ‘Give her more shots! We have to stop this girl!’ And the drunker I got, the better I got. Clubs — if I’m going to go out, I’m going to go out to dance. And I’m going to go where the DJ is playing. I don’t care what club it is. I went to a dive in L.A., at a party called Afex, just because some of the best DJs were playing that night. Like, I don’t care about the crowd. I don’t care about the scene. I care about the music. I don’t think the venue has a name. I think it’s called No Space. They just move the party around.” ● SUCHIN PAK – “I have a great place. It’s called Broadway East, and it’s on East Broadway. And I love it because it’s a beautiful space, but also it’s literally across the street from my house. That always helps. And then there’s a really fantastic place called Bacaro. Oh, it’s amazing! It’s downstairs. It’s almost a dungeon-like place. The people that used to do Peasant, the wine bar there, moved to this place. I like to say the Lower East Side on East Broadway is where the grown-up hipsters go. For a true Lower East Sider, it may not be true Lower East Side, but as I’ve gotten older, I’ve moved more south than east, and I keep trickling that way.”

At charity:ball for charity:water:

● ADRIAN GRENIER – “Brooklyn. Fort Greene. Habana Outpost — it’s run mostly on solar power, and it’s a sustainable business.” MARK BIRNBAUM “Well, if I do say so myself, Abe & Arthur’s on 14th Street; SL, the new club underneath it. I still love Tenjune. And I like hanging out at home other than that. What about places other than your own? So I shouldn’t say the Chandelier Room, in Hoboken? I really like going to Bar and Books in the West Village — that’s our spot. You know where else I like to go? Miami — the new W South Beach is unbelievable, by far the best hotel down there. The design is incredible; the pool area is very nice; they have good restaurants there — there’s a Mr. Chow’s and the other one is good; the rooms are really nice; it’s very well done; it’s just very fresh, the entire thing; and the artwork is incredible. You don’t feel like you’re in South Beach — not that there’s anything wrong with it — but it’s really, really, really, well done.” ● NICOLE TRUNFIO – “I just found this really cool jazz club in Paris where they still dance to old, rock-and-roll music in partners. It’s a location undisclosed. I don’t remember what it’s called. It’s in the Saint-Michel — it’s just off it. You can jump into a taxi, ‘cause we went to a jazz bar called the Library, but that was closed. So we asked the taxi driver, and he took us to this place. So, I’m sure lots of local French taxi-drivers would know the place.” ● LAUREN BUSH – “Oh, gosh, I’m like so uncool! It’s such an obvious question, it’s so hard … I’m a vegetarian, so I love Blossom restaurant. They have a good, quinoa-tofu dish. It’s like gingery. It’s really good. ● EMMA SNOWDON-JONES – “I love Le Bilboquet because it’s consistent, and mainly wherever your friends are it makes the place. It’s on 63rd, between Park and Madison. I’ve gone there since I was in boarding school. I’d come into the city on the weekends, and I’d go there. I think anyone that’s been in New York as long as I have knows it. That’s a really, bloody long time, sadly. As good as my Botox is, it’s too long!” ● KRISTIN CHENOWETH – “I am an old-fashioned girl, and I still love Joe Allen’s. I go there all the time. And right next-door above, is a place called Bar Centrale, and I go there, too. I was just there last night for three hours. I like the manicotti at Joe Allen’s. It’s excellent!” ● JULIAN LENNON – “Probably the Jane bar and the Rose Bar in New York.”

At launch of S.T. Dupont in-store boutique @ Davidoff on Madison Avenue:

● RON WHITE – “I love the bars in Glasgow, Scotland. You could go sit in a bar by yourself and in five minutes, you’d be talkin’ to 10 people because they’re so curious about anybody that walks in that’s not normally in there. They just want to go talk to ’em and find out what they’re about. They’re just as friendly as they can be. I was there for the British Open, or the Open Championship, as it’s called. And if you go to a bar in New York City, you can sit there for the rest of your life and not meet another person because they’re not really gonna come up to you and go, ‘Hey, what’s up? What are you doing in town?’ That just doesn’t happen here.”

NYC Openings: Maialino, Penthouse 808, Patty & Bun

Maialino (Gramercy) – Hospitality master Danny Meyer tries his hand at a neighborhood trattoria. ● Penthouse 808 (Long Island City) – Terrace lounge sprawling atop the Ravel Hotel. ● Patty & Bun (Greenwich Village) – Bringing Follow Me Caffe-style love to the Village.