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.”

Industry Insiders: Mathieu Palombino, Original Famous Pizza Prince

Mathieu Palombino is one of New York’s most unlikely chefs: Belgian-born and French-trained, he worked at a fine dining restaurant — BLT Fish — earning their kitchen three stars. So where do you go from there? For Palombino, it was three stops into Williamsburg. And when he found the spot he wanted, he opened up Motorino, his shrine to pan-sized Neapolitan-style pizzas, topped with fresh, seasonal ingredients. Naturally, it took off and earned the accolades of New York’s food scene quickly. Now Palombino’s set to become the Neapolitan pizza game in town, as he takes over tatted-up NYC pizza legend Anthony Mangieri’s Una Pizza Napoletana’s oven and space. We interviewed Mathieu back in June, clumsily lost the transcript, and finally found it in time for the opening of his new East Village space. Here, we get him to dish on his family’s favorite eats, Brooklyn’s history, Brooklyn’s hipsters, and his love of the pizza business.

So: you told me the old locals in your part of Williamsburg aren’t exactly taking to Motorino? It’s funny, because they’re from Napoli, but they don’t relate to that product, because the people that really love that pizza and crave it and have bright eyes looking at the oven, they appreciate it. They’re from another generation, it’s a different world, they don’t really care for it.

But a lot of people do. Food critics. “Foodies.” Yeah, they’re 25, 45, 55, but people that know what’s up. This is my clientele, and also, even if they’re people that are, you know, kids from Brooklyn, they come. The youngest Italian generation — the children of the older folks in my neighborhood — they come and the like it. And a lot of Manhattan people, a lot of those, I don’t know if the word “hipster” is a bad word or not …

No! You can definitely use that word here. I don’t know, I feel like I am one. Anyway: the young American coming to Brooklyn to experience the Brooklyn lifestyle, all these kids, the people I work with, with all the tattoos and stuff — these are my people, these are the people that gravitate to Motorino.

And the press. The press has been amazing. What was that experience like? It was good, well Slice and Adam Kuban, that was the biggest moment for me.

When Slice New York put their … You know, there was nobody else doing what I’m doing. It was just Pizza Napoletana, to do the Pizza Napoletana, he was the only guy, he opened years ago. So one day, we opened with a different attitude, because we’re more rock n roll, less authentic in the way the restaurant is. We have a little more variety in terms of appetizers, we have different things on the menu (besides pizza). So I wasn’t too sure of our chances with the press. When Slice came, it was opening day, and I was so busy I wasn’t even thinking about it. The manager downstairs called me and said: “You need to look at Slice.” I loved it.

Motorino was really the first thing to happen to Graham’s dining scene. It’s gotten better since you opened. Do you think you led the charge? I hope. There are a couple of kids opening restaurants, and I’m looking forward to going there and spending money because I really want to support them, and I’m all about, ya know, as much as I can help these guys, I’ll help them, because I know what it’s like to be starting out. It’s tough.

Do you feel like you’re living the dream? Yeah, I love my life, man. I really love it. I do what I’ve always done, what I’ve always enjoyed doing, which is: I put out as much as the best of my ability, of what I can do, and it pays back. People keep answering it. At first it was paying for the people I had working for the restaurant, and now it’s paying for myself. But yeah, I’m loving it. I love this pizza business.

Do you see anything besides Motorino in your future? Like maybe a different restaurant? Yeah.

Yeah? It’s far in the future and it’s nothing I can possibly … you know?

Of course. No jinxing. So when you go out, where do you like to go? What are your favorite bars and restaurants in the city? In Manhattan?

Yeah in Manhattan, in Brooklyn, whatever. Peter Luger. I love it, because it’s a full-blooded business.

Literally. Yeah, literally. I like restaurants that have a focus on something. I like Fette Sau a lot. In this city, I like BLT Steak, not even because I went there and I opened the space, but because it’s such an amazing restaurant. I love all BLT restaurants, basically. Oh, and then there’s this guy, owns a restaurant. Doesn’t talk about dowers. Doesn’t talk about money. He talks about food. He’s Frankie Castronovo.

From Frankies and Frankies Spuntino. Yeah, I had the meal of the year over there. I had the pork bracciola, I mean it was ridiculously good. It was like so good man, so good.

Any bars? I like Blue and Gold ,,, Lots of bars, I just like to go there, no nonsense, just go, get your drink, play pool, the jukebox is good.

Is there a favorite restaurant that you and your wife have when you take your son out? The thing is, he’s very difficult; it’s very difficult to go and eat with him.

If you could take him to a restaurant, if there were a kind of food you would raise him on, what kind of food would it be? For him to eat? You know what, I like all Mario Batali restaurants. I would go to Otto. You go there, it’s set up for kids. They come, you don’t have to ask for the high chair, the high chair’s coming in. There is an increasing number of restaurants where they don’t have baby chairs, and it’s driving me nuts. I see that, I turn around and I leave.

So I’m guessing you have a decent stock in your restaurant. Of course! You know, I’m an old dude. I have a son. And when I go to a place and I have my son, and I say, “Hi, can I have a baby chair? And the guy looks at me and says “we don’t have.” And its like, is it not cool enough or something? When you’re reaching and you say, let’s not have baby chairs, it’s going to look even more cool? Then I’m not there. I’m not there anymore.

BlackBook Staff Picks: Dining, Drinking, Shopping, & Staying

Here at BlackBook, we pay a lot of attention to where cool customers go out — bars, clubs, restaurants, shops, hotels, you name it. So why not flip the frame and let you see where we go out? Here’s a periodically updated, exhaustive list of hotspots currently favored by everyone at BlackBook, from the mighty bosses down to the humble interns, from the charming local lounges around the corner to the jet-setting temples of luxe living.

EDITORIAL ● Editorial Director/Editor-in-Chief – Ray Rogers, Café Mogador (NYC) – Hummus, crack-caliber coffee, and outdoor patio for primo people-judging and “novel writing.” ● Creative Director – Jason Daniels, Babettes (East Hampton) – Don’t let the word “organic” turn you off . ● Executive Editor – Chris Mohney, Pegu Club (NYC) – OCD cocktail heaven. Pith helmet and ivory cane optional. ● Senior Editor – Nick Haramis, The Jane Hotel and Ballroom (NYC) – Latest smash from Sean MacPherson and Eric Goode gets all Edwardian on the WVill.

● Editor-at-Large – James Servin, The Raleigh (Miami) – The local equivalent of LA’s Chateau Marmont. ● Staff Writer – Ryan Adams, Republic (NYC) – Minimalist fave and only vaguely communist, which is more fun than the full-bore thing. ● Writer-at-Large – Alison Powell, Wurstküche (LA) – Hey, sausages! Downtown hipsters with a secret inner-manly-man are pleased. ● West Coast Editor – Matt Diehl, Cole’s (LA) – The 100-year-old buffet-style cafeteria comes back as something new (but the French dip stays). ● Nightlife Correspondent – Steve Lewis, La Esquina (NYC) – Day and night, eating, meeting and playing. ● Paris Correspondent – Dana Thomas, Hemingway Bar at the Ritz Hotel (Paris) – Posh sips & historic ambiance at the Ritz. ● Assistant Editors – Ben Barna, Tokyo (Montreal) – Buy one for the buff bartender while you’re at it—he’s a starving actor. Cayte GrieveCafé Asean (NYC) Foster Ethan KamerLa Superior (NYC) – Quite possibly the best little taqueria this side of town. ● Editorial Assistant – Eiseley Tauginas, Alta (NYC) – Alta, as in “high,” as in “haute,” at this sexy Village tapas spot. ● Copy Editor – Michèle Filon, Sripraphai (NYC) ● Editorial Interns – Annie Clinton Moto (NYC) – High-flavor food with dungeon loos. Sure, Moto’s for metros, but it’s hot anyway. Delia Paunescu Schiller’s Liquor Bar (NYC) – McNally’s successful entrée into the LES mess. Desiree Pais, Lit (NYC) – Rock bar du jour for hos and bros of the ain’t we the shit? set. Alexandra Vickers, Colette (Paris) – Art, style, music, sex and water.

ART ● Art Director – Amy Steinhauser, Five Leaves (NYC) – Café posthumously funded by Heath Ledger does justice to the work and hype put into it. ● Photography Assistant – Stephanie Swanicke, Brandy Library (NYC) – Highbrow mixology, let us know when it’s time to dust off the antique bottles on the upper shelf. ● Design/Photo Interns – Angela Chen, Dinosaur BBQ (NYC) – Roadhouse bringing southerners to Northern Manhattan. Krista Quick – Ottobar (Baltimore) – What can we say, this place rocks.Jeremy Jones – Tokyo Bar, (NYC) – Schizo décor and food, but decently done all the same.

FASHION & BEAUTY ● Fashion Director-at-Large – Elizabeth Sulcer, China Grill (NYC) -Heaping plates of Asian fusion amid fashionable environs. ● Market Editor – Bryan Levandowski, Bondi Road (NYC) – Wizards of Aus in NYC, we like your style. ● Fashion Assistant – Wilson Mathews III, Per Se (NYC) – Advanced gastronomy at the Time Warner Center. Thomas Keller pulls out all the stops. ● Fashion Interns – Samantha Shaw, Chez Janou (Paris) – Boisterous southern bistro near the Place des Vosges. Julien Blanc, La Esquina (NYC) – Fairly authentic Mexican and one of the city’s best-known “secret” bars. Laura Watters, Café Habana (NYC) – Scarfing roast pork is so much better when Mary-Kate is watching, longingly. Lindsay Abrams, Sketch: Gallery (London) – Quirky soho hot spot. BlackBook magazine Founder – Evanly Schindler, The Smile (NYC) – Earnest Sewn owners take over abandoned Double Crown space for Med-inspired cafe/boutique.

BLACKBOOK MEDIA CORP ● Chairman – Bob Hoff, Guys & Dolls (LA) – Sophisticated sexy in West Hollywood. 7 nights a week. ● CEO – Ari Horowitz, L’Ecole (NYC) – Get schooled in fine French cuisine at this tasty training center. ● Associate Publisher – Brett Wagner, Café Select (NYC) – SoHo café marries Swiss Alpine to downtown design, garners Next Brunch Place status. ● Director of Finance and Operations – Joe Friedman, Lucky Strike Lanes (NYC) – Scenester bowling from the dudes behind Marquee and Tao. ● Corporate Counsel – Drew Patrick of Drew Patrick Law, Dutch Kills (NYC) – Modern-day antique saloon from New York’s cocktail kings. ● Executive Assistant – Bridgette Bek, Motorino (NYC) – Belgian-bred Mathieu Palombino’s Billyburg pizza joint serves up personal pan-sized genius, one pie at a time.

ADVERTISING ● Senior Account Executive – Dina Matar, Gascogne (NYC) – Southern French cooking without the Southern French ‘tude. ● Account Executive – Brian Kantor, Botanica (NYC) – Dive that must be working some kind of Santeria to keep prices down in this excessive nabe. ● Executive Director, BlackBook Access – Gregg Berger, La Piaggia (Miami) – Keep your feet in the sand and your hand on the rosé glass at this waterfront café francaise. ● Detroit Account Executives – Jeff Hannigan, Blind Tiger Ale House (NYC) – Beer bar institution finds new home, devoted crowd. Kristen von Bernthal, Pure Food and Wine (NYC) – Say goodbye to a future of pacemakers and a gut the shape of China. Raw food is real food. ● Midwest Account Executives – Susan Welter, Perennial (Chicago) – This could easily become Chicago’s summer hotspot for years to come. ● Andrea Forrester, Mirai (Chicago) – Thumpin’ music and bumpin’ elbows don’t deter crowds from gathering for some of the city’s finest sushi. ● Southwest Account Executive – Molly Ballantine, Gjelina (LA) – New Venice, new American hotspot takes on Hollywood posturing and tude. ● Northwest Account Executives – Catherine Hurley, 15 Romolo (San Francisco) – Bourbon & Branch without the passwords and financial types. Shawn O’Meara, Suppenküche (San Francisco) – Fun place, hearty food. Check the diet at the door. Sales Coordinator – Claire Pujol, Fat Baby (NYC) – Dank in a clean way. Do not enter without skinny jeans.

MARKETING ● Marketing Manager – Julie Fabricant, Kingswood (NYC) – Creative Aussie eats. Feel like king of the W. Vill woods. ● Partnerships & Promotions Manager – Andrew Berman, Bozu (NYC) – Sunken Japanese paradise. Delectable sushi, incredible drinks. ● Interns – Rebecca Hill, Chicago Brauhaus (Chicago) – One of the last of Chicago’s great German restaurants with live oompah bands and an Oktoberfest menu year-round. Delna Joshi, Hudson Terrace (NYC) – Rooftop pleaser for drunk summer afternoons. Brianne Murphy, Beauty Bar (NYC) – Kitschy theme bar serving up mani/drink combos under a row of hair dryers. Elizabeth Pirozzi, Pink Elephant (NYC) – Gangsters, models, and house. Where one goes, the others must follow. Monica Dybuncio, Cha Cha Cha (San Francisco) – The Haight’s never-ending Caribbean party where Santerias and sangria rule. Emily Pflug Presidio, Delfina (San Francisco) – Overly moussed males, technophiles, and high-class hipsters collide in this local fine dining favorite. Lea Abeyta, The Annex (NYC) – Grown-up newcomer from Dark Room boys. Tiswas Saturday, Interpol’s Paul B holding down Wednesday. Joanna Rubinstein, Bar Breton (NYC) – Fleur de Sel’s tastes of Brittany now available in brasserie form. Marie Baginski, East Andrews Cafe & Bar (Atlanta) – Label toters run amok at Buckhead restaurant-bar and pack the place on Thursdays and Fridays. Megan Kunecki, Blender Theater at Gramercy (NYC) -New indie rocker hosting artists you put on your iPod for show while you’re really listening to “Since U Been Gone” again. Jay Kassirer, The Smile (NYC) – Earnest Sewn owners take over abandoned Double Crown space for Med-inspired cafe/boutique. Suhee Eom, Momofuku Ssäm Bar (NYC) – Chef-of-the-minute David Chang fancies up Korean burritos and gets avant-garde after 6pm. Jaime Marie, Sueños (NYC) – Sweet dreams of organic tequila and make-your-own-tacos really can come true! Rana Razavi, Sanctuary (Miami) – Swank rooftop bar and the promise of hanky panky in the pool.

DIGITAL ● Director of Development – Daniel Murphy, Yerba Buena (NYC) – Petite hot zone with wide range of Pan-Latino small plates. ● Lead Architect – Matt Hackett, Beast (Brooklyn) – Small plates and top brunch, come get lost in Prospect Heights. Developer – Bastian Kuberek, Motor City Bar (NYC) – Front like you remember how to drive and these 8 Milers might let you hang. ● Developer – Dan Simon, B.B. King Blues Club & Grill (NYC) ● Designer – Matt Strmiska, Manuel’s (Austin) – Immaculate cleanliness, smart design, and Wine Spectator-designated mole don’t come cheap even for the downtown lunch crowd. ● Developer – Sam Withrow, Pacific Standard (NYC) – Mellow, big-hearted Slope pub keepin’ it pacific. ● Quality Assurance Engineer – Sunde Johnson, Stone Park Café (NYC) – White on white, Williams-Sonoma, Maclarens, fish sandwiches, and burgers. ● Mobile Developer – Otto Toth, Centolire (NYC) – Mangia, mangia, and then ride up and down in the funny glass elevator until the hostess kicks you out.

BOARD OF DIRECTORS ● Bob Hoff, Guys & Dolls (LA) – Sophisticated sexy in West Hollywood. 7 nights a week. ● Ari Horowitz, L’Ecole (NYC) – Get schooled in fine French cuisine at this tasty training center. ● Eric Gertler, SoHo House (NYC) – Members-only decadent den where you may find scruffy English rockers or snaggle-toothed English bankers. Guess which is more likely. ● Joe Landry, Local (LA) – Anything goes, as long as it’s not beef. ● Irwin Lieber, Fishtail by David Burke (NYC) – Fresh seafood in the UES by celeb chef David Burke. ● Dan Pelson, Marea (NYC) – Hopes for a high tide abound at Michael White’s temple to Italian seafood. ● Barry Rubenstein, Shun Lee Café (NYC) – Haute Chinese and dim sum on a glossy, ’80s-fabulous set. ● Jack Sullivan, Blue Ribbon (NYC) – Bromberg bros brasserie takes care of Soho’s after-midnight crowd.
Brian Wilson Tickets Capital One Bank Theatre at Westbury Tickets Westbury Tickets

New York Openings: Motorino, Braeburn, the Imperial, 10 Downing

Motorino (Williamsburg) – Belgian-bred Mathieu Palombino’s Billyburg pizza joint serves up personal-pan sized genius. ● 10 Downing (West Village) – Stunning, sumptuous Medi resto across from the beloved Italian frenemies. – Harrison and Citarella vet brings homey village space to homey Village block.