Last month at Chinatown's "Little" Three Happiness on Cermak a table of eight sat dining on salt-and-pepper shrimp, blue crabs, black-pepper beef ribs, crispy chicken skin, water spinach with fermented tofu, and panfried rice noodles with duck and barbecued pork. As they dug in Gary Wiviott, a large, gregarious man in black, put down his chopsticks and stood up. With a bit of pomp, he presented Three Happiness's owners, Raymond and Betty Yau, with a white laminated card proclaiming the nine-table Cantonese eatery "one of Chicago's Great Neighborhood Restaurants."
Wiviott is a leasing agent, and none of his companions are professional restaurant critics, so anyone unfamiliar with the culinary chat site they run, LTHForum, might find this a bit nervy. But Raymond Yau didn't. After posing for a few photographs with Wiviott, he taped the card to the front window alongside his restaurant's Tribune review and Zagat sticker.
Barely five months old, LTHForum has already pushed past 11,000 posts, covering subjects ranging from where to find conch fritters to extensive translations of foreign-language menus. There are more than 450 registered users, and many of their posts are more knowledgeable, more passionate, and less compromising than anything you'll find in the local mainstream media. The site has been mined for tips by more than a couple professional journalists, myself included. (In April I wrote about Wiviott and a few other hounds' quest for real barbecue in Chicago.) The Three Happiness dinner inaugurated the site's awards program, which gives certificates to restaurants and food stores that, as Wiviott puts it, "don't get enough recognition anywhere else."
LTHForum's eight moderators and many of its members found their "tribe," as they put it, on Chowhound.com, the national food message board started by New York writer and jazz musician Jim Leff. Popularized by a 2001 Calvin Trillin piece in the New Yorker, Chowhound is a huge virtual community of people who love to eat food as much as they like to talk about it. On the Chicago board in particular one could spend hours plumbing the depths of threads gone by, debating the provenance of fresh green almonds on Kedzie or writing poetry to the pork neck larb at Spoon on Western.
Inevitably many regulars on the Chicago Chowhound boards began to form relationships in the real world, meeting for meals and elaborately orchestrated events such as 2002's 24 Hours of Chow, a Homeric eat-a-thon that traveled all over the city. A cohesive social group evolved out of the virtual one, a development that began to conflict with Leff's management of the site.
According to Chowhound doctrine, posts that aren't "laser-focused" on chow or those that even hint at restaurant self-promotion are unceremoniously deleted by Leff's east-coast moderators, who in the past have been unable to distinguish between, say, Smoke Daddy and the late Bone Daddy, and have forbidden any mention of either since one of them was accused of shilling on the site. "That's the classic example," says freelance copywriter Michael Gebert, a former Chowhound poster. "Smoke Daddy got banned because Bone Daddy shilled. Twisted Spoke, which happens to be owned by the same people as Bone Daddy, wasn't banned because Leff didn't know they owned it."
"I explained this to Jim Leff in an e-mail," says Wiviott. "I've got 700 posts on Chowhound and I'm explaining this to him and he's not believing me. What the hell's up with that?" Leff defends his policies on the principle that the population of highly opinionated posters would devolve into anarchy without disciplined enforcement of the rules.
Because Chowhound posters are forbidden from planning events on the board, in June 2003 Wiviott started a Listserv for Chicago hounds who might want to organize an outing, shout out for a spur-of-the-moment meal, or announce a mushroom-club meeting. He named it after "Little" Three Happiness--his favorite restaurant, distinguished from "Big" Three Happiness across the street, which he maintains serves "poorly executed tourist Chinese." Membership quickly grew to about 150 and all sorts of discussion took place, including the occasional jab at Leff and his overzealous moderators.
Meanwhile, Chowhound's Chicago board received some favorable publicity in a Tribune piece that made much of the bonhomie among the local hounds. Consequently there was a spike in the number of queries from newcomers and out-of-towners about the best places for deep-dish pizza or Italian beef, subjects that had been discussed ad nauseam in the past.
Gebert had designed an exhaustive FAQ to lead newbies to informative threads hidden deep on the site. "I definitely hit a point where I felt like I had answered every question that I had an answer for three times, and it was boring me to suggest yet again to be sure and have any form of venison hot dog they have at Hot Doug's," he says. According to Gebert, Leff had problems with the FAQ--he worried that it would lead to orthodoxy on the boards. After an increasingly rancorous series of communications between Leff and himself, Gebert quit Chowhound, though his FAQ is still being used on the site.
Last spring, apparently stung by comments that someone forwarded to him from the Listserv, Leff fired off a long e-mail to Wiviott. "Basically Jim Leff was peeing on our legs and trying to tell us it was a summer shower," says Wiviott. "He said if you're unhappy with Chowhound then maybe you should start your own forum. And we thought, Hey, you know what? Maybe we should." A handful of regulars "responsible for maybe 20 or 30 percent of the traffic" on the Chicago board, says Gebert, quietly dropped off and began work on LTHForum.
Weeks passed and posters began to notice the absence of Wiviott and the others. When the news finally broke, a wave of indignation swept over Chowhound, forcing the splinter group to launch its site before it was ready. After a few days all references to the dispute were deleted from Chowhound, but in that time around 200 new members registered on LTHForum.
Wiviott, who is prone to posing rhetorical questions like "Who doesn't like crispy pig skin?," insisted that the new site be named rather inelegantly for the Yaus' restaurant, where he's been a regular for 20 years--he even keeps a supply of his homemade chile oil in the refrigerator. "The point of the name isn't to honor one restaurant," read the snazzy business cards Gebert designed. "It's to pay tribute to the little happinesses waiting to be discovered in restaurants all over the city, and to honor the spirit that seeks to share them with strangers online."
"The main difference between Chowhound and us is we want to foster a sense of community," says Wiviott. "Another thing that differentiates us is not one of us is gonna post something without doing a little research. People seem to pay more attention to detail." The level of discourse on Chicago Chowhound just hasn't been the same since LTHForum got off the ground. "No one on LTHForum would ever, ever recommend the Cheesecake Factory or Grand Luxe Cafe to a visitor from New York," says Wiviott, referring to a recent Chowhound post that did just that. "LTHForum is not a least-common-denominator board. Chowhound is like Chicago Food 101, and LTHForum is graduate studies."
Gebert and the others say they're following a policy of "moderation in moderation" and allow a much broader range of discussion in spite of LTHForum's mostly local focus. So far they've had to deal with little of the nastiness and shilling that sometimes flare up on Chowhound and most other public boards. That's a consequence, they say, of the site's face-to-face social component, and the fact that users are required to register. "It's harder to be an asshole when people know who you are," says moderator David Hammond.
The LTH moderators acknowledge that the more popular their site becomes, the more likely it'll be that they'll run into some of the same problems that Leff complains of. The day after they gave awards to "Little" Three Happiness, Spoon, and the Cheese Stands Alone, some posters complained that the selection process was too autocratic, and the awards program has been suspended until a more codified method can be hammered out.
At press time Leff hadn't responded to my calls and e-mails. If he has reacted to the group's exodus on Chowhound, those posts have since been erased. But a Leff post from this past May described his critics (not specifically the Chicago group) this way: "After the site closes and the Internet collapses and global warming turns North America into a parched desert, there'll still be these same eight loonballs crouched over disconnected keyboards in the wreckages of their apartments typing relentlessly about what an asshole I am and how badly Chowhound sucks and how the moderators are Nazis with persecuting agendas....These will be the last survivors, before the cockroaches reign."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Kathy Richland.