“Log on to any social media site and, within five seconds, an ‘influencer’ sipping wine in Santorini will tell you to live your best life. . . . It’s the impossible dream, and you can either become a social media influencer yourself and lie to the world about achieving it, or you can go to SRV in the South End — the restaurant version of your best life.”
So begins the restaurant review for SRV (8.9) on the just-launched Boston site of The Infatuation. Never hear of it?
“If you’re a foodie, you’ll know what The Infatuation is,” raves Melanie Palacios, founder of The Boston Food Party food blog and recent Bentley University graduate. “They have great posts and great content, extensive super-specific lists of places to go.”
“Their reviews are very in the moment,” gushes Kathy Sidell, owner of Saltie Girl (8.6). “You can tell [the reviewers] are insane about food. It’s kind of like watching James Corden do his carpool karaoke because the joy James Corden gets when he has someone in the car is the same way when these folks are reviewing. Their tone is just right.”
Nine years after its start in New York City, and expansion to culinary hot spots like Los Angeles, Chicago, and Austin, the restaurant recommendation site recently added Boston to its club of 12 home cities. It also has 22 travel guides for popular US and international spots like Nashville, Mexico City, and Tokyo.
“Boston is a great example of a city that had to be right when we launched,” says CEO Chris Stang. “We found the right writers, funding, and we’re excited about finally being live.”
The Infatuation’s content is hipster Brooklynese with a dash of food porn and a sprinkling of snark. It eschews traditional review lingo. (“We’ll never use ‘mouthfeel’ or ‘toothsome,’ ” Stang once said.) The company has a website, app, newsletter, and, in some cities, text message dining recommendations. It has held several food festivals featuring restaurants from around the country. One in Queens this past October included Saltie Girl.
Where The Infatuation shines is on Instagram. An early adopter, it has an impressive 741,000 followers and its branded #EEEEEats hashtag has been used almost 14 million times. @EEEEEats is among The Infatuation’s 30-plus separate accounts, including @avocadotoast, @burger and @pizza. It’s also present on Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, Snapchat, and has scores of playlists on Spotify.
Its reviewers are folks “obsessed with restaurants,” Stang says, not culinary professionals. “They spend their daily life figuring out where they’re going to eat.” Boston’s reviewer, Dan Secatore, is a former Obama Administration staffer. The employees, who pay for all meals, undergo training to emulate The Infatuation’s review style.
“Sushi preparation is a half-science/half-art that takes years to perfect. We’re not even committed enough to rewatch ‘The Wire,’ so it’s hard to judge the skills of a [O Ya] sushi chef who’s been training his whole life — but we know when salmon belly melts in our mouths like candy . . . ”
The site rates restaurants on a 1-10 decimal system. New York State holds the highest and lowest ratings from The Infatuation’s entire repertoire: 9.7 for Blue Hill at Stone Barns and a measly 1.0 for Tavern on the Green, an iconic Central Park spot. O Ya, with 9.4, so far holds Boston’s highest rating.
Stang and Andrew Steinthal founded The Infatuation while honing PR and marketing careers in New York City’s music industry. They were often asked for advice on where to eat in neighborhoods, on a first or second date, to take parents, and the like. “If you’re the person knowledgeable about restaurants, there is a great deal of social capital” in that knowledge, Stang says. The Infatuation was born out of leveraging that value and putting that capital into the hands of its users.
To industry observers, The Infatuation fits into the Zeitgeist. Beth Goldstein, a Babson College lecturer specializing in entrepreneurship, says consumers today want websites and apps that make their lives easier and connect them to like-minded people. “People are looking for efficiency to make social time more enjoyable,” Goldstein says. “They also want social tools that give them a feeling they are part of a social tribe.”
The Infatuation aggressively partners with brands to monetize its markets. Last year, it became profitable and, in March, it acquired legendary restaurant review Zagat from Google for an undisclosed sum. In September, it announced a $30 million investment from WndrCo (cofounded by Hollywood mogul Jeffery Katzenberg). Stang says the company hopes to take Zagat back to its roots of user-generated content and create a new platform “that could live in sync with The Infatuation.”
‘People are looking for efficiency to make social time more enjoyable. They also want social tools that give them a feeling they are part of a social tribe.’
The Zagat pairing makes sense. Ralph Haddad, a Babson junior developing TastePal, an AI app that recommends restaurants by food preferences, says research finds most people will read anywhere from 2 to 10 online reviews before trusting a business.
“We do not spend very much time in Berkeley. We aren’t in college, and we try to avoid journeys on BART unless we are being tricked or bribed. . . . Comal is good enough to bring us there without any sort of coercion.”
For all its social media reach, some restaurants don’t know about the site, or about its reach. Andrew Hoffman, co-owner of Comal in Berkeley, Calif., says its 8.5 rating “was pretty great” but is unaware of anyone who has visited because of The Infatuation’s review. Nonetheless, he posted the review on Comal’s website.
And some have abandoned The Infatuation. “In New York, it feels like it’s a tool to gentrify neighborhoods,” says Irene Shin, a millennial from Queens. “It only takes you to the nicer restaurants,” she says. “Zagat and Yelp try harder to cover everything. They’re more egalitarian.”
Steinthal rebukes that assessment. “Coverage is something we think about all the time. We want to be comprehensive,” he says. “Building takes time and we are extending our coverage in all markets.”
New cities are now being eyed for The Infatuation. Los Angeles coverage is finally reaching out to the suburbs. Some things take time, but The Infatuation is finally here.Peggy Hernandez can be reached at PeggyHernandez