About a dish at the Smith, a New American restaurant with multiple locations in New York City, Infatuation cofounder Andrew Steinthal writes:
"Behold, the dessert you cannot leave without getting. That's a s'mores, deconstructed in a jar in layers of chocolate mousse and graham cracker crumble, with toasted marshmallow and a chocolate crunch bar on top."
"You deserve this."
Steinthal and Chris Stang launched the Infatuation in April 2009 to bring a fresh voice to the world of restaurant reviewing, an industry marked by somewhat esoteric language and lots of name-dropping.
"It dawned on us that there was no solution out there for regular people, specifically for restaurant reviews, that connected with or was useful to people who just like to go out to eat, but aren’t super foodies," Steinthal said. "The New York Times and New York Magazine are great, but they didn't have an app, and Yelp has no curation to it. If you write a review full of references to names of chefs I've never heard of, that means nothing to me. There was no voice of the people."
As executives in the music industry — Stang as the VP of Marketing at Atlantic Records, Steinthal as the VP of Public Relations at Warner Bros. Records — the two were already pretty knowledgeable about the New York restaurant scene. They had met on the set of TRL, when they were both attending a conference for music directors at college radio stations.
"We were always the planners in our group of friends," Steinthal said. "We were always the people you would come up to at work and say something like: 'Kid Rock is in town. He likes Mexican food. Plan it.'"
The Infatuation was just a side project until April 2014, when Steinthal and Stang quit their jobs after more than a decade in the music industry.
They've since built an app for iOS and Android, raised a $1 million seed round, recruited an army of writers, and expanded their review coverage from New York to San Francisco, Chicago, and Denver.
They're also launching in Los Angeles next month.
Keep it casual
Infatuation reviewers don't accept invitations from restaurants, and, in the tradition of the disguise-wearing restaurant critic, they never announce their presence to a wait staff. Writers are allocated a small budget so that they can try out a bunch of different restaurants in their area.
And when it comes to hiring writers, a person's ability to convey a conversational tone is one of the key traits that Stang and Steinthal look for.
"A lot of times when people sit down to write a review, they sort of think to themselves, 'Well, what's a restaurant review supposed to sound like?'" Stang said. "We tell people to write the way they talk so that what they say sounds like it’s coming from a friend, not from a 'restaurant authority.'"
The Infatuation has certainly caught the attention of the food world. In March, Stang was nominated for a James Beard Foundation Journalism Award in the "Humor" category for his parody review of a fake restaurant called "Underfinger."
The review openly mocks the way traditional restaurant reviewers write about food.
"I have no idea why it took us this long to make it to Underfinger (they’ve been open for eleven days), but we finally had dinner here over the weekend. All we can say is that you’ve never seen anything like this before, and yet it feels so familiar. Here’s the story.
The chef at Underfinger, Jesper Paulsen, grew up in Copenhagen just a few miles from Noma, and has eaten there several times. He’s taken that training and applied it to the Scandinavian tradition of serving minimalist finger sandwiches at funerals. The end result is one of the city’s most impressive tasting menus, a somber celebration of “farm-to-finger” ingredients and classic Neo-Nordic techniques."
For the real reviews, foodies can find exactly what they're looking for by searching through a number of different categories and situations — some that are more practical, like location and cuisine type, and some that are more objective, like "impressing out of towners," "adventurous eating," and even "scoping hot girls/guys."
Barbuto, for example, is "a trendy spot, but for a more sedate group." The Spotted Pig, on the other hand, is "ideal for evenings where you’re looking to mix it up, throw a couple down, and see where the night takes you."
Stang says that searches for restaurants that are ideal for birthdays and girls' night out are some of their most popular.
"There's always a situtational need for restaurants," he said. "We differentiate between a place that would be good for a first date and a place that would be good for a couple's date night, because those are two very different things."
A big factor fueling the Infatuation's growth has been their creative use of social media.
A few years ago, they started tagging their food photos on Instagram with the hashtag "#EEEEEATS"
As of this writing, there are 794,433 Instagram photos with that hashtag, the vast majority unaffiliated with the Infatuation. The site's own Instagram account has more than 131,000 followers.
But why five E's?
"We always wanted this to feel fun," Stang said. "People always take things too seriously."
Along with the upcoming L.A. launch, Stang and Steinthal have unveiled a new product called Text Rex, where you can get a personalized restaurant recommendation from an Infatuation staff member over text message.
Rather than use a complex system of ratings and anonymous recommendations like most restaurant review sites do, with Text Rex you're talking with a real, live person.
They also have a feature called "Friday Fives," where a notable person in tech, fashion, entertainment, and media picks their five favorite restaurants. They've gotten everyone from Mindy Kaling and Seth Rogen to Joanne Wilson and Warby Parker's Neil Blumenthal to share their Friday Fives.
"We applied everything we knew about building a band to the marketing for our brand," Steinthal said. "It's a community tied to quality content."