Dining out on Twitter

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It's Friday, January 29, and the dining room at Nyood is packed. Vegetable antipasto, panko-crusted chicken, and malta braised short ribs are coming out of the kitchen of the restaurant in Toronto, courtesy of head chef and Food Network personality Roger Mooking. The lights are dim and the music is loud. Champagne and wine are flowing. A Tribe Called Quest is pumping from the speakers and diners are getting up to dance.

The front of the restaurant is glowing dimly in the light of a projection floating over the DJ booth on the rough white wall opposite the bar. On screen is the restaurant's twitter feed, which is shifting with updates in real time.

First it reads, My good buddy from Unique is in the house with a lovely girl... Enjoy the bubbles. Then, Seating 2 is on its way. Servers and Kitchen -- are you ready? Later the words, Was that dessert for real? Or was I Champaign Dreamin? float by, followed by Table 210 drinks wine like water... Love that.

Tonight begins Winterlicious, Toronto's two-week culinary festival. To kick it off Nyood created tonight's event, Eats, Beats and Tweets, a nod to music and social media. Nyood has invited DJs to spin and is asking guests to post 140-character messages to its twitter page.

Only one year earlier, this twitter-themed event might have seemed a touch too geeky for a West Queen West resto that neighbours 69 Vintage and The Social. Now twitter is all the rage. It was also not so long ago that restaurants saw smart phones as a distraction from carefully constructed entrees. Even Sacha Elwakeel, the Nyood manager who helped plan Eats, Beats and Tweets, was initially hesitant to join the mobile revolution.

"My pet peeve is people bringing BlackBerrys into the restaurant," Elwakeel admits a month later, pulling out his own to peck at the buttons and imitate a distracted diner. But Elwakeel decided it was better to join twitter than fight it, which is why Nyood hosted the event. "I thought: how can I turn this into a good thing?" he says.

The tactic worked. The foodies that fill the review sections of crowd sourced sites like Chow Hound and chatter on twitter and the blogosphere came out, along with less tech-savvy food lovers who were excited to included on the front end of the trend adoption curve. Eats Beats and Tweets was so successful that the restaurant is considering planning a similar monthly event.

When reputations are wired in

The food business in every well-wired city has had to shift its practices as social media has intertwined itself into mainstream culture. Like every industry that serves the public, it realizes consumers now interact with the places they shop in a drastically different way. While the reputations of restaurants were once made by a handful of critics writing for well-respected papers, the merit of our eateries is now largely decided by a sea of amateur reviewers posting on websites that change in real time.

As Toronto food critic and chef Ivy Knight puts it, "Why pay [a journalist] when you've got a million people doing it for free with the same credentials?"

"It's taken the monopoly away from one voice saying ‘this restaurant sucks, this one is great,'" she says. "It's given it to the masses. That's now the way the world works."

Toronto has long had an active food culture full of buzz-worthy restaurants, talented chefs, and educated patrons. The restaurateurs have always known one and other, as have the critics and the chefs. But before a boom in social media, Toronto's food community was largely industry based. Even regular diners at city hot spots usually ate with dates, friends, and family -- not other food lovers or restaurant-goers.

In the earlier days of the social web, a handful of Toronto's most tech-friendly foodies frequented food message boards and organized trips to markets and group dinners. But many others were unconnected, sharing opinions, reviews, and gossip with foodies they knew through offline social circles. Or worse -- they waxed on about the perfect sticky tofu pudding and the city's best blood sausage to friends who listened with one ear open, waiting for the conversation to turn.

Eat by tweet

In the spring of last year Brassaii tweeted its patio opening. Two local foodies, Andrea Chiu and Suresh Doss tweeted back, writing that it was one of their favourite spots. Chiu messaged Doss, suggesting they plan a meet up for the motley crew of geeky food lovers they chatted with online.

They pitched the idea to the twitterverse, using the tag #foodiemeet. The tag caught on and was rapidly re-tweeted; a sign tweeting foodies in Toronto were eager to meet up in real life.

Interest in #foodiemeet snowballed quickly and Doss and Chiu soon realized what they were planning was not a casual meet up between internet acquaintances but a full-fledged food community event. Brassaii created a special menu, the Lifford Wine Agency offered to bring a wine for attendees to test and Steamwhistle agreed to provide samples of beer. By the time the event took place two weeks later, on May 14, around 100 people had signed up to attend.

It made sense so many people were eager to attend a free food based event. As Chiu says, many of Toronto's food events are gala dinners carrying high price tags some foodies can't afford. "As much as people love food, there weren't many opportunities to meet up," she says. "There are some things that are really, really great, but they're generally $100 a plate or more for an evening."

On the day of the meet up it rained all afternoon. But by the time the sun set the clouds had parted and the patio furniture came out, saving the event. Many foodies came out, but the crowd was largely young, single working-professionals, not unlike Chiu or Doss.

As the editor of SpotlightToronto.com, a local food and events site, Doss knew the local foodie scene was vibrant, but it wasn't until that night that he and Chiu saw the community's true capacity. The two knew they were onto something and after a flood of e-mails and tweets asking about future events came in, they decided to continue hosting meet ups and promoting them on twitter.

Since last May, Doss and Chiu have hosted another four events. Each has sold out. In late August they held a local cheese and wine tasting at Café Taste on Queen St. Then in September eager tweeters filled the National Film Board Mediatheque to taste out the mysterious miracle berry that turns sweet salty and salty sweet. By the time they arranged a tour of Prince Edward County's wineries in October, most of the attendees knew one and other by name and many had become good friends.

As an outgrowth of the meet ups new hash tags appeared, organizing meetings to sample different types of food and bring Toronto's tweeting masses together. Soon after the first meet up smaller groups began to meet regularly for dim sum, sushi, burgers, BBQ, and spirits. "There's something going on almost every week," says Doss between sips of coffee on a recent morning at Hank's. "The medium has allowed for a lot of physical interaction."

Can't remember what it was like before

Marie Nicola has always loved to eat. A teenage beauty competition contestant, Nicola's pageant days are now past and she's found a career in food. Nicola was previously editor-in-chief of the website Dine.TO and is now food editor at Women's Post. Before twitter launched, she would post on cooking forums and occasionally meet up with fellow foodies. She isn't sure how food lovers met up prior to that. "Before the internet, I have no idea how that would have happened," she says, raising her eyebrows in disbelief.

Many of Nicola's closest friends were made online, including Anastasia Tubanos, the producer of the weekly video blog the Naked Wine Show, who is joining her for coffee this morning at Balzac's in Liberty Village. Nicola recalls the first foodie meet up, where she says she met an amazing group of people, some of whom are now friends. "It was another event that showed there were people that are not just in the industry," she says, adding that a boom of interaction between local food lovers followed the event. "There was a food explosion on twitter," she says. "There was a lot of foodie pride at that time, and it hasn't let up since."

More so than individual users, restaurants are hoping to impress more established new media, like locals She Does The City, BlogTO or SweetSpot.ca, as well as crowd sourced sites like Chow Hound, who she calls "a feared bunch."

"A lot of restaurants fall prey to foodie opinion," she says. But staying active in online conversations gives restaurants a chance to respond quickly to criticisms, adapt, and show the ever-vocal foodie community that they are being heard. "They need to be able to interact in these circles. If they have misstep, foodies cut them up."

Tubanos chimes in with a wide-eyed taunt, "You don't want to mess with the foodies," she quips, only half-kidding.

Live publicity is scary

Airing a restaurant's dirty laundry and addressing complaints on a public, searchable channel can be an intimidating change from the old customer service regimen. "If you talk to a waiter there is a lot of hushed tones and a desire to make it right," says Greg Bolton, owner of the College St. café Pantry. "It's a potentially scary thing for a restaurant to live publicly."

Bolton prefers twitter to Chow Hound, which cuts restaurants out of the conversation. When someone posted that Pantry's counter staff was not helpful and that they disliked his product, Bolton was eager to respond. He had replaced both the counter person and chef in question. He wanted to thank the reviewer and note that the problems had been addressed. But as a restaurant he was not allowed to respond.

When he contacted the site Chow Hound held firm and wouldn't let him share his side of the story. Frustrated, Bolton deleted his own Chow Hound account, saying that refusing to let him post defeats the conversational nature of the social web.

Elwakeel at Nyood has a new era regimen for dealing with online customer complaints. If someone posts a negative review of a dish on the web, Elwakeel tries the dish that night to make sure its up to standard and considers whatever was said. Next, he'll e-mail to apologize for the bad experience, ask for a detailed description of what went wrong and invite them back to fix it. Jenn Godbout, marketing manager of the Drake Hotel says she uses the same technique.

Trending outside the trendy

Buster Rhino's Southern BBQ is far, far away from the neighbourhoods Ontario's hot spots usually reside in. The restaurant's address is 2001 Thickson Road, south of the 401 in Whitby. Still, Buster Rhino's is one of the most buzzed about restaurants outside of city limits and a trending topic amongst Toronto's tweeting foodies.

On the web, everyone is a click away. Buster Rhino's owner Darryl Koster knows this, which is why he took to twitter to expand his customer base, interacting with prominent foodies like Suresh Doss on the service and watching the positive word of mouth act as an informant.

Koster found the followers he interacted with both online and in his restaurant became friends and vocal advocates, urging others to get out to Whitby and try the BBQ. "Your friends are always the best advocates for you," he says. "Referrals are always more sincere than advertisements."

Koster says he's lucky -- the local internet has been good to him. He knows other restaurants haven't been so lucky. Koster refuses to name names, but says he's seen many restaurants hurt by foodies ranting about them on the web. "I've seen several instances on Chow Hound when someone was torn down," he says.

If someone has a legitimate complaint, Koster will respond. But if a tweeter, blogger, or online critic is mean or malicious, he'll leave the comment alone and other users judge its merit. "Mistakes happen and sometimes they don't warrant a response," he says.

Hooked and hooking up

Every Friday night when Joel Solish was a young boy, his parents would drop him off at his grandmother's house. There, he would stand in awe in the kitchen for hours as his grandmother cooked without ever consulting a recipe. It was in that kitchen, learning about each ingredient, that Solish's love of food was born.

Two decades later, Solish has found a way to share his love. Over the past year Solish has become active on twitter, getting to know other foodies and participating in meet ups large and small. In December he hosted his own meat themed meet up at his home near Dupont and Bathurst using the hash tag #meatluck.

Now he's hooked. He's got to know Doss, Chiu, Nicola, and Bolton, as well as a slew of other meet up regulars, a group whose tastes are so similar only a match-making service like twitter could have brought them together. "That's the thing twitter has been so successful at," he says. "Pointing out who you should be hanging out with."

"It's nice to connect with people as an adult that share that passion," he says. "It gives you an inner calm to be around people who are the same as you. You don't have to explain yourself. They get it."

When Darryl Koster and his wife Beth visit Toronto, they usually call Solish up and make plans for dinner. A few years back, foodies like Solish and restaurateurs like Koster may never have got to know each other. Today, they're the best of friends.

Russ Martin is a journalism student at Ryerson University in Toronto. His blog Close Your Eyes can be read here.

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