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The Saturday Dining Conspiracy group having Dim Sum at Tea House
The Saturday Dining Conspiracy group having Dim Sum at Tea House (Photo By John Anderson)

Austin possesses a wealth of locally produced interactive food- and drink-related Web sites, many of which you might not know about. I started discovering them several years ago, while doing searches for the menus of restaurants that I was in the process of reviewing for the Chronicle. Once I realized how much information there was out there, I quickly decided I needed to dine at the restaurant first and formulate my own opinions before doing any online research. I didn't want any pre-review Web information to influence or pollute my independent assessments.

The Usenet group austin.food (go to Google, click "Groups" above the entry line, and type in "austin.food") was one of the first sites I ran across. It's an especially good resource for scuttlebutt on restaurant openings (and closings), new places under construction, independent reviews from group participants, food-shopping deals around town, recipe requests, etc. Austin.food suffers the same problems as other Usenet groups: a propensity toward snippiness and argumentative comments among members, occasional profane rants, and heaven forbid you should misspell a word or use improper sentence structure. But once you slog through the effetism and discount the worst of the insults, the information can be quite worthwhile.

There are several regular people who post on austin.food who I find especially helpful: Victor (he always provides lucid reviews and comments, especially on anything to do with fine dining and Latin-American cuisine), Frank@saintarnold.com, Manzoorul, Ruth, Logan, and Werner, among many others. Lately, the volume of postings on austin.food has declined somewhat, but hopefully this article will generate more participation.


The Saturday Dining Conspiracy

It was through austin.food that I stumbled across the Saturday Dining Conspiracy (www.realtime.net/~stainles/sdclog.html). SDC is a core group of self-described "six lumpy white guys that love to eat" and who have been dining out together most Saturday nights since 1992. Lawrence Person and Dwight Brown, a couple of middle-aged men from North Houston who have been friends since second grade, started the group. "Most of the participants," Brown says, "are peripherally related to the computer business, science fiction writers and editors, or are friends of friends, relatives of friends, or ham radio freaks, and Chuck is unemployed, and needs a job if anybody reads this."

The review group can range from two members (Person and Brown) to a dozen or so, and is usually male-dominated: "We might have a sister, or mom, or girlfriend show up. We don't have anything against the ladies," says Person with a sardonic grin. "Matter of fact, tell some to contact us!"

The group as a whole is omnivorous and relishes reviewing spots that feature meat. "Our criteria for deciding on places is simple," Person explains. "Dwight and I get together by e-mail to choose the next site. New spots have to be open for at least three months so they've ironed out the bugs. It has to be a place where we haven't eaten in the last year, and we vary cuisines from week to week. We splurge at an expensive place about every two to three months or so, and every April, which is Dwight's and my birthday, we eat at a nice steak place."

Adds Brown: "Back in '96, there was a bad ice storm that trapped me at home, so I had some time to kill and decided to put our reviews on the Web." It's amazing that they have been posting their reviews on the Web for the past eight years. When you visit their site, you'll notice some quirky edges. Every review has longitude and latitude listed "referenced to the WGS-84 datum" for the techies with GPS in their cars, and they make a mention if Wi-Fi is available. Person will note if Dr Pepper is served (now Diet Dr Pepper, since he's on the Atkins diet), and there is always a rating for pepper grinders (0 being no grinder or no offer for same from the waiter, and 5 referring to "the ultimate in pepper grinder technology: motorized, with a light on the bottom").

Another rating is for the men's room. Their site explains the justification by quoting Anthony Bourdain's Kitchen Confidential: "I won't eat in a restaurant with filthy bathrooms. ... If the restaurant can't be bothered to replace the puck in the urinal or keep the toilets and floors clean, then just imagine what their refrigerators and workspaces look like. Bathrooms are relatively easy to clean. Kitchens are not." On this scale, "0 is a serious hazard to health ... 5 is seriously above average, with some special touch added."

I had the pleasure of dining with the SDC recently and found them to be a hungry, witty, and humorous bunch. Ordering is free-form, with each member choosing what he wants and sharing tastes only when requested. The review is discussed openly over the table, and a consensus is reached. Person and Brown then write up their reviews separately, and the individual voice of each comes through loud and clear in the postings. They do not always agree, and don't mind saying so. One might hate a place while the other loved it. Their site is a trove of information on Austin restaurants and their commentary often hilarious: You won't be bored surfing SDC.

If you're looking for expert local restaurant guides, city food guides, reviews, and ratings, we of course prefer those found on our site, but there's literally a glut of local cuisine-related Web resources available for anyone, regardless of your preference. At any of these Web sites, you can spend hours jumping from link to link, but at all of them, you'll find a good taste of Austin. end story

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