The Insatiable Steven Doyle
How a once-anonymous commenter wheedled his way to an endless buffet of free meals and online celebrity.
Steven Doyle arrived on the Dallas dining scene in mid-2009. Or, rather, Dallas Dude did. That’s what Doyle called himself in his role as ubiquitous commenter on the Chowhound discussion boards. He picked up a few followers there and then began commenting on D Magazine’s SideDish blog, the Dallas Morning News’ Eats Blog, and the Dallas Observer’s City of Ate. The Dallas native and University of North Texas grad was a tech salesman by day, but he was a gourmand by night.
In December 2009, News dining critic Leslie Brenner brought Doyle on as a contributor to the paper’s blog, using his real name. It was a short-lived arrangement, though. Doyle wrote one post and disappeared. Before word of his departure got out, he landed a similar gig with City of Ate, where he posted three or four times a week.
By March 2011, Doyle had struck out on his own, starting CraveDFW.com with photographer Robert Bostick. And now—suddenly—he’s somebody. He hoards media invites, snaps photos of chefs, and updates his Facebook page with insider kitchen bits at 3 am. He hosts fundraisers and State Fair celebrity chef events. He gobbles up everything on his plate. From commenter to bon vivant in two years, Doyle—a laid-off office electronics salesman who divorced the same woman twice—now has a seat at the table. He’s everywhere you want to be. He also has slick red and black business cards announcing: Steven Doyle, Food Editor.
He hands me one of the cards when I meet him for happy hour at The Grapevine Bar in late August. I’m here to follow Doyle around for a night. In the dark Maple Avenue dive, the 6-foot-3, 240-pound Doyle looks like a 50-year-old second-grader. He wipes his forehead, leans on the bar, and slurps a gin and tonic he paid for with a few dirty singles. This isn’t the Steven Doyle I expected, the guy known to bound through five bars and restaurants in a single night like an epicurean Superman, bar tabs and valet stubs bouncing off his chest.
“Please, don’t call me a blogger,” Doyle begs. “I’m press, too.” At CraveDFW, Doyle and a few unpaid contributors post daily entries on Dallas eating, drinking, and “anything else you would do on a date.” He claims a daily audience in the “multiple thousands” and describes his writing as not really criticism but not press releases, either. “I’m just making this up as I go,” he says, later mumbling something about being “reporter-y.”
Upstarts like Doyle have upended the world of food criticism over the last decade, chipping away at mainstream critics’ power base. Legions of iPhone owners now earn press credentials with the snap of a meal in progress. Are online foodies like Doyle and, say, Rachel “Food Bitch” Pinn heroes or villains? Is the new league of online food writers here to democratize criticism? Or are these part-time writers just gluttonous, self-appointed experts seeking comment glory and a free lunch?
“The local food media now isn’t just D Magazine, Dallas Morning News, and the Observer,” says The Grape owner Brian Luscher, who says he trusts Doyle. “I love that the playing field is wide open and we don’t have to go through the usual channels to get the word out. I know there is some pay to play there. But isn’t that life?”
Parigi co-chef and co-owner Chad Houser says it is difficult for him to keep track of all the new people writing online about food. “I can’t even imagine how many food bloggers there are in Dallas. It’s impossible for us to keep up with them, even with Google News alerts,” Houser says. “I’ve already got established publications to worry about. If one of them calls me, I’ve got to get on the phone quickly. But you’ve got these other 30 bloggers that act like they’re Texas Monthly or the Morning News. If you don’t show them the same congeniality, they get their feelings hurt and write something s---ty. And then what’s the recourse? My big problem with bloggers is that they don’t seem to do any fact checking. Their integrity is only as good as their conscience. That’s scary.”
It’s easier to get people to talk about food bloggers in general than it is to get them to talk about Doyle in particular. Several restaurateurs declined to say anything about him on the record. One restaurant owner said, “Honestly, I’m afraid of the guy.”
A Dallas-based food publicist who wishes to remain anonymous notes that since the blogger boom, media dinners have expanded from an intimate and informative meal with three or four critics to a y’all-come-chow-down with 25 to 30 people. The publicist isn’t comfortable dealing with writers who aren’t held to Associated Press standards. (Or any standard. Unlike cities such as Austin, Dallas has no association of food bloggers with an established code of conduct.)
The Federal Trade Commission isn’t comfortable, either. In 2009, the FTC released “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising,” which states bloggers can be fined up to $11,000 for not disclosing freebies. The FTC explains that an “in-kind payment” for a blog post is considered an endorsement and the payment must be disclosed.
Posts on Doyle’s CraveDFW never mention free meals. Too, the site runs display ads for restaurants that haven’t bought the space. When I asked one restaurateur about his ad on CraveDFW, he was surprised to learn that it was running on the site.
“The freeloading done by these guys infuriates me,” says the publicist, who compares the writers to groupies. But there’s one great thing about the bloggers, says the publicist. “I use them like puppets.”
Doyle squints as a pair of short-shorted women in their 40s enters The Grapevine. He says, “I’m doing what I love, you know? That’s really cool—right?”
Over the next seven hours, I’ll follow him from Highland Park Village to Deep Ellum to Uptown, through back doors and walk-in freezers, to alley-way conference tables and glitzy press dinners, and a bar so cool it doesn’t have a name. All in the pursuit of scoop.
But first he has to find his suit jacket. It’s outside in his Camry, along with a pair of shorts in case he gets hot and a Braun electric razor in the ashtray.
A few minutes later, Doyle is no longer meek. He’s bowed-up, smiling, strutting as he crosses in front of Jimmy Choo into Highland Park Village’s Marquee Grill & Bar. He carries what looks like an insulated lunch pail. He takes the stairs two at a time up to a press dinner for Oxley gin, where he glad-hands people sitting at a 14-person table, ribs promoters with 4:20 references, and astutely explains the difference between a consommé and a coulis. Steven Doyle has found his cape.
He lands at the long table filled with fedora-wearing bartenders with patchy facial hair representing some of Dallas’ hottest boites, including Bolsa, Candleroom, and the Rosewood Mansion on Turtle Creek. As bartenders toss back the complimentary cocktails—each course features a potion devised by Marquee mixologist Jason Kosmas—the secrets spill. (Including how Doyle ended up at the free dinner. He’s the plus-one of Whiskey Cake bartender Sean Conner. “But every one of these guys should have invited me,” he says.) As the second round of drinks hits the table, there’s talk of a new job, a new bar on Henderson, a new restaurant in the Design District, a promotion.
Doyle dives into his case, pulling out a camera, tape recorder, video camera, and phone, all of which seem to be in pieces. “I used to have a better camera,” he says, as I hand him a part of his phone. “It got stolen.” (A few days later, he will post on his Facebook wall that his electric razor was stolen by a valet parker.) Doyle takes a white piece of paper folded into quarters and starts writing notes. He asks one of the bartenders, “Say it again like you just said it so I can get it on tape.”
Chef Tre Wilcox drops by to present jumbo Texas shrimp, seared scallops, and Maple Leaf duck breasts. Doyle calls out, “I’ve got to talk to you.” When Wilcox walks away, Doyle runs after him, his gray suit jacket flapping behind him. “I’m not a critic,” he says when he returns, breathing heavily, having scored a solid “maybe” from Wilcox for an upcoming event. “I don’t have to hide. Which means I can go in the back of the house. I can talk to a chef. I can kind of get in their head. They know who I am. If they have something to say, they can say it.
They can call me. I think that’s kind of cool. That’s kind of an edge. I can actually go out and say, ‘Hey, chef, how are you doing?’ I know if I worked at the Dallas Morning News that would be wrong.’ ”
As an English bartender discusses the burn of the gin, Doyle’s phone lights up. He holds up the screen to me, his hands shaking. “You recognize that name?” he asks. His eyes widen, his lips purse. The screen flashes “Matt McCallister.” “He’s a chef,” Doyle says about the Campo Modern Country Bistro consultant said to be opening his own restaurant. He tells McCallister he’ll call him later.
Former Bolsa bartender Eddie “Lucky” Campbell tells Doyle about his new bar on Main Street. He leans around to explain to me why Doyle gets a seat at the table. “Steven, unlike any other reporter out there, will keep a secret,” he says. “He will know he has a story but will honor his promise until the day he dies. That’s why we consider him a friend.”
Doyle looks around the table. “I love you guys. I love everyone at this table. I devote my life to you guys. Please call me,” he says.
At 9:30, it’s time to move on. At the bumper of his car, Doyle looks back on the art deco façade of the movie theater-turned-restaurant. Doyle suddenly does a little happy dance. He chants, “Scoop! Scoop!” He says, “I got, like, six stories in there. That’s some good s---.” But he’s not full.
I follow him to The Common Table, where the valet parker what-ups Doyle and moves a Lexus to make room for my Honda. We head to Deep Ellum in Doyle’s car. He says he has been summoned by the so-called “Underground Chef,” David Anthony Temple, who is finishing up a private dinner. After telling me about his catering days in Kansas (his two teenage daughters live there with his ex-wife), Doyle tells me that he writes only about whom and what he likes. His first write-ups were called “PR pieces” by Observer editors, he says. He doesn’t care. “I wrote those because I wanted to be invited back to these things. I want to be in the loop.” Besides, the Observer doesn’t know anything about food, he says.
Doyle is determined to hold on to his status. He works the hell out of his beat. Every night he texts and calls chefs and bartenders. He leaves voice mails. He goes out. He drinks. He haggles. He sometimes begs. Most nights during the week, he stays out until 2 am. “I always depend on things happening afterward.”
When Doyle wakes up in his two-bedroom duplex near the Galleria, he writes a couple of posts. It’s not always the most illustrative prose. There’s often missing punctuation and some subject-verb disagreement in his maze of words. From a post about West Village’s Malai Kitchen: “The cute couple formerly worked at other Dallas area restaurants, but were able to manage a stroke of luck winning a scholarship that took them to the far East, and a stroke of genius, taking over the fledgling Tom Tom space in West Village.”
His lack of periods is balanced by a Comic-Con-level enthusiasm for the food industry. The best part of his job is hanging with chefs, Doyle says. He insists he’s more peer than fanboy, though. “We all speak the same language. I identify with those people more than I identify with anybody else.” He laughs, as he finds a parking lot off Elm Street. “That’s weird, huh?”
We pop in the back door of the underground dinner to look for Temple, who is known, from his initials, as Chef DAT. A waitress tells Doyle that the chef has gone to a bar “without a name” up the street. “There’s no sign, and that’s cool, and they make great drinks,” she says. We follow her. “If he’s drinking, it’s going to be bulls---. I’ll tell you right now,” Doyle whispers as we walk past Serious Pizza. He was hoping Temple had a story about a new venture for him. “Sometimes it’s, ‘Oh, I just wanted to say hi to you,’ and I’m like, ‘Really?’ ”
Walking in the bar, which indeed has no signage but is named Black Swan Saloon, Doyle kisses the hands of bosomy ladies in plunging, floral jersey dresses. He is handed a drink made with 100-proof fruit fished from enormous Mason jars. He yells in Temple’s ear over a Foster the People song. He tells me Temple can’t talk because he has to “schmooze with all these people that were at his dinner.”
Doyle heads to the courtyard and straddles the bench of a picnic table. He bums a Camel Light from a Scardello Artisan Cheese employee and asks her to blog for him. He says Stephan Pyles is going to blog for CraveDFW. “People love that s---. They eat it up.”
Doyle is moving faster. The executive chef at Nosh sits down; Doyle is convinced he was a waiter at Veritas. Temple sits down. More bummed smokes. Doyle’s speech accelerates.
There must be a doppelgänger on the loose, because Doyle is having too many conversations for just one man. Anyway, was the cheese course sick? What, you have new cheese? Tell me, I’ll write about it! Which play you in? Where’s it at? You know we do that. Let me cover that! Let me cover that! You have my number? I’m out of cards. Did you know when I interview someone I draw a picture of them? DAT is a baller with food s---. Fois gras ice cream is the s---. There’s a dinner at Bailey’s? A wine dinner? I’m there. I got that chef hired! You wanna go with me? Okay, we’re going to Common Table. I f---ing love Common Table! The chef just called me. I’m getting THE SCOOP!
“I can get caught up with them, and next thing you know it’s 4 in the morning,” he says about the chef talk when we hit the street, the smell of pizza and cigarettes in the near-midnight air. We’re headed back to The Common Table.
As the band at the restaurant finishes up a tucked-in version of the Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” Doyle knocks back a comped shot of hot vodka brought to him by chef Mike Smith. “There won’t be any blogger you talk to that will do what we did tonight. No one will show you what I did. They just don’t do it. ... My objective is to get the story out. Be first. Some people think I’m douche-y, like, ‘Oh, he knows this guy.’ But that’s not what it’s about. It’s about me. And, yeah, I have a lot of good contacts. You should
when you’re doing this.”
Smith wants to show Doyle something. He is adding a BLT to the menu. We walk through the kitchen, into the restaurant’s inner lair. “This used to be Lola’s,” he says, brushing back Visqueen curtains and walking into the deep freezer. “This is bigger than any back of the house
I’ve ever seen. They’ve got secret stuff back here.” The chef holds out a slab of house-smoked bacon, cured with honey and tied with rosemary. Doyle strokes the smoked meat like a Persian kitten. This isn’t just sandwich filling. This is victory. This is scoop.
It’s now around 12:30 am. Doyle sits at a table in front of the restaurant, drinking a dark ale. He’s no longer the on-the-prowl blogger satiated only by scoop. He’s crashing. And he’s pissed.
What started out as two simple questions—“How old are you?” and “What’s your birthday?”—has turned into a showdown. He first told me he was 42, but then said he wasn’t. These are common questions for journalists, for fact-checking purposes, but his bloodshot eyes are wary.
“Is that really part of the story?” Doyle asks. “To be honest with you, I don’t really like—I will be honest with you. The reason I don’t want people to know is because I want everyone to identify with me, older and younger. Some people think I look younger than I am, some think I look older than I am. I want to be indeterminable.”
Doyle then switches gears, saying he will give me his date of birth tomorrow, along with his birth certificate. It doesn’t last. Now he’s saying it’s best if we don’t do this story at all. “Maybe you do this about the Food Bitch,” he says.
Doyle wants it both ways. He wants to be both 20 years old and 40. He wants to be both consigliere and critic. He wants to be buddies with chefs but respected by journalists. He wants to be Dallas Dude and Steven Doyle. But right now he just wants to go to Victor Tangos and hang with Matt McCallister.
Write to email@example.com.