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Andrew Tarlow Looks Back on a Decade of ‘Diner Journal’

The restaurateur reflects on the past, present, and future of his influential magazine

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[Daniel Krieger]

Several years before the launch of chef/restaurateur-driven publications like Cherry Bombe and Lucky Peach, Andrew Tarlow and his team started publishing the gorgeous, idiosyncratic Diner Journal. This magazine often features contributions from staffers from Tarlow’s Brooklyn restaurants — Diner, Marlow & Sons, and Reynard — but it’s not about those establishments, per se.

Over the last 11 years, Diner Journal has developed an identity all its own. Tarlow recently released a cookbook with Diner Journal editor Anna Dunn called Dinner at the Long Table, which feels like an extension, or perhaps an evolution, of their magazine. Upon learning that several new restaurants across the country had plans to launch journals of their own, Eater decided to call up Tarlow to see if he had any advice for the new class of magazine publishers.

How has Diner Journal evolved and where is it at right now?

It’s evolved a lot. I mean obviously, it started as sort of a reaction to not really understanding how cookbooks are made or how to get cookbooks or what that world looked like, which seems so stupid at this point — stupid that we didn’t understand it. So our answer was to make our own. It was obviously a super-different time — Eater didn’t even exist. And then it obviously evolved over the years, and it really has changed a lot since us making our own cookbook, and seeing what that process is from behind the scenes. The first impetus of the evolution was [figuring out]: How do we have a voice in the written and publication food world, that’s not just glossy food magazines? Where do we stand in that?

One thing I find interesting is that you’ve always involved your restaurant staff over the years. What is that relationship like?

That’s been the best part of it, in some ways. It’s like: How many good people have been inside of those restaurants, and how many of those people have maybe not necessarily aspired to being writers? Maybe Anna coaxed them into being writers. And what does that editing look like, and what does that conversation look like, and what do we get out of that? And also, the photographers — almost all of it has been internal and homespun, in that capacity.

How much of your workday is devoted to publishing this journal?

It goes in cycles. It definitely will amp up around certain ideas. When we’re shooting issues or compiling those things, I’ll be on set for some of that stuff, for sure. But usually I’m involved in the meetings with the big picture and the overall direction, and Anna and the team take on the real producing of each piece of content. I don’t really edit the pieces so much, because I feel like in the end, it’s theirs to do that.

When you launched, did you do more of that editorial work? Were you, like, top-editing?

Yeah, maybe a little bit more. I’ve always been a little bit more about the big picture piece of it. Do you know what we want to do now? Do you know where we want to take it now?

What’s that?

We want to turn it into a movie.

Oh really? Like the story of Diner Journal?

No, we basically want to make a new narrative based on, sort of, coming out of the creative spirit of how we made a magazine.

That’s new territory.

Gotta keep jumping ahead, right?

Has readership grown or stayed the same or dropped over the years?

It’s about the same. It’s sort of ebbed and flowed, but it’s about the same.

Oftentimes independent publications have a run that lasts a few years. If anyone out there at a restaurant was thinking about doing a similar project, do you have any advice? Anything to keep in mind?

It’s really about the workload in terms of what they can do versus how much they have going on at the restaurant. I guess my only word about the process is that obviously, it’s a lot of work. But I guess that kind of states the obvious.

Unlike many recipes you find in print publications or on the internet, the ones in Diner Journal actually work. What’s the key?

Most of the time, we do them in real time. Even with the cookbook, we cook all that stuff as we’re doing it. So we don’t ever work in a capacity where we’re just staging food and then shooting it, unless the photos are getting weird, and maybe we wouldn’t eat that food sometimes. But in general, we’re really making stuff and writing the recipe as we go.

Do you have any other themes for issues that you want to do?

We’re certainly thinking about the political climate right now. We’re definitely considering how we can make this thing feel more political-action oriented.

This interview has been edited and slightly condense for clarity.

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