Why is Johnny Novo pouring his heart out on Yelp?
People shouldn’t be writing anymore. It doesn’t make sense to. The chances of making a decent living, or even contributing to the mass cultural cache of an age, are practically non-existent. Months of labor dissipate once the feed is refreshed. Years of it are destroyed when a website shutters.
But this is not news. I don’t think it has ever been a good idea. The writers who influenced me killed themselves and were nuisances to their families. That is not a good thing. Yet people continue to write, even though the marketplace has no need for it, even though its value has been mitigated by instant gratification, the algorithmically conditioned need to slobber at the sight of short-form content.
I can begin to understand the why for music bloggers and journalists. Many are so moved by the sounds, or so curious, that they use writing as a vessel to convey their tastes, to explore sonic worlds. Others do the inverse, using the music as a vessel for their writing, because having a target audience is better than shouting into the abyss. Yet this sample is small and rather insignificant. The real lunatics scrawl in their notebooks for years, clueless about what to do with their thoughts. I have a friend who wrote 400 pages about a fictitious nation of demonic worms. It wasn’t even allegorical.
It must boil down to conviction. Some need to write; most don’t. Those who need to, I’ve found, always find a way. Whether it’s on strange corners of the internet, freehand and in solitude, or, in the case of Johnny Novo, on Yelp.
In 2023, Johnny Novo has written 300 reviews on Yelp. Most are on restaurants, as he is an admitted disciple of Anthony Bourdain, but others are on…everything. Laundromats, basketball courts, bookshops, community gardens, hair salons, the Department of Environmental Protection, you name it. Wherever life takes him is worthy of a Yelp post. And he does it all in the name of writing.
What first caught my eye was a review of Cafe Mogador, a Mediterranean restaurant in the East Village. “It was a hot spring day,” he begins, “one of those that makes you realize summer is on the horizon. I was fresh off the West Side Highway basketball courts, shooting about 27% from the field and 13% from 3 in 4 pickup games.” He then delves into the need for a nutritious meal after “such a fantastic performance,” intently details how well the cabbage next to his Merguez Sausage was dressed, and concludes, “I felt it was a pretty light portion for $24. But I get it. Inflation and minimum wage on the rise are tough for these businesses so no hate. I just need to raise my income, it’s really a me problem.”
On Veselka, a Ukrainian diner also in the East Village: “After I was recently dumped, the weather mirrored my mood and decided to cry relentlessly, marking the first official day of soup season.”
The following 500 words include quotes from Michael Cera, Johnny’s joy at having a non-English speaking waitress, and a conversation with a lone gentleman about how Veselka has stayed true for decades. He concludes: “As for me, my dear reader, don’t worry. Even cowgirls get the blues sometimes. Rumors have it that they can be cured with a few sips of Ukrainian Meat Borscht soup. Just rumors though…”
There are 200+ more examples. The point is that Johnny is using Yelp as his journal, the truest testament to a writer’s conviction during an age that is fundamentally anti-writing. There is obviously no end game for Johnny here, no golden brick road for a Yelp reviewer to follow. This is art for art’s sake in the purest form I’ve seen in a while. Real writing with an uncompromised voice laid bare on a platform frequented by boomers commenting on various fettuccine alfredo dishes. Johnny’s dedication has inspired me more than any musician or artist I’ve heard in months within this silicon dome of an industry, so, naturally, I had to get an interview in with the man himself.
He was ecstatic and a little confused that I had taken notice of his work, and that I was referring to it as work at all. Nonetheless, after a string of Instagram DMs, he was game, and requested that we eat at Hearth, an upscale Italian joint in Lower Manhattan.
We met there at 7 p.m. on a glorious late summer’s Friday. It was bound to be one of those nights: cerebral, present-tense. The kids were outside that evening, galavanting on crooked sidewalks, poking heads in bookshops and record stores, ancient stables of commerce.
Johnny arrived five minutes late. He was wearing a tight black sweater, dark jeans, white sneakers and two thin chokers. He has a unique face, which is the result of being half-Croatian and half-Mexican, the son of immigrant parents who “got it out the mud” to raise him in Manhattan Beach, Los Angeles. He is 27 years old, went to USC for college, and talks with a SoCal aloofness that negates any possibility of tension. After “making a bag” as a real-estate agent in L.A., he rethought his life, traveled, then moved to New York this past February, marking the start of his Yelp career. “I just love writing bro. I used to journal all the time,” he said, “but now, when I gotta get something off my chest, I’m like, ‘Alright, time to hit Yelp.’”
He didn’t know where else to publish his thoughts. Writing as a career path is an oxymoron; the internship to staff writer pipeline doesn’t really exist anymore, and in the food world, a good number of the SEO-winning publications (The Infatuation, Time Out, Thrillist) are advertising agencies disguised as editorials. (A problem that boils down to the meager economic value of the written word.) Thus, Yelp was the simplest solution.
He is not on Yelp to be a food critic, and if he were, his credibility would be an issue. See, Johnny does not eat cheese. He is repulsed by the smell, the texture, the idea of it as a whole. His bagel order is just bacon and egg, and when a burger comes with cheese, like the $28 one he ordered at Hearth, he scrapes it off with his fork. But criticism isn’t the point—it’s the writing that matters. Each review is a door into Johnny’s hilarious and genuinely authentic world. It’s like the self-imposed Yelp version of The Truman Show. By reading his reviews, you know what book he’s reading, how the weather has been affecting his mood, which city he is traveling to and the details of his last workout routine.
“At this point,” Johnny said, “you could get to know me more than my closest friends by reading my Yelp.” A recent review of a public park proves this point. What begins as light-hearted commentary on one of Manhattan’s lesser known green spaces quickly spirals into a rumination on a chance encounter with an ex-girlfriend. He hadn’t talked to her in seven years, but they locked eyes at that very park and reconnected. “I felt like no time had passed,” he writes, “I felt like a little kid again, all giddy and nervous to talk to this girl…I thought it was so beautiful to catch up with someone who knew me so deeply and was so important to me at a completely different point in my life; just kind of a cool, full circle moment. THANK YOU ROCKEFELLER PARK FOR GIVING ME THIS BEAUTIFUL MOMENT I AM SO GRATEFUL!”
At Hearth, we ordered stout cocktails; Johnny a negroni (“word to Bourdain”) and myself an old-fashioned. Inside it was dark and noisy. A round table of bearded academics sat to our right, deep in debate about one important thing or another, and the rest of the place was filled by olive-skinned couples from a former generation, leaning smooth marble canes on tables, slowly smiling at each other with stuffed mouths.
Travel changed Johnny’s life. Most notably two trips to Japan, one in 2018 and one this past year. “Japan showed me that the world is not what we think,” Johnny said, sipping his negroni with his eyes staring at the floor. “And the food bro, oh my God…” While there, he ate jellyfish and took a pilgrimage to a ramen shop run by the brother of Nujabes, an artist who popularized lo-fi hip-hop alongside J Dilla. The best restaurant he visited during his travels was Pujol in Mexico City. He ends his review of the place by saying, “Thank you Pujol, you kicked a hole in the sky.”
His goal is to be a travel journalist in the vein of Bourdain, but the route there is unclear. “I’m still figuring it out. With writing, I’m like, ‘this feels so good.’ But the views are really in videos and TikTok, and something about making those feels off to me.”
Short-form content is what’s hot. Snappy, visually appealing videos of food (or music, etc) that rack up 10x the views of writing and take a fraction of the effort. The content economy–both producer and consumer–feeds off short-form, indicating a staying power for dopamine-sucking videos that capture attention for under a minute. Like a room full of strobe lights, one ends as soon as the next begins, and if you stare long enough, they all blur together and you end up numbly giving the company Meta permission to lease your actual brain and pluck it of its fibers full of childhood secrets and taboo fetishizations until its color changes from slimy pink to catacomb grey.
It is where the opportunity is at though. For music heads, look at brands like On The Radar, Our Generation Music and Kids Take Over, who’ve gained massive followings over the past few years by splattering content onto social media for mass engagement. Johnny gets this trend, and has already established a content partnership with Black Seed Bagels after writing a militant review about how they deserve way more than 3 stars. (“As an Elite Badged Yelp reviewer, it’s my duty to set the record straight within my community,” he says.) In the first video he made about them, the cashier says, “Are you Johnny? You’re a celebrity around here!”
For now though, his focus will remain on Yelp. He is emphatic about winning a Yelpie–awards for Yelp reviewers–and “holding onto that shit like MJ with the Grammys.”
We finished dinner, agreeing that the Variety burger, a bun-less hunk of fresh ground heart, liver, brisket and bone marrow was the highlight.
After paying the hefty tab, we strolled up Alphabet City to Johnny’s apartment to see how the magic was made. He led me up three flights of stairs to his two-bedder in an old building situated amongst a triad of bars.
The apartment is small and crummy but charming nonetheless; one of those noisy shitholes with papier-mâché ceilings that reek of artistic effort from generations past. In Johnny’s shoebox room hung a tote bag from Madhappy, the streetwear brand his close friend from L.A. founded, and a quote from Anthony Bourdain, framed:
“Eat at a local restaurant tonight. Get the cream sauce. Have a cold pint at 4 o’clock in a mostly empty bar. Go somewhere you’ve never been. Listen to someone you think may have nothing in common with you. Order the steak rare. Eat an oyster. Have a negroni. Have two. Be open to a world where you may not understand or agree with the person next to you, but have a drink with them anyways. Eat slowly. Tip your server. Check in on your friends. Check in on yourself. Enjoy the ride.”
The blueprint, no doubt.
I sat on his bed, about six inches from his desk, and he walked me through his writing process. First, the playlist: “Accepting you’re lost” by Prisoner followed by the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Stadium Arcadium. He loves guitar. Next, the hook. That first sentence to grab the reader. I watched him type one then delete it about seven times. Can’t blame him, I was practically breathing down his neck. This is a solitary practice. He turned around, fingers clenched: “How about a shot of Goose to calm the nerves?” I followed him down the hall, past a framed picture of the late Kobe Bryant. Tiny kitchen, basketball on the fridge, 1.75 liters of Grey Goose in the corner. Bottoms up. Back to the bedroom. “We really don’t have to do this here, let’s just chill.” I said. YouTube videos in the living room instead. Johnny’s choice: Stevie Ray Vaughan performing Hendrix’s “Little Wing.” SRV gave my mom a kiss on the cheek once in Athens, Georgia. John Hiatt cover from the Hayde Bluegrass Orchestra for me. Tears swell every time. I coulda done this all night but we had to go. There was a party to attend.
The No Bells party. Celebrating the birthdays of the great Mano and Kieran. I hear they have bylines in Pitchfork. The party was in Brooklyn so we had to take the subway. In the station, a small Asian man in a zip up hoodie eyed Johnny. He took his headphones off and approached us.
“Are you Johnny?”
“Uh…yeah, what’s up?”
“I made your food today. The lady, my manager, she loved your review bro!”
Johnny’s face turned bright red, smile beaming cheek to cheek as he dapped the man up twice in a row, jumping up and down with joy. It was his first time being recognized in public.
On the subway Johnny explained to me that the cook, Yoshi, works at Terra Thai, a hole-in-the-wall near his apartment. “I’m in that bitch toooo much, prolly like three or four times a week.” He kept mentioning my interview with Ice Spice from a summer ago so I told him that one of her first times being recognized in public was also in the middle of our interview. Coincidence?
There are few things I take more pleasure in than gathering wackos from different micro-societies and seeing what happens. So, here is Johnny’s first hand account of the night–a No Bells exclusive party review.
NO BELLS PARTY REVIEW, by Johnny N.
Millan gets a text from his homie at the party that neighbors are complaining about the noise coming from the rooftop and that it may be closer to 20 people there instead of 70-80. This is always cool with me, as my social anxiety can hit me like a baseball bat to the liver in these situations.
We stop at a liquor store on the way and pick up a 12-pack of Modelos that end up costing $24.99. $25 for a 12 pack of Modelos?!? Modelo time getting expensive smh.
Modelos in hand, we approach a modern-rustic style apartment building, a much nicer spot than I was anticipating. I was thinking it would be a more creative-type, grungy location. Instead this screamed I am CRUSHING in tech sales ahahaha.
We take the elevator up to the rooftop, and to my surprise there is a hefty amount of people in a little courtyard in the east corner of the roof. Probably like 40…eh maybe 45… Nah you know what, 40. Final number.
Once I finished my headcount, the first thing I noticed was the unobstructed view of the Manhattan Skyline. Not to be a cornball, but there are few things I would trade in this life for a clear view of the skyline. It makes me feel small and meaningless while simultaneously feeling a major sense of importance. I know that statement is completely contradictory but I will unpack it:
Small and meaningless because just look at how big the city is. Vast skyscrapers shooting up in every point of your vision, millions of people all there just living their lives trying to figure it out. But, for me, being small and meaningless in this way evaporates my day to day stress. It turns the stress of little things like “damn I fumbled her” to “It’s a big world, there is so much opportunity out there.”
On top of this, I get an ineffable feeling of pure pride that human beings built this. Humans get a bad wrap a lot of the time, and rightfully so, but I think it’s important to appreciate the monumental feats of mankind from time to time. A clear view of the skyline gives me the same feeling I get when I watch Interstellar–Alright my b, enough of my love affair with the skyline, let’s get onto the function.
Millan, the great host he is, began introducing me to people, many of whom are writers for No Bells or have some sort of hand in the creative aspect.
Millan would introduce me as “the guy who writes Yelp reviews,” and the introduction was met with one of two responses:
1. “Oh my God it’s the Yelp guy! Your reviews are hilarious bro.”
2. “You do what? Yelp reviews?” paired with a look of utter confusion.
Being an aspiring writer in a room full of writers can be intimidating, but not taking myself too seriously and trying to just enjoy every moment of life has gotten me this far so why not keep doing it. Gotta stay out of my own head, it can get scary in there.
One writer I met, Donny, stood about 6’2” with short messy hair, wearing a red Moncler Maya Short Down Jacket. With all due respect, he seemed a little too goofy to be someone wearing a fuckin red Moncler jacket seriously.
Trying to build some rapport, I shoot him a slight smile while lightly tugging on the jacket and say “Damn okay Donny! I see you with the Moncler… Fur came off a bear huh!”
We share a laugh and he begins to tell me the story about how it started as a joke about how he thought it was outlandish that people pay $2000 for a jacket and how he would never be able to do that. Then one of his buddies started a GoFundMe for him and it actually got within $300 of the jacket so he just paid the rest out of pocket. My kind of humor.
After mingling a bit more, Millan asked if I was ready to do a little photoshoot. I had gotten in my best “Imma look cool without looking like I’m trying too hard to look cool” outfit that I have, so of course I was ready. I stay ready so I don’t have to get ready.
But in a much more real sense I was standing awkwardly in front of the DJ booth asking the guy taking pictures on his iPhone 13, “How do you want me to stand?” while throwing out a nervous chuckle to try to laugh off my awkwardness.
There was a girl kind of following us around as we moved to different locations on the rooftop taking pictures. She asked why they were taking pictures of me, and Srikar, the photographer, said “We are doing a feature on him!” She turns her head to me and asks, “Oh what do you do?” I respond with another nervous laugh. “I write Yelp reviews.”
After my red carpet moment, 5 or 6 of us posted up in one of the few areas to sit. J’s started to be passed around, Modelos getting bodied. I showed Donny and a couple other of the writers my reviews and I could tell at first they thought I was wild, but then they got some laughs and one said, “Ohhhh, you’re doing like a stream of consciousness thing, this is amazing.”
My dear reader, do you know how uncomfortable it is to show someone something you produced that you think is really funny, and await their response as they read on through. I’ve never had a situation where I just show someone a review and expect them to laugh.
After showing my stuff, I asked what their bread and butter was when it came to writing. Donny had just released a book on the life of Mac Dre, Mano (the founder of No Bells) had just finished an interview with CoolMathGames, another writer in a light blue hoodie, Milo, specialized in poetry… *Quick Author’s Note here: I don’t get how people wear such light colored hoodies. Aren’t you scared you’re gonna get it dirty? Like one wear and you gotta wash it, no? I don’t know how y’all do that y’all built different…*
At this point, rumors begin swirling about how the fire department is outside and are going to shut this thing down. As we are all kind of looking at each other like “why would the fire department be here it isn’t even loud,” I see a fireman in his full get-up peek his head through the door of the stairs, look to his right, then his left, and go right back down stairs. Guess he was thinking the same thing we were lmao.
All in all, a night spent with creative people who are following their interests and passions in life is something I don’t take for granted, similar to how I will never take an unobstructed view of the skyline or fairly priced Modelos for granted. Thank you, No Bells <3
Lately, people have been blaming “billionaires” for dismantling publications. This is a waste of energy: It is not just their fault, it is also ours–the consumers.
Right now, short form content has a much larger audience than writing, especially amongst young people. And in a capitalist system, only revenue matters; sales are valued over a product’s merit every single time. So aspiring talking heads strap themselves to a never-ending manic carousel of content, increasing their chances of receiving corporate sponsorship, of being awarded the means to make a living from their…work.
It’s a simple situation. If writing drove profits then writers would flourish. They would be invested in and given proper resources to push the word forward. But it doesn’t. And with each generation that passes, the outlook becomes bleaker and bleaker.
Unless a new, functional revenue model replaces the archaic (and ugly) Web 2.0 ad model of publications, the only solution I see to this problem is one akin to political insurgency. Because content is abundant, we are no longer expected to pay money for it. Thus, the new currency has become our attention. What we give that to is our choice. In theory, those who actually care about any of this would need to pry themselves away from the grasp of bloated social media behemoths and be selective and conscious of the content they consume. And if this is done with enough discipline, then maybe, just maybe, the needle will move.
Even then, it feels like availability and ease will always trump critical thought in this modern world. But as long as there are people like Johnny Novo around, hope, if even a sliver, certainly remains.