A Dotcom for the Dinner Table?

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Yahoo Food page

It happens like clockwork, every afternoon at 4 p.m. Hours before families around the country get ready to sit down for dinner, executives at Yahoo! notice the words "chicken" and "recipe" registering large spikes in the portal's list of top search queries. Not only that, but a million searches each week include the name of an identifiable food item.

With that in mind, the Yahoo! Media Group launched a new "vertical channel" Thursday called Yahoo! Food that will not only deliver more chicken recipes than Colonel Sanders could imagine—over 300—but also a batch of cooking videos, columnists, bloggers, and assorted other foodie fare ranging from sommelier tips to local restaurant searches. "We're giving users a seat at the table," says Deanna Brown, the former publisher of CondeNet's Epicurious website who is spearheading the new project, located at http://food.yahoo.com.

Yahoo's Media Group could use a hit. Company CEO Terry Semel recruited former ABC-TV chairman Lloyd Braun two years ago to help the portal become a serious show biz player, and the Media Group was touted as an incubator for revolutionary new online content. But a series of gaffes ensued: plans to revive a TV pilot called "The Runner" as an interactive game went nowhere, a roving war correspondent and an adventure travel guide failed to click with audiences, and there was even discussion of having a newscast read by puppets. This year, scaling back its ambitious plans to produce TV-styled shows, the Media Group has enjoyed some cult success with an amateur video anthology series called The 9. And last week, a Yahoo Talent Show was launched, offering the winner $50,000 and a regular "show" on the site.

The Yahoo! Food project has been percolating for eight months, but it remains to be seen how much impact it makes in an increasingly crowded field which includes FoodNetwork.com, Zagat.com, Chowhound.com and other web dining destinations.

Though there's room for improvement, the initial site seems sticky as a cinnamon bun, and equally as mouth-watering. Seasonal-styled videos are available — mostly short MarthaStewart.com clips on how to carve a turkey and make stuffing, rather than a half-hour program on how to roast a bird. Other offerings include advice from Stewart as well as upstart cooking cookie Rachael Ray, along with a baker's dozen of food bloggers including the Breakaway Cook, Daily Olive, and financial madman Jim Cramer's favorite bite site, HungryGirl.com.

Some areas of the new site are way off-kilter. The local dining guide for Los Angeles called a cheap Vietnamese veggie joint in Reseda named Vinh Loi Tofu its highest rated restaurant, based upon a single review. Vinh Loi Tofu? In a major city that boasts Spago, Michaels, Koi, A.O.C., the Ivy, Crustacean and dozens of other amazing eateries? Narrowing my search to the TIME bureau's zip code of 90025, the Top 5 included a Starbucks located seven miles down the road. Some software obviously needs to be tweaked and some users' palates upgraded.

On the plus side, the design of Yahoo! Foods will surprise long-time users of the portal. Eye-grabbing headlines in different fonts and sizes fill each page, which are divided into various windows and modules covering different areas of the culinary experience. "We wanted the page to look like a refrigerator door, complete with magnets and post-it notes," says Brown. A "Food for Good" spot on the front page promotes philanthropic efforts, allowing feverish foodies to donate to hunger-related causes. As Martha might say, that's a good thing.