"Do you like spicy?" asks Shayne Chapman, confidently navigating the menu at HFX Sports Bar without actually looking at it. "What I found to be the spiciest here is habanero lime dry rub with Sriracha honey butter. A combo of those two is insane. It's a little too hot for me sometimes."
Like a keen tour guide directing a wide-eyed out-of-towner, he knows the way without ever having to whip out the map. That's because he's the dedicated reviewer behind halifaxwingman.com, a site devoted to chicken wings that he's been running for five and a half years. Last week he posted his monumental 100th review. So, when The Wingman gives you a recommendation, you take it.
"I'll get a pound of sea salt and lime dry rub and barbecue honey bacon on the side please," says Chapman. "That'll be awesome, thank you."
He can't remember the first time he ate a chicken wing, though he wishes he had a better story than that. He says the tiny, messy, boney snack has just always been a go-to for him and the best reason he can think of is the social aspect—it gathers people. The common routine of heading out after work for wings and a drink or two is actually what spawned his popular, no-frills food blog, not an undying love for the finger food itself.
"A buddy of mine, Frank, years ago—I guess over five years ago now—we used to go for wings every Wednesday or Thursday, the same spot constantly," says Chapman. "Wings, beer, whatever."
Until they didn't. One night, for no particular reason, Chapman and Frank decided to switch it up and check out a different pub.
"We tried the wings and they were like night and day, just completely different. So from there I wanted to find—is there any information? Where are different wing places? How are they? Because to me initially it's like, wings are wings right?"
Apparently not. Thanks to the change in routine, he started keeping track of where he ate, and what was good—he admits it was mostly for himself, at first. And then on Tuesday, September 21, 2010, he made his first public declaration, setting a high bar by giving Pogue Fado a perfect score.
"They're the only place that's ever gotten a five out of five," says Chapman of the bar, which closed in 2013. "I think with Pogue the breading was amazing—they were breaded really well, and it had some flavour to it. For overall quality, they were juicy, plump wings. Sauce selection was good. Service was awesome. And size—they were a good-sized wing. They checked all of the boxes."
Those boxes are the basis for how the Wingman formats his reviews now—giving a rating out of five for the breading, overall quality, sauce selection, service and size, and taking the average score. And then there's the signature photo—a flat, a drumstick, a fork and a coin, "to make sure you have an accurate representation"—taken with his phone. He's the first to admit it's not a perfect system, and plans to re-work his grading rubric now that he's released his hundredth review. Thorough and methodical, it's a lot of wing content to take in at once.
"I'm not happy with it. It doesn't look good—it needs a coat of paint or something. I'm not a web developer," says Chapman of his site's design, or lack thereof. "But then I get people who are like, 'I went here based on your recommendation and things were awesome.' I really enjoy that part of it."
Though he's not reviewing on a regular schedule (review 99 came out in the summer), Chapman is still putting away his fair share of wings and tweeting about his experiences from @HalifaxWingman. He tries to get out once a week, at least, sometimes way more. It's still very much a hobby, but it's also become a service to the city's pub food nerds.
"So what's your preference, flats or the drumstick?" he asks, getting straight to the science of what makes a good wing in his books. The consensus around the table is flats, all the way. "I like requesting all-flats, I forgot to tonight. Some places can't do it, some places will. I never want to be a pain in the ass to ask for it."
Chapman tries to keep a relatively low profile, never announcing his presence at a restaurant. He takes his reviews seriously—which is why it took three trips to The Auction House before he posted review 100—and appreciates the feedback, and tips he gets from his readers.
"I really don't want the experience to be different for me than it would be for anyone else," he says. "I want to make sure if people are looking at them it's an accurate representation of a place. The reviews I do that are lower scoring are the hardest for me—because I feel like shit about it."
When the wings arrive, Chapman sticks to his sea salt and lime, dunking pieces into the plastic cup of bacon-y sauce at will. The wings are big—big enough that no one makes it through the full pound before throwing in the moist towelette. After some coaxing, he agrees to taste a drumstick coated in habanero lime rub—his own spicy recommendation.
"I don't claim to be able to take a lot of heat, I just like to go out and eat wings," he says, eyes watering. "Holy fuck that's hot."
Chapman says he'll never run out of material. And after years of pounding back pounds of wings, somehow he still isn't sick of them or tired of searching for the next Pogue Fado.
"It's just things like this," he says. "Coming out for a beer and some wings, just the enjoyment. I'm always excited, I really am."