When Tim and Nina Zagat agreed to meet me for lunch, they offered to let me pick the restaurant. For a split second, I daydreamed about demonstrating my culinary bona fides to the world's most famous reviewers by taking them to one of the great hole-in-the-wall restaurants near my office. Ultimately, though, I decided to restrain myself and let them choose: After all, these were the Zagats, the people whose name appears on restaurant doors from Seoul to San Francisco.
Besides, based on previous experience (and the following video), I knew that they were already familiar with Luke's Lobster.
Their pick was Jean-Georges, one of New York's best-known fine dining establishments, and one of the highest-rated restaurants in the latest Zagat guide. Given its sterling reputation, that didn't surprise me, but Nina Zagat did: As we walked through the dining room, she smilingly told me one of the famous restaurant's less-known claims to fame: "Their prix-fixe lunch is the best deal in town."
Starting With Friends
This mix of epicureanism and economy is hardly accidental: Like their guides, the Zagats' tastes range wildly across the spectrum, from food truck cuisine to white-linen table service. In fact, Tim Zagat's outspoken defense of the Grocery, a small neighborhood restaurant in Brooklyn, caused a kerfuffle in the New York restaurant scene. But more on that later.
Gourmet reputation aside, the Zagat's empire grew out of a decidedly non-hierarchical idea: Basically, they were convinced that ordinary people could review restaurants as well as professional critics. That's how the now ubiquitous guides began -- as hand-typed, mimeographed compendiums of their friends' reviews. Tim, who studied government at Harvard, was already familiar with surveying techniques: Prior to the 1964 election, he was part of a massive polling effort. "Everybody knew that LBJ was going to beat Goldwater," he recalled. "The key was to see how close we could come in more than 500 individual races." With the Zagat survey, he put his polling knowledge to work, setting up a review system that measured food, decor, service, cleanliness, and cost per person. By breaking down raw opinions into easily-understood, granular data, the Zagat system enabled reviewers -- and readers -- to standardize their reactions.
Struggling With Publishers
In 1979, when the Zagats started distributing their reviews, the restaurant criticism business was firmly in the hands of professionals, and the idea of soliciting the culinary opinions of average people bordered on blasphemy. "We were turned down by every publisher in town," Tim recalls. "They asked us 'Why would we want to hear from other people?' At the time, they were only interested in hearing from experts."
Four years later, Tim and Nina self-published 10,000 copies of the Zagat guide. Lacking a distribution network, they visited individual bookstores, where they pitched the book while their son waited outside in the car. Remembering those days, Nina laughs. "We've often joked that if Rudy Giuliani had been mayor, we both would have ended up in jail."
In the first year, they only sold about 7,000 copies, but their fortunes soared when the RR Donnelly (RRD) printing company commissioned a special deluxe edition of the book to give out to its clients. In addition to setting up a lucrative sideline -- Zagat still prints special-edition guides for many businesses -- the Donnelly contract also supercharged the company's sales. Within three years, they were selling 40,000 copies annually, and had caught the attention of New York's restaurant culture.
Cleaning Up the Language ... and the Rating System
But success also brought changes in the guide. When their surveys were for private consumption, Zagat's reviewers were able to offer blunt, unvarnished opinions. For example, the original commentary for a restaurant named Charley O's offered the somewhat seamy analysis that it was a "Bar for middle lvl execs trying to lay their secretaries." As for the storied Algonquin restaurant, the review lamented that "Circle gone; nothing left; bad food but nice for a drink."
In the most recent Zagat survey, the Algonquin's listing is more mannered, noting that "...since the 'routine', 'over-priced', American food proves 'you can't eat history', some go 'round for just 'drinks and conversation.'" Asked about the change in tone, Tim Zagat points out that, as the survey has become more prominent, so has its duty to the restaurants that it reviews: "There's a sense of responsibility when you may affect somebody's business."
And then, of course, there's the legal issue. As Tim notes, "We have to be careful about lawsuits. When we edit the original comments, we become legally responsible for them." The same holds for the cleanliness reviews, which the Zagats retired when they went mainstream. While several factors went into the decision, the biggest was summed up in a few words of advice they received from famed food writer James Beard: "The day they sue you," he told the Zagats, "the restaurant will be as clean as a whistle."
Great Reviews Lead to Hard Times
In 1987, the year after Zagat's sales exploded to 75,000 per month, Tim quit his job and devoted himself to the survey full-time. By then, they were publishing guides for Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., Within six years, they had expanded their surveys to 21 cities, and Nina had quit her job to join the company full-time.
Soon, Zagat became the standard for many restaurant-goers -- and owners. A good Zagat review and a burgundy sticker on the door could make an eatery, while a bad review could take it down. And that's where our tale of the Grocery comes in. In 2003, the restaurant was a small locavore-centered neighborhood joint in Brooklyn. It entered the guide in 2001 with reviews that were good, but not stellar. Over the next three years, however, steadily improving word-of-mouth pushed its food score to 28, a rating that put it in the company of some of the city's top restaurants, including Jean Georges.
Stunned at the high score, New York Times food writer Florence Fabricant suggested that Tim Zagat's survey was flawed, noting that "even a superb rating like the 28 that the Grocery and the six other top restaurants received for their food, could be based on a relative handful of votes." Soon, the battle attracted the attention of another Times reviewer, William Grimes, who had previously given the Grocery a one-star review. In a front-page article, titled On Second Thought, It's Great for Its Kind, Grimes grudgingly admitted that the restaurant had improved vastly, writing that "For what it is, the Grocery is about as good as it can be." Still, comparing the Grocery to Jean Georges and its ilk, he argued, was like comparing a "pop song" to a "polonaise by Chopin." In the end, he sniffed, "art trumps craft."
And this is where the line between Zagat and mainstream reviewers lands. Tim Zagat, offering his own opinion of the Grocery, told Fabricant that ''I've been there, I think it's a delight .... The food is delicious, very simple.'' In the end, he stated, "We trust our surveyors." The same goes for Zagat's readers: Although the Grocery's score has slipped to a 26, it is still extremely popular.
Success and the Future
Today, Zagat surveys restaurants in 90 cities around the world, and reviews everything from golf courses to movies to food trucks. Tim estimates that "somewhere between 375,000 to 400,000" reviewers contribute to the guides, while 40 in-house and about 100 out-of-house editors sift through the raw data to piece together the survey's distinctive, quote-filled reviews.
But while the burgundy books are still popular, Tim Zagat notes that "today, our business is 70% digital." The company's online resources enable readers to explore all of its unedited reviews, its finished analyses, and even the raw data that Zagat uses to develop its ratings. Readers can access the reviews on iPhones, Android phones and iPads, where, Zagat asserts, the survey is "the highest-grossing travel app."
As Zagat's familiar pocket-sized books are giving way to pocket-sized electronic devices, Tim Zagat is optimistic about the future: "32 years ago, we created what many people think of as social media," he smiles. "I think the new forms of social media are beginning to catch up with us."
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