food 10.18.04

Zagat

In the spirit of all the interviews that take place daily on our fellow blogs, MUG interviews its own publisher, Charlie Suisman, about the new Zagat NYC Restaurants guide, out today.

MUG: Are you excited? Will you be rushing to a bookstore?

SUISMAN: No and no.

MUG: I thought you wanted to be interviewed about Zagat?

SUISMAN: I do. But not because I like it. I do not. And as for the Zagats, I find them insufferable.

MUG: I'm hearing something personal…

SUISMAN: I did work at Zagat Survey as an editor for seven months in 2000 before I walked out of the building one morning, never to return.

MUG: Ah, you were canned.

SUISMAN: No, actually not. I just couldn't bear it. Some nice colleagues there, but it's a fairly creepy place and editorial factory work just wasn't for me.

MUG: What do you mean by editorial factory work?

SUISMAN: A number of smart, talented people spend virtually all day, every day stringing together those supposedly pithy quotes, and as they pass before you, you have to spray on some alliteration or insert a pun. It's what passes at Zagat for wit.

MUG: But aren't those quotes helpful?

SUISMAN: Not by my lights. They're far too equivocating, with way too many yes/but constructions. Here's how it works. Editors, most of whom have never been to the restaurant in question, cherry-pick the most lively comments and string them into a single sentence (though semi-colons get around that limitation). An editor must reflect the numbers that a restaurant has received: if a restaurant scores 27s, you're not going to see anything in the way of negative comments (even if there are a sizeable number), except perhaps for price, whereas a restaurant that has 18 points, must contain some negative quotes. Nearly everything in between ends up with that yes/but construction, so restaurant X is fine, but it's too crowded, or too noisy, or too expensive, or too funky, or the waiters are wannabe actors, or it's hard to get a table.

They're so confined and consumed by those ridiculous strictures on how to 'sound like Zagat' that it has become logy, outmoded, and tiresome — look how often you find the words 'wags', 'digs', 'vittles', 'cholesterol', 'grub', 'secret', 'like a trip to Paris'. I think the web now provides more informed and illuminating opinions (Ed.: see below). And I've grown increasingly disenchanted with the Zagat concept over the years. I'm all for majority rule, but not in matters of taste. I'd rather find a critic I find sympathetic and use them as a touchstone over a statistical winner. Not infrequently, the comments are culled from a very small number of respondents. And I know from experience that most of the comments from Zagat surveyors aren't much beyond the "great place, delicious food" ilk.

MUG: Are you saying all the respondents have questionable taste?

SUISMAN: Of course not. The point is, there is no way to know if the people who vote have been to the restaurant recently, or at all, or what their frame of reference is. About his surveyors, Zagat said in a Business Week article from December, 2002, "We've been able to select a network of people who are very passionate about certain things, like food…They could be food and wine society members, or people who eat out as a way of life, like executives." That's just a load of hornswoggling humbug. Zagat doesn't select surveyors — anyone can play. And while it's true that they could be wine society members or executives, it's equally true that they could not be. And since when do executives have the edge on judging food? And, that's an awfully elitist notion for a supposedly democratic guide.

MUG: But surely Zagat has its uses?

SUISMAN: Of course, as a quick directory of the city's restaurants, it's very helpful. And it's great when people ask you, say, to pick a place in a certain neighborhood. It's a useful reminder of what's where.

MUG: What did you think of the article by the Zagats on the editorial page in Saturday's NY Times?

SUISMAN: Slop, slop, sloppy. SooooEEEE. First, the Zagats claim that one of the social changes that account for our more diverse dining habits was this: "The advent of school lunch programs in the late 1950's trained the baby boomers to buy lunch out in lieu of carrying a lunch box from home, a habit they continued as adults." That is an absolute hoot, just nuts. Second, they assert that there were no Atkins diets when the Zagats published their first guide in 1979. In fact, the first edition of Dr. Atkins Diet Revolution was published in 1972 and Atkins published a second book in 1977.

Now, about that first Zagat guide of 1979. There wasn't one. The Zagats like to say that that was when the guide started. But, in fact, that was when they claim they had the idea, and passed around some mimeographed sheets among friends. The first edition of the Zagat Survey as a book for sale was in 1983. Which was, by the way, after another restaurant survey book had been published.

MUG: Zagat wasn't the first?

SUISMAN: No. In 1980, Bon Appetit surveyed over 5,000 of its readers and published America's Best Restaurants in 1981. It contained listings of the top restaurants from 25 major cities, rated by Bon App readers on food, service, ambience, and price. It was a tall and thin softcover, and red figured prominently on front and back.

MUG: Does any of this matter?

SUISMAN: Well, I do think that accuracy and attention to detail is crucial to any guidebook, particularly one that is still as influential as Zagat is. Steven A. Shaw, a founder of egullet.com — one of the places online where you can find smart and thoughtful opinions on anything related to food — and a smart and thoughtful writer himself, wrote an instructive piece on the Zagats for Commentary magazine in 2000. He considers a number of other issues about the Zagat system that continue to trouble me.

MUG: So will you buy the new edition?

SUISMAN: Yeah, I guess.
Some of the Food Blogs We Like:
The aforementioned egullet.com, and Jim Leff's venerable chowhound.com.

Whenever we feel jaded about the city's dining scene, Andrea Strong's site, andreastrong.com, never fails to get us revved up again. She's already reviewed Cafe Gray (Gray Kunz's new place at the Time Warner Center) and says the experience is "nothing but pleasure."

Then there's the inimitably gimlet-eyed, tart-tongued Regina Schrambling, whose website gastropoda.com is wildly smart and funny. Just don't piss her off. (Actually, do. That's when she's in finest form.)

Recipes and the best food news roundup on the web at thefoodsection.com.

And more terrific food sites another day.


Central Park South (from 2012)

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