food 10.20.05

The Waning of Zagat

Zagat 2006 is out, and it contains its usual passel of formulaic assessments, dubious assertions, and basic inaccuracies. Having sat down and read it cover to cover, what's surprising is how out of touch and irrelevant it all seems.

As some readers may recall, we're not fans of the Zagats as we detailed in an article from last year at this time. But even diehard Zagat fans must have a sense that the old maroon mare ain't what she used to be.

That's in part due to the company's feeble use of the web. There are alternatives available online that are free, more up-to-date, and more edifyingly free-wheeling than the ludicrous Zagat formula of one sentence per restaurant. Much more useful information is available from sites such as eGullet, Eater, Epicurious, Chowhound, Menu Pages, and bloggers like Andrea Strong. Zagat's time as a central culinary touchstone has passed.

It's not just the web that has sapped the franchise; much of it has been self-inflicted. However simple-minded popular voting for restaurants may seem now, it's the descriptive "analysis" of each restaurant that makes the brand seem so shopworn. A few samples:

"Go to see, be seen" at Bice? Absolutely — in 1988, when it was, according to that edition of Zagat, "hot as a pistol." And we did a spit-take on this one: Isabella's is the place "to see and be seen on the West Side."

At this late date, they insist on dragging out variations of the "like a trip to Italy" or "quickest way to Paris" cliches. The latter is used in the Balthazar blurb and it completely misses the point. Balthazar's setting may be French brasserie, but it has evolved into a quintessentially New York institution.

You'd never know that Cafe Boulud has had a significant change of chef if you rely on Zagat. But in fact Andrew Carmellini left the restaurant in May.

The culinary axis of this city has changed in the years since Zagat first started, though they don't appear to have noticed. Bottino is said to be "far afield on 10th Avenue." Capsouto Frères is described, hilariously as "halfway to Joisey" in "the middle of nowhere," which means the middle of nowhere is only a few blocks from restaurants such as Nobu and Chanterelle.

"Star chef David Bouley is back at the top of his game,"according to Zagat. Frank Bruni gives Bouley three stars and Upstairs two stars. At Aureole, "Charlie Palmer and Dante Bocuzzi remain 'at the top of their game…'" if you believe Zagat. The vox populi is far more mixed at Citysearch.

Math isn't our strong suit, but the numbers just don't add up. At The Modern, dinner with one drink and tip is said to be $70, while the three-course prix fixe mentioned in the text, the least expensive of the prix fixe menus, is $78. At Oceana: $75 is noted as the price for dinner, one drink, and tip, but the three-course starts at $78 here, too. At Veritas, where the prix-fixe is $72, the Zagat average dinner price of $81 supposedly includes a drink and tip.

That can't be a stiff drink, though that is surely a stiffed waiter. And what once seemed a lively and reliable guide to dining in New York has arrived in stores hot off the press, but unmistakably itself a stiff.


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