When it comes to restaurant reviews by diners, for diners, the folks at Zagat have been doing it longer than just about anyone else out there. Beginning in New York in 1979, they have conducted yearly surveys of frequent diners (starting with their friends and expanding to include thousands of people in cities around the world) and using their results to provide their iconic ratings of venues' Food, Decor, Service and Cost. With that sort of participation, is it any wonder that restaurateurs watch the guide closely and are quick to point out categories in which they score well?
Today's release of the 2009 edition of the DC-Baltimore (that's right, we still have to share) guide should prompt a new round of press releases and emails touting high ratings and inclusion on the "Most Popular" list. And with yesterday's announcement of the participants in next month's DC Summer Restaurant Week, the timing for this release couldn't be better. Available in local bookstores for $14.95 or at amazon.com for $10.17, the "burgundy bible" can give you a quick glimpse into the opinions of more than 7,200 DC diners as you prepare to make your Restaurant Week reservations.
To help promote the release of the new guide, owners Tim and Nina Zagat have come down to Washington from their home in New York. Over coffee, I sat down to talk about some interesting statistical findings, a few surprises in the new guide and the role of Zagat's guides and other products in an increasingly digital society.
I began by asking about the reasons behind the combination of Washington and Baltimore - a bit of New York snobbery, perhaps? They assured me that it was more a concession to Baltimore than a snub to DC - while Washington could support a guide on its own, Baltimore's restaurant scene didn't quite do the trick. Because the two are separated by less than an hour's drive, they felt that the combination allowed diners in both cities to see what the other had to offer and it allowed for a larger print run resulting in lower costs for both cities. Take that, wounded pride!
The biggest news, for those who follow the guide's results closely, is Makoto's receipt of top honors in the category of Food. While the Inn at Little Washington retained its place atop the Decor and Service categories, they placed second to the MacArthur Boulevard kaiseki establishment "by hundredths of a point," according to Tim. This is in keeping with a national trend that has seen Japanese cuisine rise in prominence across the country - a result that the Zagats say was unheard of even five years ago.
And that miniscule (but significant) difference in rankings is where the Zagats feel the strength of their model lies. With thousands of reviewers, they have a series of filters in place that they use to weed out industry shills and others who might try to skew the results. Those who do participate are asked to submit their opinions on a scale of 0-3 for each restaurant, from which the guide gives an averaged result (multipied by 10 to result in the 30-point scale). This forces reviewers to think long and hard about whether a restaurant is excellent (3), good (2), fair (1) or poor (0). They've experimented with other formats, including the more widely used 0-5 scale, but have found that more options tend to lead to results that drift toward the center as voters hesitate to give 5's and 1's and settle into that middle range for most of their rankings.
Here in Washington, the 2009 survey turned up some interesting results about our dining habits. No longer a city of steakhouses and expense-account lunches, Washington's average meal is $4.33 below the national average. Maybe that's why so many of those surveyed (62%) indicated that they are willing to pay more for food that is sustainably raised. In addition to a preference for sustainable agriculture, seven in ten of us said that we consider local sourcing important. Taking these results to heart, the Zagats indicated that they are looking into the most appropriate way to highlight green practices, commitment to organic ingredients and/or local sourcing as a "Special Feature" category for future ratings - much as breakfast, chef's tables and 'power scenes' are in this year's guide.
It should come as no surprise to D.C. Foodies that we are far more digitally inclined than our neighbors to the north - 37% of the participants in the DC survey indicated that they use online reservation sites like OpenTable while only 17% do so in New York.
As a writer for a food blog, I was especially interested in learning the Zagats' views of online reviewers and in hearing about their own evolving web presence. Tim was quick to acknowledge the value in the multitude of local voices that the proliferation of food blogs provides - "You live here," he says. "Who knows the food in your neighborhood better than you?" But he went on to point out the need for common frames of reference to help people determine which voices mirror their own. A sixty year-old married man, for example, is unlikely to seek out the same sort of establishment as a twenty-six year-old single woman. According to Zagat, both voices are important (and useful on their own) but the blending of those voices is a strength of Zagat.
Nina was a wonderful ambassador for the Zagat web presence, encouraging me to take out my BlackBerry and check out the Webby-winning zagat.mobi site designed for mobile accessibility. By registering at the main Zagat site and then signing in on your mobile device, you can access a significant portion of their content while on the go - helpful when trying to choose among the various restaurants in a given neighborhood once you're there. Registration on the site also allows you to join the ranks of the Zagat reviewers - you can vote year-round and then submit your votes for the annual survey when the time comes.
After talking about the specifics of the new survey and the increasing importance of Zagat's online presence, we spoke for a while about the rise of celebrity chefs and television's increasing obsession with food. Tim said he was unsure how he felt about the whole thing, and he took the opportunity to correct a misrepresentation in David Kamp's "The United States of Arugula." Though he acknowledges criticizing Emeril's on-screen persona as reported in the book, Tim adds that he saw the run-away success that Emeril attained and told Emeril to "forget what I said about all that" six months later...though he might know something about food, he said, he readily admitted he knew nothing about television.
Despite the fact that they no longer participate in the surveys themselves, I was unable to get either of the Zagats to admit to any favorite DC restaurants ("Unlike Katherine Harris," said Tim, warming to District's political culture, "I try to remain impartial while I do my job."). On their current visit, they stopped by Central last night and will be enjoying lunch at the new WestEnd Bistro today before joining a reporter from the Washington Post for a whirlwind tour of 15 restaurants tonight.
Tim said the tour will be more about impressions than dining, as even the smallest taste at each of 15 restaurants can dull the senses and make it hard to get a good read on a place. That being said, he reiterated an assertion he has made for some time - that a diner can be 85-90% certain of the experience they will have in a restaurant within the first five minutes. Attention to the decor, the service, views of neighboring tables' food, aromas and sounds all assert themselves within that first period. We'll see if his record remains intact after tonight's marathon.