They’re the nation’s best-selling restaurant guides. but can you trust them? To uncover the truth, a restaurant critic crossed the country on an eight-city eating tour—and found much that was hard to swallow.
So begins Mimi Sheraton’s Rating Zagat, an excellent deconstruction of the Zagat mystique and its negative impact on American restaurants in the September, 2001 issue of Food and Wine. While Sheraton has some strong criticisms of Zagat, she formulates her article fairly and judiciously by acknowledging the tremendous success of the Zagat juggernaught and the applause it has received from the media and eating public. She notes when she agrees with certain Zagat restaurant evaluations (French Laundry for example).
But sparks fly when she diverges from Zagat’s restaurant raves. After duly noting her agreement with the Zagat ranking for New York City’s top three ranked restaurants (Le Bernardin, Chanterelle and Nobu), she writes this:
The really incredible designations are the fourth-rank status of SUGIYAMA, with its esoteric Japanese cuisine, and the fifth-rank showing of PETER LUGER steak house. This places both restaurants above the consistently excellent and far more ambitious Jean Georges and Daniel, both with 28 points, and Lespinasse, La Grenouille, Union Square Cafe and Gramercy Tavern, all with 27. Sugiyama, which serves a formalized progression of courses that can include steak on a hot stone, sushi and creative small dishes, does all of them very well but excels at nothing. And at Peter Luger, I had very good lamb chops and steak, but also encountered unripe tomatoes, tasteless shrimp left too long on ice, burned German-fried potatoes, a brassy steak sauce, and creamed spinach that would make even Gerber wince. One can only surmise that the 28 rating applies to the meat alone.
An even more ‘delicious’ Zagat evisceration is Sheraton’s review of Dallas’ top rated food establishment:
A perfect case in point is THE FRENCH ROOM in Dallas, a gilded Versailles wanna-be with green marble floors, gold-leaf trim, murals of flying cherubs and trompe l’oeil clouds. The overly ambitious kitchen sends forth such misguided creations as quail filled with roasted red peppers and Parmesan cheese wrapped in bacon and served with caramelized endive polenta on a balsamic red-currant sauce. I have heard postmodernism in architecture described as the illiterate application of symbols, and so it is with this dish. Inventions require more artistry than this kitchen exhibited with a tough lobster tail that was not helped by wild mushrooms or soupy, “sorrel-infused” risotto. Nor did a metallic lemongrass sauce do much for a badly overcooked crab cake. Zagat’s capsule review describing the menu as “classic” is simply bizarre, although the best offering, a delicious rare-roasted rack of lamb, hints that traditional efforts might be better rewarded.
The French Room’s top ranking raises other questions. For one, how valid is local opinion for the visitor? A Dallas native might consider French food more suitable for a special occasion than the regional cuisine. But a visitor would (or should) prefer the stunning Southwestern specialties at the third-ranked Mansion on Turtle Creek. I would rather dine there four nights in a week than at either the French Room or the Riviera, whose innocuous French food is Zagat’s second choice. But then, I’m a stranger here myself.
Sheraton also notes a decided Francophile slant among Zagat reviewers who uniformly highly rate French haute cuisine dining in forty of the Zagat city guides (I should add that the Seattle Zagat consistently rates Rover’s, another (you guessed it) French restaurant at the top of near the top every year):
The appearance of a French restaurant at the head of the New York list is repeated in Zagat guides across the country. Of the top-rated restaurants I visited, five are French, and a sixth, the Inn at Little Washington, is certainly French informed. Apparently, reports of the demise of haute cuisine are greatly exaggerated. Also surprising is that despite all we hear about Italian cuisine and its regional splendors, only four Italian places are ranked first for food in the 40 areas covered in the 2001 edition of Zagat’s nationwide guide, America’s Top Restaurants. Perhaps an unsure public still feels more confident in declaring for the French kitchen.
Because almost all of the restaurants with the highest ratings for food are extremely fancy looking and expensive, I had to wonder if amateur critics are capable of separating the cooking from the surroundings. Would they rate the same dishes as highly if they were served in a simpler setting? And do they perhaps feel the need to reassure themselves, as they’re paying a check that tops $200, that the meal they’ve just eaten was superb?
I would add to this assessment a sentiment I read in an eGullet.com thread discussing Zagat: Zagat reviewers often eat at restaurants because other Zagat reviewers have eaten there before and raved about it in the Guides. Zagat readers feel compelled to try restaurants because the reviewer comments laud them as the hottest, hippest thing going in town. Once you’ve invested so much emotion and money in an experience, it is a natural human inclination to validate your expectation no matter what the reality might be. Sheraton quotes William Grimes, the New York Times restaurant critic who noted the ‘Zagat effect’:
Grimes suggests that diners who go to highly rated restaurants, “convinced that they are eating at a top-flight establishment, cannot bring themselves to believe otherwise.”
This brings us to another issue with Zagat: there are so many reviewers how can you trust that the ones who evaluated the restaurant had good taste and judgment? As most of us who love food can attest, many people have strong opinions about food, but few of those opinions are worth believing. So how do you know that your odds with Zagat are any better? Clearly, the Zagats would argue that the sheer number of reviewers smooths out the extreme, odd, bizarre and poor taste of some reviewers. Those same sheer numbers would hopefully allow the good, reasonable reviews to shine through the murk. Remarkably, this is often the case with Zagat reviews. While you do read some that are completely off the mark, often Zagat gets restaurants about right Though the number ranking maybe a point or two too high, you can usually find quite good restaturants using Zagat as your guide. But there is real danger is elevating Zagat into the food guide pantheon without voicing some clear and strong cautions about its serious limitations.
Sheraton closes with a cogent warning about the weakness of the Zagat premise that the sheer democratic mass of reviews is a more reliable indicator of quality than the individual prejudices and limitations of a single professional critic:
Having always distrusted consensus, I feel the system of relying on a vast public rather than professional critics has no more validity in assessing restaurants than it would if applied to art or theater. The majority can be wrong, and one well-informed opinion is worth more than those of a thousand amateurs. Popular success is not a measure of excellence. If it were, it would mean that McDonald’s serves the world’s best hamburgers, KFC makes perfect fried chicken, Pizza Hut is the envy of Naples and, come to think of it, that the Zagat Survey is our best restaurant guide..
For another acute and complementary take on Zagat, take a look at Steven A. Shaw’s, The Zagat Effect:(Tim and Nina Zagat’s best-selling restaurant guide