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In Restaurant Ratings War, Here's a Blow for Democracy

Attention, almighty critics: There is room at the table for the hoi polloi.

November 05, 2003|Tim Zagat and Nina Zagat | Tim and Nina Zagat are co-founders and co-publishers of the Zagat Restaurant Surveys.

Ever since we started asking diners to rate and review restaurants 24 years ago -- in the process creating a series of bestselling guidebooks based on consumer opinion -- one group has remained a tad uneasy about our success: professional food critics.

Certainly many critics recognize how pooling customer word of mouth to assess restaurants serves the dining public. But even a few knife-sharpening commentators still claim that the survey overrates many restaurants.

In fact, this newspaper's David Shaw, a columnist who writes about food and wine, took a shot at our latest guide, followed by the New York Times. "Apart from the recent recall campaign," wrote Shaw, "Zagat is the best example of democracy run amok. Differences of opinion are fine. There have to be standards, though."

Aside from the fact that "democracy run amok" sounds like a line written by Gray Davis, we think something else is at work. Whenever a commentator starts to talk about standards, you know whose standards he's trying to protect -- his own. Which is exactly why we started canvassing diners nearly a quarter of a century ago, to find a consensus of customer opinion about a given restaurant as a reality check to the Oz-like authority of the professionals.

We love food critics -- they are some of the liveliest, wittiest and most outspoken writers working. But do they really possess shaman-like wisdom that the rest of us lack? And are they the only source of reliable dining information ?

Even a degree from Le Cordon Bleu won't necessarily give the critics an advantage over today's diners, who are far more sophisticated and astute on food matters than were their counterparts of a generation ago. Don't dare tell the average patron of Matsuhisa, Nobu or Patina that their palates aren't up to snuff.

Nearly 6,100 frequent diners participated in our new Los Angeles survey, eating an average of 3.7 meals out per week and averaging 9.5 visits throughout the year to each restaurant they rated. That means they were sampling an establishment across all seasons, when ingredients and preparations can vary tremendously, to say nothing of the air conditioning or the mood swings and "off" days of the hostess, chef and wait staff.

By contrast, most critics are lucky if they get two or three meals under their belt for any one review, including when they have their own mood swings and off days. Collectively, our diners took in 3,200 restaurant meals a day in L.A. We've yet to meet the reviewer who can make room for that kind of consumption.

And who is really more prone to getting the preferential treatment that could yield a weighted verdict -- a large cross section of diners whose identities are unknown to the restaurant, or the prominent food critic whose photo is taped to the kitchen wall or who may socialize with the chef, as many professional food writers do?

Fixated on an all-inclusive four-star rating system, many critics judge restaurants according to a paradigm of total perfection -- any place that fails to meet idealized criteria of haute cuisine or clicked-heel service doesn't deserve to be on the charts. Ordinary restaurant-goers don't judge that way. They can assess quality based on how well a restaurant meets the expectation of the occasion -- a business meal with professional associates is measured differently than a romantic evening out or a simple meal with the kids.

By assigning separate ratings for food, decor and service with cost estimates per average meal, the survey creates an equal playing field for all restaurants. Critics may abhor such culinary parity, but most diners understand its value because it allows for the possibility that tonight's mushroom pizza was far better than last night's crusted mahi mahi.

Critics are performing a job when they eat out, whereas the average restaurant-goer brings a joy to the experience that the working reviewer, under the gun to deliver 1,000 words, often lacks.

And if food reviewing were left exclusively to the critics, most places would never be covered at all, especially the neighborhood sleepers and out-of-the-way storefronts serving some of the most interesting food in the nation today.

When we started surveying diners in 1979, there was little place in food criticism for restaurants outside the so-called top tier. Neighborhood eateries just didn't register on the typical critic's radar. What's happened in the last 24 years is nothing short of a revolution, not only in how and where Americans eat out and what kinds of foods they crave, but also in the way in which ordinary diners have become empowered to make informed choices. They draw from their own peer-to-peer intelligence, rather than depending on the self-imposed standards of the almighty critic.

If that sounds like democracy run amok, tell us where to vote.

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