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Can you believe Zagat? Not always

October 15, 2003|David Shaw | Times Staff Writer

I love Woody Allen's movies, Billy Crystal's Oscar monologues and Darrell Hammond's impressions on "Saturday Night Live." But nothing makes me laugh as much as the Zagat dining guide for Los Angeles.

Zagat, as everyone but Saddam Hussein must know by now, is the New York-based publishing empire that releases those narrow, red guidebooks rating restaurants in more than 30 U.S. and Canadian cities and regions, plus Paris, London, Tokyo and several neighboring solar systems.

Zagat ratings are not made by restaurant critics or any other "experts." Zagat voters are normal, everyday diners -- 6,060 of whom cast ballots, online, for the newly published 2004 Los Angeles/Southern California guide.

The highest-rated restaurants -- Matsuhisa and Katsu-ya -- each got 28 points out of 30. The next 19 restaurants got 27 points apiece. According to Zagat, these 21 restaurants represent the very best dining in Los Angeles.

Zagat is enormously successful and enormously influential -- a veritable bible for tourists, business travelers and local residents alike. But how can you trust "surveyors" -- as Zagat calls its voters -- who choose as the best restaurants in all of Greater Los Angeles some restaurants that aren't even the best in their own neighborhoods?

Take the stupefyingly high ratings for Derek's in Pasadena, Restaurant Christine in Torrance and Gina Lee's Bistro in Redondo Beach.

All three were 27-point winners. Since the front of the book lists them in the order they finished in the voting, that means Zagat says Derek's, Christine and Gina Lee's are all better than Spago, Angelini Osteria, L'Orangerie, Alex, Grace and dozens of restaurants that are substantially better. And Derek's (which Zagat says is the eighth-best restaurant in the L.A. area) is also ranked above Sona, Water Grill, Chinois on Main, Campanile and Valentino.

What are these voters smoking?

Derek's, a thoroughly pleasant, thoroughly decent restaurant, is described by Zagat voters as "excellent" and "fantastic" -- the best example of "Californian cuisine" we have.

It is none of the above.

Nor is Gina Lee's a "jewel." But both are gems compared with Christine, which Zagat says offers "dazzlingly creative, perfectly executed dishes."

It's the chef who should be executed.

My dinner at Restaurant Christine last week was not just pedestrian but aggressively bad. Every single course my guest and I had was awful, but none was worse than the tempura soft shell crabs with fufu, tamarillos, mustard greens and fruit salsa. Our waitress said the salsa included carrot, ginger and "many tropical fruits, [including] watermelon, green apples and honeydew." It couldn't have tasted worse if it had been made with shredded Fruit of the Loom.

Everyone's entitled to his own opinion, of course. Half the fun of talking about restaurants -- or politicians or athletes or movies -- is disagreeing over which is best. But apart from the recent recall campaign, Zagat is the best example I've ever seen of democracy run amok. Differences of opinion are fine. There have to be some standards, though.

In fairness -- and to avoid any accusation of personal pique -- I should say that most of the restaurants my food-loving friends and I think are the city's best do well in Zagat. We may disagree with their precise ranking and point totals at times, but none is ignored or severely underrated.

My complaint is Zagat's tendency to ridiculously overrate many restaurants. This year it's worse than ever, but it's happened before with, among others, C'est Fan Fan, voted the second-best restaurant in the city in 1992; with Cafe Bizou, voted sixth-best in '96; and with Brent's Deli -- Brent's Deli?!? -- rated 16th-best in 2000.

I can still remember 1989, when Magdalena in Bellflower was named the seventh-best restaurant here -- better than Michael's, Rex, La Toque, Citrus and Valentino, five of the city's best restaurants of that (or any) era.

Neither I nor any of my friends had ever heard of Magdalena. But, always eager for new discoveries, several of us raced instantly to Bellflower.

What we found was slightly better than a diner.

No matter. The next year, Magdalena rose to fifth in the Zagat ratings.

Merrill Shindler, who has edited the Los Angeles guide for Zagat since the first edition, in 1987 -- and who selects the pithy comments ("haiku," he calls it) that appear with each rating -- says the explanation for such restaurants doing so well in the voting is simple:

"They're fine restaurants," he says. "Christine is a lovely restaurant.

"One of my commitments as editor has been to give the guides really good geographic diversity," Shindler told me last week, "so when I hear about a cool restaurant some distance from ... the Westside, I head for it."

If he likes it, he puts it on the Zagat ballot. But no restaurant gets a top, "front-of-the-book" rating unless a lot of people vote for it -- at least 100 people, according to Tim Zagat, who co-founded Zagat with his wife Nina in New York in 1979.


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