Polling for the 2005 Zagat Survey of Los Angeles and Southern California restaurants is closed, concluding the region's annual Zagat voting season -- a six-week period that ended May 2. The final tally is being compiled for next year's little red guidebook.
Zagat is estimating an increase of more than 1,000 surveys from last year's 6,000 submissions.
There could be any number of reasons for the increase, but one thing is certain: This year, more than any previous year, restaurant owners openly took steps to influence how their kitchens are rated in this make-or-break guide. In e-mail, electronic newsletters and even in brochures passed out in dining rooms, they pointedly reminded their customers to vote in the Zagat survey.
By enlarging the voter pool with their handpicked loyalists, these restaurateurs improved -- though no one knows how much -- their chances of getting a high score.
When a restaurateur suggests that someone participate in the Zagat survey, the message is obvious: Vote for us and rate us highly. In attempting to influence the voting for the guide, restaurateurs are calling into question the presumed integrity of the survey.
This year's trend promises to become next year's must-follow business strategy for even the toniest of L.A. restaurants. Zagat ratings translate into dollars, guiding diners across the region as well as visiting tourists. With relatively unknown establishments such as Christine in Torrance voted among the top restaurants in 2004, everyone feels the pressure to compete by getting out the vote, say restaurateurs.
"It's always been done to some extent," says Hans Rockenwagner, whose namesake restaurant in Santa Monica sent out voting reminders to 300 patrons. "This year, however, it was right out in the open. There is definitely heavy lobbying going on."
What? You didn't know that there was a "voting season" for the popular restaurant guide? Worse, you didn't know that absolutely anyone can vote?
You aren't alone. Only a savvy few -- roughly 6,000 people in the Los Angeles area (mostly last year's voters) -- got an e-mail reminder from Zagat to go to its website and vote this year.
At the same time, everyone on the mailing list at Grace on Beverly Boulevard got the same cue. In an e-mailed message, Grace's management noted, "It's that time of year again when the Zagat Survey is soliciting your votes for Los Angeles dining.... We encourage you to support us and give us your feedback by voting online."
For convenience, there is a link that, with one mouse click, takes the reader directly into the Zagat site to vote.
Is it lobbying? Stuffing the ballot box? Or just common sense on the part of restaurateurs?
Technically, this kind of thing doesn't break the rules, says Tim Zagat, the co-founder of the survey, who claims to have an ironclad computer program that ferrets out the more egregious forms of vote manipulation. Claiming he can't detail how the program works without subverting its effectiveness, he leaves it at that.
"The more people that vote, the better, from our point of view," says Zagat. "We're delighted that they are doing it. It only crosses the line if they ask them to vote a certain way."
Walking a fine line
Most restaurateurs seem to be trying to walk that fine line.
At Sona, the chic dining room on La Cienega, every employee is encouraged to remind patrons to vote on the Zagat survey, according to the restaurant's publicist. At the bottom of every check, waiters scrawl yet another reminder to cast your Zagat vote.
Joachim Splichal's Patina Group restaurants, along with Melisse, Saddle Peak Lodge, Zax and Sai Sai at the Los Angeles Biltmore, also are among the wave of restaurants that made an effort this year to get their customers to participate in the survey.
When asked if he had prompted the patrons of his restaurant, Opaline, to participate in the Zagat Survey, David Rosoff said no, but that he probably should have. Then, two days before the end of the voting season, Rosoff fired off an e-mail reminding Opaline regulars to be sure to submit a survey.
"Restaurants would be stupid if they didn't give regulars a heads-up," says Dave Osenbach, sommelier and newsletter editor for Zax restaurant in Brentwood. In the restaurant's April and May e-mail newsletters, Osenbach reminded customers to vote in the survey, explaining in detail how to use Zagat's website.
"Won't you feel bad if your own personal insight into the gastronomic landscape of Southern California missed the deadline?" he asked customers in the May newsletter. "Those of you who have already voted, thanks for contributing. And for those who haven't, there's still a little bit of time left." And there Osenbach inserted a link to take readers directly to the Zagat survey site.
No one clicked on the Zagat link in Zax's April newsletter. But in the May issue, the online service handling Zax's newsletter reported back to the restaurant that of 1,600 e-mail recipients, 18 used the link to the survey.