What Zagat Begat

In the mid-1960s, back when food porn actually involved a libido, a young man named Tim Zagat was assigned to sit next to a young woman named Nina Safranoff at Yale Law School. There would be no dinner dates for this young pair; their courtship occurred via study groups, food was late-night book fuel and love bloomed over beer and burgers.

Once wed, they moved to Paris to practice law (him corporate, her estate). Armed with healthy expense accounts and robust appetites, the pair dined at every two- and three-star restaurant in Paris, but had no idea their French tryst would evolve from a lifestyle into a living. Over the next few decades, the two would become a household name (though an often mispronounced one: that’s zuh as in duh, gat as in cat) for revolutionizing the way the new dining classes do just that.

Upon their return to the States in the early ’70s Tim and Nina Zagat continued their early epicurean adventures with a group of food-savvy friends, calling themselves the Downtown Food and Wine Society. After one particularly spirited dinner during which Ivan Karp, the force behind the SoHo gallery OK Harris, castigated a respected food critic with particular zeal, inspiration struck Tim like a bolt of lightning.

The plan was simple. He had worked on political surveys (including one for the 1964 presidential election) and quickly created a form with five categories by which to rate restaurants: food, décor, service, cleanliness (the only category dropped from the current-day survey) and approximate cost per person, plus a comments section. He gave the typewritten sheet to 10 friends who, chain-letter style, each passed copies to 10 others. All in all, the Downtown Food and Wine Society surveyed 200 people about 100 restaurants, and compiled the findings into the seminal 1980 NYC Restaurant Survey. (The Algonquin: “Circle gone; nothing left; bad food but nice for a drink;” and Charley O’s: “Bar for middle lvl execs trying to lay their secretaries.”) By giving every Dick and Jane in Manhattan a voice, the survey wrested power from ivory-tower reviewers. Opinionated epicures found an early outlet— and dining out has never been the same.

Danny Meyer, the kingpin behind the New York City Survey’s two most popular restaurants, Union Square Café and Gramercy Tavern, says that original survey “revolutionized the whole engagement of the public” and in doing so “vastly predated the digital age.”

In 1983 Tim and Nina printed 10,000 copies of the first official Zagat Survey of New York City restaurants—but it would take some Time before they were sitting pretty in their corner office on Columbus Circle. In the beginning the survey was a sideline sinkhole; Tim and Nina spent thousands and thousands of their own dollars generating, printing and tabulating the surveys. And they distributed the guides themselves, pulling their perfunctory Toyota Corolla up in front of bookstores and leaving their son in the car while they went in to pitch. (“We thought we were less likely to get a ticket for double parking with a cute kid in the driver’s seat,” says Tim.) Half the shops took a chance on it; they sold 7,000 copies.

A stroke of fate came in the shape of a former New York Giants and Buffalo Bills kicker named Peter Gogolak who had graduated from the AFL to become vice president of sales at RR Donnelley, the largest printing company in the country. Gogolak had discovered the Zagat Survey and asked Tim if he’d be willing to customize 5,000 copies with fancy covers, gilded trim, and a gold-stamped logo for Donnelley sales reps to give clients. Suddenly Tim had a few dozen salesmen paying him to distribute his guide to top-level executives. He couldn’t have asked for better promotion.

By their third year, Tim and Nina were selling 40,000 copies annually, more than even the Times’ compilation of its critics’ restaurant reviews. New York magazine ran a cover story on the survey, calling it a coup: “The pocket-size, 1986 Zagat New York City Restaurant Survey, reflecting the opinions of more than 1,500 amateur critics—in other words, typical New Yorkers—may be the most democratic dining guide that exists.” Sales exploded overnight to 75,000 copies a month.

“It’s a very American concept,” says Mitchell Davis, vice president of the James Beard Foundation. While authoritative topdown guidebooks like Michelin predate the Zagat guide, Davis, who wrote his doctoral dissertation on restaurant reviewing and its impact on taste, says the survey was altogether unprecedented in allowing for a democracy of opinion—for the people, of the people, by the people. “Diners become the experts and all of a sudden their opinion counts. People can be their own reviewers.”

Nina knew the tide was turning when friends would call her office in need of urgent advice—not on legal matters, but about where to eat. So the lawyers (yes, they were both still practicing full-time) rolled their profits into publishing surveys in Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Washington, DC, and their erstwhile hobby became their day jobs: Tim left law in 1987 to work at the booming company full time and Nina joined three years later.

By 1993 if you hadn’t heard of the Zagat guide you’d have to have been living under the Hard Rock Café. Just a decade after the official launch, the company had replicated its genes far and wide, publishing 25 surveys in 21 metropolitan areas, including roundup books like the country’s best value restaurants and overall top 1,000 restaurants. And the guides didn’t just cover everywhere, they were sold everywhere—from bookstores to chain coffee shops, checkout aisles to airports.

Over time something had shifted. Like a revolutionary guerrilla revolt that comes to resemble the regime it ousted, the Zagat Surveys—which took down fat-cat critics to give the power to the people—somehow became the Man: a great review in the burgundy bible meant booming business for restaurateurs and gloatworthy cachet for chefs (just ask the owners of the tiny Brooklyn restaurant the Grocery, whose surprise stellar review landed it on the front page of the Times) while a fall in ratings could spell a fall from grace. Naturally, some foodies—ideological descendants of the Downtown Food & Wine Society—found fault with the committee-style reviews. “It’s a great guide for looking up addresses or what’s in a neighborhood,” they sniffed, “but I never pay attention to the ratings.”

Then came the pesky Internet, and before you could say “beurre blanc” there were scores of other outlets for culinary commentary. The Zagats would soon find their multi, multi, multimillion- dollar empire beset by any schmuck with a keyboard. Why pay for a digest of last year’s digested opinions when you can log on for the latest in full, unexpurgated glory?

Naturally, Danny Meyer defends the burgundy bedfellows: “Zagat remains as relevant as ever for the thing to hold in hand— whether you keep it in the kitchen or the bathroom.”

But Davis wonders if Tim and Nina are getting beaten at their own game. “They had the idea of the survey,” he acknowledges, “but the Internet is faster, bigger and has access to more people. You can get a much better picture [of a restaurant] from Yelp— even if you don’t agree with people and their review is boring or radical, you get more [to read].”

Indeed the online communities of Yelp, Citysearch and the like canvass a much larger scope of restaurants than the survey does—Yelp boasts nearly 11,000 restaurants reviewed in Manhattan alone while the 2009 New York City Restaurants Zagat Survey covers 2,000.

And Yelp et al are free, which Zagat is not. Back in the dot.com dawn, Zagat decided to charge to read most of what’s on their site, and they haven’t changed course despite legions of free competitors. But sometimes you get what you pay for: A staff of over 100 Zagat editors compile each description from hundreds or even thousands of eating experiences, culling the mundane from the insightful, whittling tens of thousands of words down to a mere 40 in that now-famous “signature style:” “stringing strands” of “quirky quotes” into a “pithy pastiche” of “culinary consensus.” (There’s also a full-time team of fact checkers, something decidedly absent from the online group-grope.)

Not that Tim and Nina have clung to the printed page. Their ZagatBuzz e-newsletter begat iPhone and BlackBerry applications, and transitioning the survey to a digital format opened the process up to a huge number of e-opiners world-over, with more than 350,000 citizen critics weighing in digitally. (Eliminating paper survey forms saves the Zagats $3.5 million in printing and tabulating costs yearly, and allows them to slice and dice the information for corporate clients from Bank of America to Microsoft.

These days the couple continue to spend time at their country home in northern Dutchess County, eat out (always on their own dime) and refrain from voting. (While politicians always hit the booths on election day, Tim and Nina say they have never voted in their own survey, lest it cast doubt upon the system.) And they’re always looking to expand into new markets. (At the time of this interview they had just returned from Cuba. With travel limitations being eased by the Obama administration, the Zagats thought maybe, just maybe, Cuba was ready for its own burgundy bible, but Tim admits it has a “revolutionarily long way to go before they’re ready for the Zagat guide,” comparing the eating scene to China and Russia in the 1970s.)

Despite doubters, Tim and Nina still regard themselves as the hands-down Grand Pooh-Bahs of restaurant survey world, and not without reason: Like Niman Ranch and Whole Foods (not to mention Microsoft) this early ’80s antiestablishment upstart transformed the food world and unexpectedly evolved from underground movement to ensconced elite. How the Zagat guide will fare in the new world order of free content remains to be seen, but, in the end, the guide will “go down in history” for conceiving of “culinary crowdsourcing,” “the first to give a voice” to the “vox populi” and “distill diners’ ideas” into an “eater’s digest.”

Raquel Pelzel started working in restaurants when she was 15. Accustomed to hiding butter and side towels from guys on the line, she now writes cookbooks from Clinton Hill, Brooklyn, and only has to hide her Uni-ball Vision Elites from her husband.

Photo credit: Adrian Mueller