Nina and Tim Zagat

It all began by drinking too much wine.

More than 20 years ago, we were at the monthly dinner of our wine-tasting group–a dignified way of describing a group of 20 self-indulgent friends who were more likely to guzzle wine than to taste it, and to eat plenty of food along the way. One of those buddies, Ivan Karp of O.K. Harris Gallery, began blasting the then-restaurant critic of the New York Times. “She’s totally unreliable,” he lamented. “You read one of her reviews and you don’t have a clue whether or not you’ll like the restaurant.” Others added that they were less interested in how a particular sauce was made or the color of the tablecloths or whether or not there were candles on the tables than if a friend would recommend the place. It was at that moment, inspired by his 10th glass of wine, that Tim suggested we survey our friends about the restaurants they patronized. There were 20 avid eaters at the table, all with pads of paper at the ready. More important, all had myriad friends of their own who ate out regularly and could be counted on to join the fun. In short order, we had our first 100-plus charter surveyors.

So it was that in the fall of 1979, we ended up with a survey covering roughly 100 New York City restaurants, evaluated by nearly 200 people. The results–rating food, décor, service, and cost, with a few key comments per restaurant, all printed on a mimeographed sheet of legal paper (we were, after all, both lawyers at the time)–was an immediate hit. Indeed, it would have been a bestseller, except that it was free! Someone at Citibank actually made 3,000 copies of our compilation and circulated it around the place. Far from being upset that our copyright had been violated, we were thrilled. Primitive, amateurish, graphically in the Dark Ages it might have been. But the Zagat Survey was born.

In the most basic sense, the Survey was a continuation of Tim’s long-term interest in other people’s opinions about all kinds of things. Even at Yale Law School, he had been involved with political surveying, picking up data on the Johnson-Goldwater race for NBC News. He’d always been convinced that listening to people, finding out what they believed and wanted, tapping into the vox populi was the key to better governance and wiser public policy. In our own halting way, we began to apply that principle in 1979, and began to break the uninformative oligopoly of a few powerful restaurant critics. But we had absolutely no notion of how vast our polling operation would become–first, through conventional ballots and now (as of a few weeks ago) via the Internet.

We now have well over 100,000 surveyors in 45 cities in North America and Europe. This month, we’re launching our first Tokyo survey. (While it will eventually be translated into English, for now it is available only in Japanese–marking the first time we don’t know what we’re saying, a point that some disgruntled restaurateurs have maintained all along.) We’re also printing the second edition of our Paris survey, which instead of triggering fits of Gallic chauvinism has been well received because it is loosening up the stranglehold of Michelin. But what excites us most is our new Web site, and apparently we’re not the only ones: In the two weeks it has been up and running, it’s had over 7 million hits.

The data on the Web site come from all our printed surveys. But with the magic of computers, it offers combinations of information that books are far too brittle to yield. For instance, by making choices in a few categories, users can instantly find a cozy and romantic but reasonably priced French restaurant with a fireplace in either the 6thArrondissement of Paris or TriBeCa in New York City or the West Side of Los Angeles–with a map and driving instructions. The Web site is not only more instantly informative than traditional books, but less merciful, too. For reasons of space and delicacy, our printed surveys exclude ratings for the worst restaurants–that is, unless they’re well-known, pretentious places that are, in a sense, begging to be exposed. But our Web site is not be so delicate. To borrow a term from baseball, it will have ratings for restaurants below the Mendoza Line, i.e. restaurants batting .190 or less. On the Web, there is no hiding place.

Perhaps most significantly, surveyors will be able to rate restaurants anywhere, including in cities for which we don’t currently have books. In this sense, it will become the first truly worldwide restaurant guide, whose users will be able to find the best chowder in Gloucester, the best green chili in Albuquerque, the best paella in Estoril.

As we ponder the limitless possibilities of this new vehicle, we can offer two preliminary conclusions: First, many more people will surely offer their opinions, making millions of choices about where to eat that much more informed. And, second, if people were to engage in the political process with as much vigor as they eat, our democracy would be far more robust.