The Middlebrow

My Dinner With Zagat

A night on the town with guidebook royalty.

Illustration by Rob Donnelly. Click image to expand.

Tim Zagat—a “well-built but not portly” man, with “hawk-like features” and the garrulous manner of “a favorite uncle of one of your friends from college”—has the good fortune to work around the corner from the Time Warner Center at 10 Columbus Circle in New York City. This is fortuitous because Zagat and his wife, Nina, the publishers of the best-selling Zagat Survey and America’s most famous restaurant enthusiasts, like to go on nighttime perambulations of New York restaurants. With its chic eateries and suave maitre d’s, the Time Warner Center offers a good starting place for such an excursion, and an ideal laboratory in which to observe the Zagat aesthetic.

To survey New York restaurants with the Zagats (an honor afforded to journalists who ask nicely) is a bit like sailing the coast of South America with Ferdinand Magellan. If it exists in New York, the Zagats have surveyed it. It can be a restaurant, a night club, a hotel, a wine shop, a gourmet market, or a building. As if to prove the reach of the Zagat empire, Tim Zagat performed an experiment at the Time Warner Center. He walked to the First Republic Bank on the first floor and asked for a copy of Zagat’s 2007 Time Warner Center Guide. A bank teller returned with a handful. Zagat then proceeded to the building’s information desk and requested another copy of the same Zagat guide. It was furnished. Apologizing now for having a “fat head,” he rode the escalator up to the second floor and walked into Borders bookstore. He stopped about 10 feet inside the entrance, so that he could see one clutch of crimson Zagat Survey 2007 guides on the bookshelves and, by turning his body a few degrees to the left, another clutch near the cash registers. “That’s called marketing,” he said, gesturing at the shelves, and then, pointing at the registers, “and that’s called merchandising.”

Tim and Nina are quoted in Zagat’s 2007 Time Warner Center Guide as saying, “From the standpoint of dining, this is the most important building in the United States, and that’s just based on the restaurants that are already open.” Tim has been coming here a lot lately. He revealed that he’d been to Porter House New York three times in the last two weeks—a rare thing, since the Zagats are professionally predisposed to eat at restaurants all over New York City. “What time is it now, 7?” Zagat asked, surveying the dining room. “By 7:30 or 8, this place will not have an empty seat. It failed utterly as a steakhouse when it was called V. It looked like a Las Vegas bordello. I wouldn’t know what a Las Vegas bordello looks like—I want that on the record. … It was a nice space, but it wasn’t a steakhouse design. Now, here’s the menu. This place is not cheap.”

Michael Lomonaco, Porter House’s chef, arrived. Zagat said, “Michael has two brothers, and they are doctors, and I’ll say this about him. He personifies the professionalism a doctor would have and it shows.”

“I appreciate that,” Lomonaco said.

Zagat continued, “Coming over and seeing the business you’ve been doing, I think you’re going to be here a long time.”

This was a typically Zagatian interaction. Zagat walks into a restaurant, receives an enthusiastic reception from the maitre d’s and chefs, and then, for the benefit of his guest, unleashes a gust of Zagatlike pronouncements—bon mots intended to capture the flavor of the place. At Jean George, he said: “Lunch here is probably one of the best values in New York”; at Buddakan: “It’s like eating on the stage of a Broadway show”; and at La Grenouille: “This is the last great old-world French restaurant … truly a classic … one of the most charming private rooms in all of New York.” Mrs. Zagat has a similar enthusiasm for restaurant-going, but a more demure style and a rather larger reservoir of patience. When we had a free moment, I asked her how often the Zagats dined out. “Most weeknights. Tim has lunches out. And we do a lot of breakfast meetings, too.” And on weekends? “We like to go to our house in the country.” (Where the Zagats also dine out.) As to the maitre d’s, chefs, and restaurant owners who fling themselves at them: “We don’t ever get to be friends with them to the level of ‘Let’s go out to lunch.’ “

Perhaps not, but the Zagats occupy an enviably cushy perch in the New York restaurant scene. The city’s major food critics—Frank Bruni at the Times, say, or Adam Platt at New York—are treated like minor royalty upon entering a restaurant. But then they must actually review the restaurant, which can prompt bad feelings and make their re-entry a few months later a rather cold and uncomfortable occasion. The Zagats assign the reviewing to an army of readers and are never in danger of being anything other than beloved enthusiasts. Their arrival at Gabriel’s, on 60th St. at Broadway, was met with a hostess asking, “Do you have a reserv”—a thought snatched out of midair by Gabriel Aiello, the owner, as if he were capturing a horsefly. With hearty greetings, Aiello gave the Zagats a tour of the dining room (marking the spots where Sydney Pollack and Bill Keller had eaten, separately, earlier that evening), and then led them to the bar for complimentary blood-orange bellinis and hot chocolate. Tim Zagat remarked, “Gabriel’s makes the best hot chocolate in New York.”

The Zagats’ adherence to the wisdom of crowds—an Internet Age idea they pioneered before there was an Internet—is not so much a business strategy as a guiding philosophy. The Zagats have their own opinions about restaurants, of course. But ever since they began circulating early surveys among their close friends, they have enjoyed deferring to the advice of avid diners; one of Tim’s favorite phrases is, “I would never replace Einstein with 100 physicists, but I would replace a restaurant critic with a hundred customers.” Ask him where to find the best French cuisine in New York and he’ll tell you that Zagat readers point to Le Bernardin, on West 51st St., which scores a 28 out of a possible 30 for food—though he prefers La Grenouille, which scored a point lower. * Ask Zagat about the Michelin Guide, which uses “professionally trained inspectors” rather than proles, and he’ll say, “If I’d written the Michelin Guide to hurt Michelin, I couldn’t have done a better job.”

After more than four hours on the hoof, the Zagats arrived in the Meatpacking District, at 10th Ave. between 15th and 16th Streets—a Bermuda Triangle of fine dining demarcated by “over-the-top” Morimoto, “amazing, high-ceilinged” Craftsteak, and Mario Batali’s “ultra-civilized” Del Posto. The Zagats selected the latter for dinner, and moments after they entered the door (without a reservation) they were met by the co-owner Lidia Bastianich and given a quiet table in the dining room. After dinner, Zagat was cornered by a man who was speaking excitably in Italian. Zagat could not quite make out what he was saying, but the gist of it seemed to be that the Italian was involved in the food industry back home, and his life had been touched in some small but important way by the Zagat food guides. Greeting Zagat was an honor on par with meeting the renowned Batali, and the man waved over his friends, and soon a dozen Italians were chirping and smiling at Zagat. Zagat posed for photographs and, when the Italians’ wonderment was exhausted, he handed them all Zagat guides.

Correction, Feb. 5, 2007: An earlier version of this article misstated a Tim Zagat quote. The highest-scoring French restaurant in the Zagat survey is Le Bernardin, not Daniel. (Return  to the corrected sentence.)