Wednesday, December 01, 2004

Zagat: The Little Red Book from Hell

Sorry to go off on a rant, but I feel I must address an issue that has bubbling in my brain for far too long. I'm speaking, of course, about the apparent love affair New Yorkers have with the Zagat Restaurant Guide. The ubiquitous maroon book pokes out of faux Fendi bags, rests in the hands of nervous middle-aged couples on the downtown F train, is Xeroxed and taped to restaurant windows, and sits piled chest-high in Borders and Barnes & Nobles across the city. How many of us have gotten a Zagat guide as a birthday or Christmas present – or worse, a "Welcome to New York" gift?

Here me now: Zagat books are worthless. I would take Dr. Zizmor's culinary advice before consulting one of them. Hell, I'd sooner ask that homeless guy by my office who's always diving into the trashcan for an afternoon snack.

This is how it works. By definition, a Zagat book is not a professional guide. The "reviews" – and I use that term loosely – are not written by professional food critics; people who have studied cooking (and writing) for years, who go to hundreds of restaurants repeatedly and who make a point of thoroughly investigating the establishments they patronize. No, Zagat write-ups are complied from online postings made by members of the general public. Some biddy gives "Chez Martin" a bad review because she really wanted to go to Appleby's but it was closed for fumigation? Oh well. Some jerk complains about poor service because the waiter didn't step-and-fetch fast enough? Too bad, massuh sir.

Editors take these inane musings (one wonders how contributors can utilize the keyboard with their fat, greasy fingers) and try to sew together a cohesive opinion about a given eatery. The comments are all given equal weight, even though people tend only to fill them out when they are unhappy or drunk. The resulting write-ups are nothing more than ellipse-ridden strings of clichés and puns that give no specific notion of the establishment.

"This gem of a hash house…brings home the bacon…with a great menu…Try the margaritas!"

What are the specialties of the house? Where did the chef study? Would it be a good place for a wedding reception? "I dunno," would be the "author's" likely reply.

Categories like cleanliness, service and atmosphere are assigned numerical values based on a 30-point scale. Nothing says detail like a number grade, right?

The icing on the cake, as it were, is the company itself. Tim and Nina Zagat, who to my knowledge still oversee the firm, are Yale-educated lawyers (I get all my dining advice from litigators, don't you?) who started their namesake book series in 1979. From all accounts, they are total douches.

I have heard first-hand how management demeans and disrespects its editors, who are often forced to make up quotes and comments for places nobody ventures to. ("I ain't goin' to no French restaurant. Those peoples is un-American!") Staffers are overworked and underpaid and freelancers must fight tooth and nail to get their checks. Such is the cult of Zagat that there's a line of eager would-be replacements waiting to fill their positions.

There are so many good restaurant reviews out there. The New York Times, New York magazine, Time Out and other publications release annual dining guides. Their writers, who go to restaurants for a living, actually make an effort to seek out smaller, out-of-the-way places and aren't afraid to try new cuisines.

Let's say we stop the madness now and buy one of them for Christmas instead. Okay? Or better yet, get off your lazy ass and try cooking for a change. Your oven is good for more than just storing books and CDs.


At 4:38 PM, Blogger sam the subversive said...

Well said. I deplore Zagats. What bugs me more is NY1 using them as a basis for their own reviews.


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