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Tim Zagat is an opinionated man.
Perhaps that's not surprising, given the fact that in 1979, he and his wife, Nina, founded the Zagat New York Restaurant Survey. Started as an informal restaurant rating system, derived from detailed questionnaires distributed among a group of friends (including the Rubell family, of Studio 54 and subsequent hotelier fame), the pocket-size guidebooks probably need little introduction. Today, the Zagats and their editors publish books in 45 international markets, polling more than 200,000 diners and using their quotes to contrive edgy, quick-witted, bottom-line comments on thousands of restaurants. If you don't know the Zagat Survey, chances are you don't get out much, and you're probably not reading this column anyway.
So while Zagat's views on the press -- "handmaidens of the terrorists" -- and chemical warfare -- "150 people die every day in car crashes, while only six people have died from anthrax" -- may not be palatable, they are typical. Zagat is a Harvard-educated man who at 61 years old, controls a virtual empire of opinions. He's also a large man, tall and well-fed, capable of dining at dozens of restaurants in an evening. As such, he needs to make quick judgments and stand by them, about restaurants, politics, and even people, which he does by handing them a riddle: "She's your mother's daughter, but she's not your sister. Who is she?" If you figure it out quickly enough, you're in. And no, I'm not telling you the answer.
Even less shocking is that Zagat thinks the service in South Florida restaurants is the worst in the country. After all, he's only standing by his local responders and readers. This year, in the just-published 2002 Miami/So. Florida Restaurant Survey, which covers 1,041 area eateries, 79 percent of complaints were about service, which is considerably higher than the national average. Overall, only 8 percent of us placed food complaints on the top of the list; another 7 percent registered our objections to noise levels. "I'd suggest that the restaurant industry pay more attention to the front of the house," Zagat emphasizes. "The [local] chefs have already become celebrities and well-respected in the industry. The front of the house is nowhere near that level."
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Of course, Zagat also has the solution to the problem: education. Start training centers along the lines of culinary schools. Most importantly, elevate the status of waiters through better pay and benefits. "You'll hear parents brag about their kids who are doctors and lawyers. But you'll never hear someone say with pride, "Yeah, my kid is a waiter.' It's not a respected profession," he observes.
It should be noted, however, that Zagat's readers and responders are not, for the most part, waiters. They are doctors and lawyers. They are the folks who dine out frequently and, well, who have the income from their white-collar jobs, who have the clients that enable them to write off their meals at the end of the tax season. That's because the questionnaires are distributed, for the most part, to big firms and businesses. Zagat says: "We target people who go to the better restaurant in the community. The questionnaires don't go in restaurants. They do go in places like gourmet markets, places where people eat out as a way of life."
Does this skew the results? Well, one hopes so. I know from my own New Times Best of Broward-Palm Beach experience that the readers are most likely to award Best French Fries to McDonald's -- the kind of nomination that the average food snob will just plain overlook. We all know McDonald's puts out some tasty, mainstream products that appeal to a wide segment of the population, or the conglomerate wouldn't be so damn big. But Zagat Survey responders and readers don't need that kind of information. We want to find out if high-end diners believe that Café L'Europe in Palm Beach, as the survey says, "delights all the senses" or if Martha's Supper Club in Hollywood is "overrated, overpriced, and over-the-hill."
Still, industry folk typically query the accuracy of the surveys and may not always agree with the sound-bite assessments. Zagat readily acknowledges his detractors. "The only legitimate test is your own experience," he admits.
So what have our experiences told us? That Chez Jean-Pierre Bistro in Palm Beach, winner of the Palm Beach County Top Food rating, has "quality that's not to be believed." That Darrel & Oliver's Café Maxx, awarded the blue ribbon for Top Food in Broward County, is an "orgasmic experience."
However, Zagat does issue one caveat: Don't confuse overall popularity of restaurants with the food rating. Popularity, he says, refers to the place "you like to go because you can take off your socks." Of the ten most popular restaurants in Broward County, six are chains, with Ruth's Chris Steakhouse leading the list. But out of a possible 30 food points, Ruth's Chris received only 25, while others, like Charley's Crab (number four) and Houston's (number six), both garnered a measly 21 points. Food-wise, none of these "Most Popular" eateries even made the top ten.
Fortunately, Zagat Surveys offers several judgment calls -- food, décor, service, and cost -- so you can tailor your expectations according to the numbers. Which doesn't mean you can swallow the blurbs in the 2002 Miami/So. Florida Restaurant Survey without occasionally having to ingest a little Zantac as well. Tim Zagat will understand. "You're the best test of any guidebook," he advises. "Read about your favorite places. If you agree with us, if we check out well, then trust us. If we don't check out, throw the book into the bay."