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Food Critic Essay, Research Paper


With the proliferation of dining guides, there’s no shortage of restaurant reviews out there. But how reliable is the information customers are getting?

First, a moment of realization and then panic spreads through the restaurant, one of Manhattan’s toniest, from the front of the house to the back and downstairs to the basement where the chef is yelling the ear off of some poor, unwitting reservationist. “How did this happen?!?” he screams. “The Zagats are here and they’re not on the list! My god, they’re going to have to wait now, like regular customers!”

Fortunately for the quivering clerk, the aforementioned scene doesn’t really play out in a restaurant basement, but on a stage, during a performance of Fully Committed, a hit comedy that has been running off-Broadway for nearly a year. If the name Zagat means nothing to you, then you probably don’t get the joke. If you own a restaurant in a major American city and the name still means nothing to you, then, well, you really don’t get it.

The Zagats, Tim and Nina, are well-known for the eponymous, burgundy-colored dining guides they publish-compendiums of customer reviews of eateries from fine-dining shrines to local pizza joints-which can be found sticking out of the purses and pockets of restaurant patrons across the country. The Zagat Survey is just part of an entire movement of restaurant guides-in print and increasingly on the internet-that has been feeding off the great dining revolution of the late 20th century, and in many ways, fueling it.

But even as these guides signal the ongoing boom in dining out, their proliferation is raising some serious questions for restaurant operators, and could even be hurting their business in ways they can’t see. Because the evaluations presented in today’s dining guides, overwhelmingly, are not the opinions of trained critics, journalists, or chefs, but the unknown, hungry masses. And while the Zagat reviews undergo an exhaustive process that the company says balances good opinions with bad, the methods of other guides are lesser known, prompting some to question the fairness of the picture painted.

Nowhere does that question loom larger than the internet, where scores of restaurant review sites insure that just about every restaurant is now rated somewhere-and by anyone who wants to voice an opinion. But who are these people? In an age where everyone, literally, is a critic, is there anything to stop one troublemaker-or even competing restaurateurs-from wrecking a place’s reputation with an opinion cloaked in legitimacy? There are, of course, plenty who support this new “democratic” approach to reviewing (contending that many opinions are bound to be better than just one), but others fear that the rise of the populist review might only be adding to their operational headaches.

“Yes, it’s great that there’s more information about restaurants out there, but there’s really no way to know who’s talking about you,” complains Brad Ogden, chef/owner of the upscale Lark Creek Inn near San Francisco. “I could go online, give myself a fake name, choose a bunch of restaurants and put four stars next to them-and there you go.”

“Those outlets can be just as powerful as a prominent review in terms of sparking a fire,” says New York restaurateur Danny Meyer, owner of such hot spots as Union Square Cafe and Gramercy Tavern. “It’s something you really have to keep your eye on. It’s almost like playing dodge ball and you’ve got a whole bunch more people throwing at you.”

For years, dining guides just meant travel guides (or small sections of travel guides) where the author starred a few of his or her favorite (usually upscale) restaurants; no real criticism and no real surprises. Actual restaurant reviews were left to newspapers, to people who supposedly knew what they were talking about.

Or perhaps they didn’t, thought Tim Zagat (that’s Za-GAT”; rhymes with “the cat”), who, after discussing the issue with his wife and their friends over several glasses of wine, decided to survey them and print the results. “It was a very simple idea,” he says of the first guide of New York City restaurants-a mere 75 of them-produced in 1979. “One hundred or 200 people were more likely to be accurate about a restaurant than one.”

The idea caught on. After the 1985 edition started selling 75,000 copies a month, Nina and Tim left their jobs as corporate lawyers to run their “hobby” as a full-time business. Today, Zagat Surveys in 45 cities around the world rate more than 35,000 restaurants. It remains the best-selling dining guide in many major cities.

The Zagat system, by using customer surveys to rate restaurants by food, decor and service and index them by different categories, democratizes the review process and fills a role critics can’t, Tim Zagat says. “What we’re really doing is giving each restaurant a free market survey of their own customers,” he says.

Others have capitalized on similar formats. Bob Sehlinger, for example, supplements critic-written reviews with customer opinions in his Eclectic Gourmet Guides that are now available for eight cities. “The voices don’t always agree, and that’s just the point. Readers need to see that to make the most informed decision.”

And indeed, some restaurateurs see significant advantages to being pondered and critiqued by multiple voices. “Any new way people can find out about us, that’s great,” says Michael Bowling, proprietor of Jupiter Grill in Louisville, KY. Other operators regard the reviews as real business resources. As Meyer points out, one-time reviews in newspapers can’t account for the fact that restaurants are organic entities which change dramatically over time. And with so many new restaurants opening, reviewers rarely have time to revisit a long-standing establishment. Guidebooks which are updated annually-or web sites, updated constantly-fill the void.

“If 7,000 people tell us that we either improved or didn’t improve in a certain area, that’s very helpful,” Meyer says, referring to the number of diners who rated his Union Square Cafe in this year’s Zagat. “7,000 opinions count.”

But 7,000 opinions from people on the street don’t always make for a fair review, say some skeptics. Sheer numbers don’t necessarily insure accuracy.

“The minute you start democratizing, you dilute the credibility of the commentary,” complains Gene Bourg, a New Orleans-based food writer and former restaurant critic of the New Orleans Times-Picayune.

“A guidebook should give an informed perspective,” says Andr Gayot, founder of Gayot Restaurant Guides, which started in France in 1970 and now publishes annual editions for 25 American cities, with an online arm-Gayot.com-that covers 60 cities in the U.S. “Not everyone shares our [critics'] opinions of certain restaurants or chefs, but still it gives an idea of what a restaurant is really like.”

Even in a structured, statistically controlled format like Zagat’s, many still question the reliability of a group of amateurs-especially when the critical mass is a little light. Bourg says the large survey format might work in New York or L.A. “Otherwise, I think the local editors really need to distill the ballots based on their own experience,” he says. “The problem I have with Zagat is that there are too many incongruities from too small a sample.” Compared to New York’s 19,000, the New Orleans Zagat is based on only 1,400 surveys. (And even in New York, not every restaurant receives the 7,000 comments attracted by Meyer’s Union Square Cafe, Zagat’s most popular restaurant.)

For its part, Zagat has developed a rather meticulous process for distilling thousands of opinions into a balanced review. Number ratings are computed on a standardized scale. Each guide is overseen by a local editor who makes sure the comments chosen for publication fairly reflect the statistical results, and include remarks from fans and detractors alike. Other guides, especially on the internet, are not nearly as well-regulated or even-handed.

Still others have come to question the selection process-how some restaurants end up making the cut and others get ignored. Zagat, obviously, relies on consumer write-ins. Sehlinger says Eclectic Gourmet authors are given guidelines, but are basically free to decide which restaurants they want to include. On the web, some sites, such as Dine123.com and Food.com, do in fact give preferential billing to restaurants that pay for it.

At Foodline.com, a site that also sells online reservation services to restaurants, managing editor Kelly Horan Jones is adamant about the integrity of the content. “It’s made me a big pain in the ass to the company,” she says. “I feel a responsibility to let our readers know about all places, regardless of whether we’re taking their money.”

Then there’s the matter of perspective. The typical Zagat diner, for example, is likely to be about 40 years old, college-educated with an annual income over $100,000, someone who travels frequently and eats out about four times a week, in about 40 different restaurants a year. That’s not, say some restaurateurs, typical of the diners in their restaurants, particularly national casual-dining chains.

T.G.I. Friday’s, for example, takes a beating in the New York City book: “Swanson’s TV dinner reheated,” said the 1999 review, which also likened the restaurant to “a sign of the apocalypse” and topped it all off with “puhleeze, this is NY, not Dubuque.”

“The problem is they compare apples and oranges,” says Rob Meyne, executive director of communications for Carlson Restaurants Worldwide, Friday’s parent. “When the Washington Zagat would rank us against Jean-Louis [Palladin] at the Watergate, it didn’t make a lot of sense.”

Tim Zagat defends his voters’ diverse tastes. “The fact that you are able to eat at Alain Ducasse doesn’t mean that you don’t go to McDonald’s or a pizza joint,” he says.

Of course, even those at the highest end of the spectrum have taken umbrage with Zagat. In 1999, New York’s Sirio Maccioni furiously broke off relations when his famed Le Cirque was outscored by tiny Soup Kitchen Int’l (the inspiration for the “Soup Nazi” character on TV’s Seinfeld). And Jean-Georges Vongerichten, devastated when he lost a single rating point, returned his award as the prior year’s best new restaurant (he later asked for it back).

Whatever threat guidebooks may pose to the “accurate” review process, the internet has raised the stakes. Its range, and, by association, its influence, is potentially limitless. And with more and more people turning to the web for everything from airline tickets to mortgages, it’s no surprise that a spate of restaurant review sites-brimming with “public” opinions-has cropped up in recent years. But sometimes it’s hard to know where the opinions come from, or what separates a reputable site from a shady one.

Most sites claim their primary purpose is to inform, but the line between providing information and providing opinions is easily blurred. The most comprehensive site, in terms of listings, is probably RestaurantRow.com, which was launched in 1997 with the goal of cataloging as many restaurants with as much information as possible to “power the dining decision,” according to CEO Jim Gurfein. The current tally is 110,000 restaurants in 9,000 cities worldwide.

Ironically the site, which gets about 500,000 unique hits a month, does not post reviews or ratings of restaurants, just information like hours, menus, and photos of dining rooms. Yet RestaurantRow.com has become seen as an authoritative source, with hundreds of users every month contacting them over e-mail or by phone looking for recommendations. “We try to let people decide on their own, but if they turn to us and ask for that recommendation, we’re going to give it to them,” says Gurfein. “We find we have a great deal of influence now, and it’s growing.”

Moreover, the influence that some review sites may have over others is also a matter of strategic alliances they’ve formed-meaning that opinions about a given restaurant can be dictated by something as arbitrary as the search engine a potential customer is using. RestaurantRow.com, for instance, links directly to Alta Vista. Cuisinenet.com also posts its customer reviews through Yahoo. Citysearch.com, Sidewalk.com and Evite.com get their restaurant info from Foodline.com, a partner of Zagat.com. Gayot.com provides the content for Digitalcity.com and AOL.

Information dispersed by established review sites is one thing, but what increasingly troubles some is the fact that customers seeking information on their places aren’t just turning to sites, but to restaurant-themed chat boards, where the “review” process might be little more than unregulated banter or even outright lies. “If you’ve ever read restaurant discussion on the internet anywhere, it’s awful,” says Jim Leff, a freelance reviewer and author of one of the Eclectic Gourmet Guides. “Mostly, it’s just a lot of people arguing back and forth.”

Leff has tried to upgrade the quality of free-flowing information about restaurants by launching Chowhound.com, which specifically targets “elite eaters.” Chowhound doesn’t contain a restaurant database, but its 30,000 daily visitors can read reviews by Leff and “other chowhounds-like people who have tried every sushi in New York,” Leff says.

As more and more voices join the fray, some wonder if these guides protect themselves-and restaurants – from those “amateur critics” who are really out to promote an agenda, taint a restaurant or just plain lie for no good reason.

Zagat says his book editors rely on several statistical controls and procedures to guard against ballot-stuffing (he declined to get more specific on the record, lest public knowledge of the measures undermine their effectiveness). However, he admits no safeguard is currently in place on Zagat.com, where more than 400,000 users registered between May 1999 and February 2000. “There are definitely people-and there are restaurants-who have tried to taint the results,” Zagat says.

Foodline.com’s Horan Jones says suspect postings pop up all the time. Often, extremely positive reviews are the work of restaurateurs, while overly negative postings sometimes come from competitors (she recalls two dueling Indian restaurants which constantly e-mailed comments such as “Food smells like vomit. Rats in the kitchen.”). Therefore, Horan Jones says, all opinions sent to her site are screened. A rating of all “tens” or all “ones,” for example, will be discarded.

But some sites leave it entirely up to their audience to patrol the postings. Gayot.com has a “community watch” function, which allows users to “to let us know about comments, which contain vulgar language, harassment, discussion of illegal activity, or commercial solicitation.”

Sometimes, what’s being posted on the internet may be perfectly positive-but untrue. “When I was at Bayard’s [in New York], I remember one site that listed us as ‘a wonderful French-Moroccan’-we’re French-American,” says Magdalena Spirydowicz, who’s now director of marketing for Metronome, a mid-scale Mediterranean in New York City.

Amid all the controversy surrounding the influence of restaurant guides, their growth has caught even their creators by surprise. “This was never supposed to be a business,” says Tim Zagat. “We happen to have caught that wave-in some ways, ridden the wave, and maybe in some small way, added to the wave.”

And with the proliferation of guides showing no signs of slowing, that wave is only likely to continue to grow. Yet some restaurateurs, like New York’s Danny Meyer, wonder when enough will be enough-or if enough is right now. “There comes a point when there’s just too much information about restaurants,” he says. “The public has become so much more savvy on its own. They don’t need to be told what to do, where to go.”

Even if they are just regular customers.

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