If Zagat's sucks, is there a credible guide?
- Jessica Ritz
The pages of this site have hosted many a rant against Zagat guides. Are there any *bound* guides that are more aligned with the Chowhound "ideology" and method? If New York has Ed Levine, who do we have who's published books about So Cali eats? I have a pile of Jonathan Gold columns and various reviews from assorted publications which is fine and good. However, I'd rather have a somewhat comprehensive reference tool for those times I don't feel like logging on or digging through clippings files. Any folks out there own a publishing company? Maybe I just need to get more organized...
While many people here like to do virtual bodyslams on Tim and Nina on this board, I happen to think Zagat can be a very useful tool. I buy a copy of it every year for NY and NJ, and it really helps to highlight the more higher profile restaurants in any particular neighborhood that you may be in.
Be it as it may you have to accept Zagat for what it is -- the opinions of the least common denominator, not necessarily the opinons of chowhounds. Plus, the reviews can be out of date, and a restaurant that may have once been a great place may now be hopelessly downhill. However more often than not I find it to be a fairly accurate snapshot of fine dining.
By the way -- Jonathan Gold has a new book coming out in November all on dining in Los Angeles -- you can do a search on Amazon and pre-order it.
re: Jason "sheilds up" Perlow
Publishing any guide and keeping it current is a massive and expensive task - and I speak from experience here. If the author/publisher is going to keep their credibility they have to pay a heap of money for meals which are taken anonymously by the reviewers. Given that even a large and dedicated team trying to do a comprehensive overview of the LA area would have to take several months for the task, many of the restaurants reviewed for the guide will have changed menu, management, or chef by the time of publication - if they haven't closed outright. Things move so fast here that it is inevitable that a lot of time and money are wasted. Given the high upfront money that a guide publisher must invest in writer's salaries, meals, publishing costs, distribution, and promotion, it's amazing that any guides get published at all.
Zagat's guides avoid the high upfront costs by making their readers their reviewers, and in doing so they are a fairly accurate meter of popular opinion. They are also subject to manipulation by restaurant owners/employees and their friends. I know that this happens with the Zagat Guides, as it does for every other type of poll which allows people to nominate and rate anything. In the local area, the Easy Reader runs a "reader's choice" edition each year, and several local restaurants keep copies of the nomination surveys at the counter. If a customer says they had an enjoyable meal, the waiters offer the form - if not, they don't, thus skewing the results in their favor. I am the dining editor of the Easy Reader, and every year the publisher and I try to figure out what to do. Do we figure that everybody probably cheats equally, so it's fair? If we get several nominations in the same handwriting, or with the exact same text including misspellings, do we throw them all out? Or all but one of them, since even a cheater gets one vote? The publishers of the Zagat Guide have the same problem, but a hundred times bigger. We are publishing a local weekly paper, Zagat a bound guide that will be sold nationally, and restaurateurs therefore have a much greater incentive to suborn the Zagat guide. I do not know what, if anything, the Zagat publishers do to try to even up the score, and I'm sure that they won't tell me if I asked - if their way of detecting cheating was common knowledge, then the cheaters will figure out a way around it.
In any case the Zagat guide has its uses - I keep a copy in my car for those times when I'm in an unfamiliar area and am looking for something more informative than the yellow pages. It isn't perfect, it could definitely be improved, but it's better than nothing.
P.S. - The other guide that I like is Gault Millau's, which is done in the traditional manner with anonymous reviews. They only review a handfull of places compared to the Zagat Guide, but are worth consulting because they can't be bought, and the writers are thoughtful and apply meaningful standards to their subjects.
re: Richard Foss
Zagat's is a simplistic compendium of readers'
opinion of the restaurant scene. It started with
humble beginings in NYC and expanded.
With any guide that depends on input based on structured feedback. it is gonna be questioned.
Zagat's helps folks who do not have *this* forum. i.e
to get info on a restaurant that closed since last survey.
Law of Averages: Zagat's does that just fine. Beyond that, you have to use extra infomation. Zagat's has a role - to provide baseline info.
Zagat's is participatory in its survey - Just as chowhound is. That is where the similarities end.
This group does not try to rank or distill opinion and
rank them - Zagat does.
Zagat's is to old-economy "guides" what chowhound.com
will become to new-economy - The definitive source.
I've seen the proofs of Jonathan Gold's upcoming LA guide, and it's absolutely terrific (of course). We'll definitely let you know the second it's out, and publish a review, to boot.
FWIW, on our drawing board are a series of Chowhound guidebooks. Bound and everything. With some clever new twists, publishing-wise. Can't talk about it. Will let you all know, though.
The best guide I'm aware of, Linda Burum's: A Guide to Ethnic Food in Los Angeles : Restaurants, Markets, Bakeries, Specialty Shops for the Food of Cambodia, China, Ethiopia, Greece, Guatemala, etc.
Alas, it is out of print, but worth seeking out. Even though many shops and restaurants will have folded or deteriorated, it can point you out to many neighborhoods where you can find fresher alternatives.
Very exciting news that Jonathan Gold is going to have a guide to L.A. restaurants!
I showed up in town, I snagged a guide called Hungry?, which is all places to go below $10, written by a group of named, dedicated folk.
I've had fair success with it - far better than the LA Zag's, which seems far, far less discerning than other Zag's. Some of the reviewers seem to be more hipness-of-dive-oriented than food-lovin' oriented, but others are utter quality. Found a few wonders in there.