Where shall we eat tonight? If that's not the burning question of our time, it is surely one that torments those who want to win at the restaurant game. Where, then, can one turn for reliable, independent and authoritative advice? Where else, one might ask, but the nation's most popular guides, the Zagat surveys?
Between iconic wine-dark covers emblazoned with bold white type, each Zagat survey lists hundreds of restaurants, all rated on food, decor and service by a supposedly impartial and knowing public rather than by professional critics. The guides are nothing if not handy, with concise codes telling readers everything they need to know about a restaurant, except what to order. As the publishers do not reimburse their respondents for meals (although they do compensate each one with a copy of the final work), they can review more establishments than would be humanly or financially feasible for one person, or even one periodical. In last year's survey of New York City, 20,424 people rated nearly 2,000 places.
That unrivaled scope, and the democratic voting system, have earned the Zagat surveys many encomiums. According to its back-cover blurbs, the guide has been dubbed "the gastronomic bible" by the Wall Street Journal, "indispensable" by the Los Angeles Times and "the single best source of accurate dining information" by the Washington Post, which apparently doesn't mind undercutting its own critics. In this culture of celebrity, it is no surprise to find additional endorsements from Bill Cosby ("I love good food. That's why I love Zagat") and Andrew Lloyd Webber ("Obliterates the need for any other guide").