The Zagat Facade

Slate’s Bryan Curtis went out to dinner with Tim and Nina Zagat, and—brace yourself—it was awesome! It turns out that producing one of the most influential restaurant guidebooks in the country gives you all kinds of crazy access to delicious food, and you get treated like the major commercial factors that you are. (Or, as Curtis so eloquently puts it, surveying New York restaurants with the Zagats “is a bit like sailing the coast of South America with Ferdinand Magellan.”)

The problem with the story is that it’s a pretty poor value. After reading through it, you don’t really feel as though you know the Zagats any better than you did at the outset, nor do you know more about New York restaurants, how the Zagat guide really works, or just about anything else. Tim and Nina begin—and remain—opaquely pleasant throughout.

Very little light is shed upon their personal feelings or palettes, both of which were much more thoroughly explored in a controversial old episode of Iron Chef. Fans might remember the episode where the Zagats popped up as guest judges—they seemed to be viscerally and inappropriately craving a hamburger (or at least a good old-fashioned flank steak) instead of the wacky delicacies cooked up by chefs Masaharu Morimoto and Bobby Flay during their Rock Crab Battle.

The fascinating point about the Zagat guide, however, is how irrelevant the Zagats’ personal palettes are to the guides’ success. In fact, this wisdom-of-the-mob thing is a point that Curtis makes near the back end of his story, if rather quietly. Because it suggests that a more interesting article would have dining out with some of the multitudes of faceless diners whose clipped little comments (the “hearty vegetarian fare” will fill you up but “won’t empty your wallet”) actually make the Zagat empire thrive.

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