The word on where folks like to eat

Zagat provides forum for fans of good food

September 25, 2002|By Megan H. Ryan | Megan H. Ryan,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Europe has the Michelin Guide. Travelers have Frommer's. But diners who want to know what folks like them think about restaurants in their area turn to Zagat Survey - dark-red paperback rating guides that editors call "organized word-of-mouth."

The latest Zagat (zuh-GAT) guide to Washington, D.C./Baltimore restaurants was released this month. Top honors went to the Charleston and other perennial favorites: Prime Rib, Tio Pepe and Helmand.

The guides are the brainchild of Nina and Tim Zagat, former New York City lawyers who were always looking for just the right restaurant for their clients.

They kept their own lists of good eats in the city and soon found their notes were being copied and used by others. The Zagats turned their passion for good food into a full-time publishing enterprise with restaurant guides in nearly all major U.S. cities.

The Washington, D.C./Baltimore guide is continuously found in the top 10 on the Washington Post best-sellers list, and in recent years, Zagat has expanded into the European dining scene with its Paris guide, published in both French and English.

Each Zagat guide is locally edited, using responses from locally distributed surveys and compiled by individuals who reside in the city for which the book will be published.

In Baltimore, Annapolis and Frederick the editing falls to Marty Katz, a Northwest Baltimore resident who has been involved in publishing the guides for six years. He works with Olga Boikess, who handles the reviews of the restaurants in Washington, D.C., and its suburbs.

To compile the Zagat guide, Katz and his "helpful hands" distribute "many thousands" of dining surveys during the winter months. While the survey-distribution numbers are considered proprietary information, in the 2003 Zagat guide, the publishers said that 4,300 people had participated in the ranking of restaurants in the Washington, D.C./Baltimore guide.

Because the Zagat guides are user-based indexes, Katz knows the quality of the reviews he reads becomes more reliable as more foodies take the time to fill out the surveys. So Katz goes wherever restaurant diners may be found - at farmers' markets, the symphony, art festivals, zydeco dances and bookstores off the beaten path.

Katz selects these locations based on a common theme: He's looking for consumers who know quality. The Waverly Farmers' Market during the winter months is the kind of place Katz likes to find prospective reviewers. There are few shoppers, but the ones who will brave the cold are die-hard market goers.

On any given Saturday morning in the months of January through March, you can find him there, wearing his baseball cap and greeting shoppers with a question, "Want to be a restaurant reviewer? You get a free book."

Maybe it's the "free book" part of Katz's spiel that makes shoppers stop. But more likely, it's the opportunity to rant and rave or extol the virtues of their Baltimore dining experiences.

And Katz hears it all. "I can be speaking with someone who may not be emotional about other subjects, but talk to them about food and they get very animated. Baltimore diners clearly have a personal stake in this. They have a lot of history in their neighborhoods, and talking to individuals about their food is emotional."

These are people who know restaurants and eat out frequently. The diners who completed Zagat surveys for the 2003 Washington, D.C./Baltimore guide consumed (collectively) more than 586,000 meals in the last year.

"I want to know where people like to eat," Katz says. "All kinds of people ... artists, people from Towson, food-centric individuals. We try to make a guide that tells visitors what they can expect, while warning them of bad food and introducing them to Baltimore's new or undiscovered places."

Reviewers are asked to rate restaurants on food, decor, service and cost on a point system of 0 to 30 (with 30 being a "near-perfect experience"). The results are tabulated by a third-party firm, leaving no opportunity for the editors to manipulate the numbers.

Katz encourages diners to say exactly what's on their mind. That can make for some very interesting reading and quite a hefty editing assignment. The final review for any given restaurant looks like a paragraph of anonymous quotes strung together to paint a picture. One can get a sense from this blurb from the 2003 guide:

"They know their fish" at this "attractive" "see-and-be seen" Greek-Med scene in Fells Point, and it's so "amazingly fresh" "it's worth the effort to try to find a parking place," especially if you can "hold court out on the lovely patio"; detractors note, though, that "reservations aren't honored on time," "it's noisy in the extreme" and the staff can be "rude" (and "do you need a secret code to get decent service here?"); the bottom line: the finny fare is "a treat, but expect to pay for it" in more ways than one.

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