Food is their guide

The Zagats drop by to promote their survey, with, as always, a few meals on the side

August 13, 2006|By ELIZABETH LARGE | ELIZABETH LARGE,SUN RESTAURANT CRITIC

Sitting at a quiet table in Cafe Hon's side room, Nina and Tim Zagat have just gotten the bad news.

"We're all out of Hon buns," the waitress tells them.

These are the cinnamon buns as big as a baby's head, the signature dish of the Hamp-den eatery. The publishers of the slim, burgundy-colored, instantly recognizable Zagat restaurant guides have dropped in for an old-fashioned Baltimore breakfast.

Only their definition of breakfast isn't the same as most people's.

The Zagats are in Baltimore for one day only -- really half a day -- to promote the just-published 2007 Zagat Washington D.C. / Baltimore Survey. After an early morning interview at Fox television, the guide's local editor, Marty Katz, has brought them to Cafe Hon (Zagat rating: 15 out of 30 for food). They then plan to fit in a visit to Faidley's Seafood in the Lexington Market (Zagat rating: 25) before a press lunch at Iggies, an upscale pizza parlor in Mount Vernon (Zagat rating: 23). They will catch a train back to New York at 1:30 p.m. -- if they are still upright.

"Ever since Nina and I agreed I needed to lose weight," says Tim Zagat, who is not a small man, "I haven't been eating this kind of meal. My usual breakfast is blueberries and coffee. Or bran cereal."

A disbelieving silence falls over the table. In front of the Zagats, Katz, and publicist Tiffany Barbalato are a chocolate milkshake, a lemonade, two omelets with toast, hash browns and crisp bacon, a side order of English muffins, a side order of extra-crisp bacon, gingerbread pancakes, blueberry pancakes, and not one but two helpings of bread pudding. With whipped cream.

At 66, Tim Zagat -- rhymes with "the cat" -- is probably the most famous restaurant non-critic in the world. (He and his wife say they don't impose their opinions on the guides.) He's a tall, striking man with a full head of white hair and a figure that shows he likes his work, which involves eating out hundreds of times a year.

He doesn't hesitate to expound on any topic in his gravelly voice, from the Civil War to a Tennessee barbecue sauce ("It's so good you could pour it on your arm and eat it") to why Japanese restaurants have become more popular than Chinese restaurants in the U.S. (One reason is, he says, "You can't get chefs out of China. It's very hard.")

On the hottest day of the summer so far, he's formally dressed in a suit, white shirt and tie.

Next to him, Nina Zagat seems petite, although she can put away bread pudding with the best of them.

She seems to like Cafe Hon, but she doesn't have much to say about the food.

"You walk in and you know it's a place that's fun," she says politely.

Among Nina Zagat's other accomplishments, she's a serious cook who attended Le Cordon Bleu Ecole de Cuisine in Paris. At home, she says, she uses fresh, local and often organic ingredients, and the couple eats healthily. The problem is that they aren't home that much.

Nina is a few years younger than her husband, with a pretty face and soft brown hair. Her pale green pantsuit and sandals look stylish and comfortable in the heat. She has trouble getting a word in edgewise, but doesn't seem to mind. She's so quiet you wouldn't guess that she, like her husband, was a successful New York lawyer before they decided to compile a guide in which the public reviewed the restaurants and rated them.

Was a mimeograph

That was in 1979. What was once a mimeographed compilation of informal reviews has grown rapidly, with guides to restaurants in 83 cities; hotels, resorts and spas in 95 countries; and nightlife in 23 cities. Serious diners-out can also subscribe to the Web site, Zagat.com, for $19.95 a year. Surveys are now done online by 250,000 registered reviewers, according to the Zagats. You don't have to subscribe to the site to vote.

Here are some more numbers: For the latest Washington / Baltimore guide, 6,714 people took part in rating 1,051 restaurants. There were some surprises this time, with Clyde's in Columbia surpassing perennial non-chain favorites like Prime Rib and Charleston as "Most Popular." In fact, eight of the top 10 "Most Popular" in the 2007 guide are chains.

Tony Foreman, an owner of Charleston and other highly rated restaurants in Baltimore, says he isn't surprised that the survey is skewing younger, now that the voting has moved completely online. (Clyde's is known as much for its happening bar scene as its food.)

The guide "does a pretty good job of giving people a shortcut to learning a town," he says diplomatically. "It's very useful."

When Tim Zagat is questioned about the Clyde's result, he ponders and then says: "It could result in our changing the way we handle chains. A person in Baltimore voting for Clyde's or Ruth's Chris [the second "Most Popular"] could be thinking of any restaurant in the chain. The process inherently favors chains."

Next time, he says, the guides will probably list most popular chains and most popular stand-alone restaurants separately.

Dreams of Faidley's

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