My Take on Zagat

In a recent post, I alluded to the fact that the Zagat books lead to a form of food snobbery. A few people have taken me to task for this, with most citing the fact that the books are based off of a large segment of consumer opinions rather than that of a select few, and thus is more of a socialist institution than that of the elite (or something to that effect. Forgive me, as the caffeine has yet to settle in).

I’m going to avoid the infamous bits about the guidebooks, and instead focus on my first insight that interpretations of the Zagat Book lead to some very silly behaviors.

This must have been around 2000 or so, while I was still living in the Washington D.C. area. For those who are from the region, most know it to be both a big restaurant town, but perhaps not a thoroughly knowledgeable one. I chalk this up to the fact that for many residents, D.C. is a temporary stay, depending upon the administration and other various politicos that are there for short periods of times.

My friends and I were looking forward to going out to eat at our favorite Italian place in Adams Morgan and found, to our surprise, a line going out the door. This was odd, as we had never encountered a line of this length there before, as previously one could get a table with a wait of no longer than fifteen minutes, even on a busy Friday night. When we went in to inquire on the length of the wait with the line out of the door, we were told ninety minutes. Ninety! When we asked why the suddenly popularity, the beleaguered hostess said to us “Zagat came last week.” Apparently they had scored well, well enough to have a sudden and dramatic increase of popularity.

Huddling with my friends to decide our next course of action, we decided upon having a meal at a very nice Indian place a few blocks to the south. Within five minutes we were there, and another five found us sitting at a table, anticipating a meal that would be quite wonderful.

Here’s the point. Waiting ninety minutes for a seat for a restaurant is asinine.It is doubly-so when there are dozens of other of equal quality alternatives within walking distance.

Now is it Zagat’s fault that people will wait ninety minutes, most of it outside, in order to have a decent plate of Risotto Milanese? Of course not. But where were these people a month prior, when the food was just as good (if not better, as the restaurant didn’t have to deal with the strain of an excess crowd)? Where were these “food aficionados” in regard to the wonderful Indian place we settled at, where the food was equally as good, but was off of the Zagat radar?

Again, this isn’t Zagat’s fault, but the readers of Zagat’s that cause this dissonance. Guidebooks make people do weird things. A place that was nearly forgotten about can become an overnight sensation. This is a good thing.

But conversely, it makes people forget or ignore other places that are almost right before them. And it means that some people would prefer to stand outside for an hour (or more) than go to another restaurant.