Epicurean Empire

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In May of 1968, the streets of Paris were brimming with riots and revolution. “Every factory and office building was taken over. There were red flags for communists and black flags for anarchists over the doors. The whole society stopped,” explains Tim Zagat, the stentorian-voiced co-founder of the successful, ahead-of-their-time Zagat restaurant survey guides. “Every time I’d come home on the Metro I would be tear-gassed,” adds his wife, the company’s co-founder Nina Zagat.

Not exactly the usual expat-inspiring, Yves Montand-delivered Parisian magique, but the Zagats went with it nevertheless. In the midst of upheaval and chaos on the Left Bank, the pair – then young solicitors – began planting the seeds for their own ratings revolution: a restaurant guide series for the people, by the people.

Their personal list of eateries, an aggregate of self-, friend- and guide-appointed top spots, was the harbinger for a multi-million dollar business. Decades later, they haven’t forgotten Paris, but are meeting journalists like me at their tranquil and genteel suite at the Connaught Hotel. The famous burgundy Zagat guidebook has firmly taken its place in the ranks of pop culture iconography with ‘cameos’ in films including American Psycho. Today, it also features hotel, nightlife and shopping reviews, and is pretty much the US response to Europe’s precious Michelin Guides.

But where the French red guide books take into consideration the opinions of a princely few, Zagat has always looked to the masses – of diners, that is – to provide input (then pooled together the most oft-repeated comments and crafted them into pithy reviews). Food, décor and service are evaluated separately.

The democratised approach to reviews, which the Zagats had conceived in sixties Paris, took root as their hobby back in seventies New York. They were members of a New York wine group lorded over by a “distinguished art dealer”. “One night, after his tenth glass of wine, he started castigating the then restaurant critic for the New York Times,” recalls Tim. “When he got through, I suggested we all do a [restaurant]survey of all our friends.”

Restaurant polling and reviewing quickly became the Zagats’ favourite activity extracurricular to law practice. As it grew, friends of friends chimed in as well. “Some people play tennis, some people play golf, and we played restaurant guide,” says Tim. In the early days, they jumped from 40,000 copies a year to 75,000 copies a month. “We started making more money out of our hobby than we were through practising law, and we were not underpaid as lawyers,” adds Tim.

Still, in the eighties when the husband-and-wife team decided to take their hobby to the next level by pitching their review book to publishers, Tim says: “we were being turned down for all the reasons we are successful today.” Nowadays, it is precisely the brand’s localised, user-generated, mobile-ready content that made them the perfect hot property for Google. The tech Titan recently acquired Zagat for an estimated $125 million to help it combat the likes of Open Table and Yelp! The sure-to-be unstoppable team of the Zagats and Google (already cornily pet-named ZaGoogle online), will continue to bring its reviews to cities including Toronto, Beijing, Tokyo, Los Angeles, and of course London.

Only nowadays the Epicurean empire has obviously grown from its humble days as a Parisian daydream, and a local New York sensation. The Zagat 2012 London Restaurants guide covers a whopping 1,187 eateries in Greater London as voted on by 5,497 diners (Note: diners can read reviews and contribute to the surveys at Zagat.com).

Oddly enough, 65% of those polled were men. “We try to get with the kind of representation that reflects who is actually eating in this restaurant,” says Tim, “In London the fact is that more men are eating out than women.” (So, that’s where all the fine lads disappear to…)

A privy look inside the 2012 London guide also reveals The Wolseley and The Ledbury to be on top (for ‘Most Popular’ and ‘Top Food’ respectively). The local dining scene is also hotter than ever with a 37% higher approval rating than last year. Unfortunately prices are also on fire, with a significant increase in the cost of eating out (up 6.3% to an average of £43.40 a meal).

Another sore point is service, which 73% of London diners cited as a significant irritant. According to the gourmand gurus, that’s not a predicament unique to London; it’s a global restaurant industry-wide epidemic. Tim has a theory: “Over the last 30 years or more, cooking schools have made chefs professionals and have given them a certain amount of respect because they have degrees, and in fact chefs have become celebrities.” This has not been the case for waitstaff. He laments, “Local people do not consider it to be a respectable profession and the only I way I see of making it that is to start having schools.”

That’s not a bad idea. Could Tim and Nina Zagat be onto something again? They did, after all, brainstorm the idea for a petite, democratised guide book in the feral streets of sixties Paris. Who could rule out another stroke of genius wafting from the armchairs of their swanky suite at London’s Connaught?

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