Eat And Run Is Not His Style; It's More Like Sniff And Run Tim Zagat's Whirlwind Tour Of The Town Takes In 14 Restaurants - But No Food. He's Just Checking What Others Have Rated.

Posted: December 03, 1995

Minute one:

Tim Zagat walks in and sniffs.

Minute two: He looks around.

Minute three: Zagat picks up the menu.

Minute four: He orders nothing. And then he's done.

Next restaurant, please.

The very tall, very well-dressed and very rushed Zagat was touring Philadelphia. Fourteen restaurants in three hours, doing his five-minute total assessments.

That's Zagat (rhymes with the cat) as in the Zagat Restaurant Survey, the slim, red-cover guidebook that no self-respecting foodie would ever travel without.

His name graces the cover of the books that decree how restaurants rate in 35 cities across North America.

His influence is clear in the $10.95 guides, but technically, Zagat's books have nothing to do with him. Or his personal views about restaurants.

Essentially, the books are surveys filled out by thousands of local diners who rank restaurants' food, decor, service and cost on a purely subjective scale of 0-30.

Zagat doesn't even vote, but try to tell that to restaurant owners. The ones who recognized him during his flit through Center City rushed over to say hello.

They pumped his hand, they schmoozed, and they generally worked hard to get on the book king's good side.

And Zagat, who used to be a high-powered Manhattan lawyer before the little red books became his life, visibly welcomed the attention. What gourmand wouldn't?

Yet his trip was strictly business. Zagat was in town to check out a handful of restaurants listed in the 1996 Philadelphia guide, to eyeball them, take a whiff (he'll explain later), and check his quick impressions against the descriptions in the book.

He met up with Norma M. Gottlieb, who, along with Inquirer writer Michael Klein, is coeditor of the local edition. They hired a midnight-blue Cadillac and driver and hit the streets.

He had a schedule of restaurants neatly typed onto a two-page itinerary. He handed the list to the driver, with a warning: "I might want to stop suddenly. If I see someplace I like."

The first restaurant on the official list was Ruth's Chris (score: 23 for food, 20 for service), and the driver obediently pulled the car out of the Four Seasons Hotel driveway and down 19th street.

Zagat, sitting in the passenger seat, spoke as he surveyed the buildings through the window.

"What about that place?" he asked, pointing to a pastry shop. "Is it a restaurant?"

The driver slowed down.

"Well, they make cakes, but they aren't very good," Gottlieb said from the back seat. The car didn't stop.

Zagat's first walkabout was unscheduled. Treetops (not rated in the 1996 book because it switched chefs at the time of publication), the second-story, picture-window room at the Rittenhouse Hotel.

Zagat walked in, asked for a menu, glanced at it (didn't bat an eye at the $11.95 grilled chicken sandwich), and then walked over to one of the park-view

windows.

"Looks like an expense-account crowd," he determined. "Elegant, with a great view, but the menu didn't look very interesting. I'd say straightfoward, not an exciting culinary experience."

He was having fun, and laughed out loud when he explained that he never dreamed his hobby of going to restaurants and talking about them to friends would become a lucrative livelihood.

It all started in the late 1960s when Zagat and his wife, Nina, were young lawyers working in Paris.

The Zagats and a group of friends often complained that professional restaurant critics weren't always reliable.

"We said that it would be more reliable if 100 people who ate at the place rated it," Zagat recalled. "So we got out a sheet of paper and decided to start our own survey among our friends."

The two Ivy League lawyers eventually moved back to New York and continued the informal survey, adding new people to the list of surveyors. They published it themselves and gave the little books out as gifts.

"We were giving out about 5,000 copies for free," said Zagat.

He said Nina, a Wall Street lawyer, decided that spending almost $20,000 a year on a hobby wasn't such a wise move.

She suggested they turn it into a business.

The first guide came out in 1982, at the apex of the overindulgence of the Reagan era.

The guide sold like popcorn in a movie theater.

"We made $500,000 in one month," said Zagat. "I was well paid as a lawyer, but I couldn't ever make that much in a year."

Now the Zagats cull survey results from more than 75,000 volunteers in both Canada and the United States, ranking more than 20,000 restaurants. This year they've invaded Europe, with Paris and London guides.

The 1996 Philadelphia guide (which also includes eateries in Wilmington, southern New Jersey and the Pennsylvania suburbs) lists more than 800 restaurants.

Back in the car, Zagat's driver attempted once again to head toward Ruth's Chris, driving east on Locust Street.

He didn't get very far. Zagat insisted on stopping at the Magnolia Cafe, (score: 18 for food, 17 for service).

"Looks like a place for ladies who lunch," he said.

He didn't introduce himself, unless somebody asked. He didn't taste any food. That would slow him down.

"I really come just to make sure the restaurants are still around and get familiar with them myself," he said.

And to give places his sniff test.

"About 10 percent of restaurants, the minute you walk into them you are greeted with a disinfectant smell," he explained. "What's that tell you? Well, it tells you plenty. It's not very appealing."

As if he were walking through an arcade, Zagat couldn't help being sidetracked at every turn.

He hopped from Magnolia Cafe to Tequila's (score: 21 for food, 19 for service) and then to the Pleasant Peasant (score: 19 for food, 18 for service). None was on his schedule.

He slipped into Shiroi Hana (22 for food, 19 for service), and he worried that he'd be recognized at Bookbinders Seafood House (17 for food, 16 for service).

Zagat darted in and out of several more places. He lovingly lingered at only one - Striped Bass (25 for food, 23 for service).

"Doesn't it smell good?" he cooed.

"This is one of the fastest-rising in popularity. It's ranked number three behind Le Bec-Fin (29 for food, 28 for service) and the Fountain (29 for food, 28 for service), and it's only 16 months old," he said, with the glee of a man sharing a precious secret.

With 14 restaurants under his belt, Zagat looked at his watch and announced that he had to catch a train back to Manhattan.

He hadn't eaten lunch, and was tempted to slide into the McDonald's in 30th Street Station. Instead, he ordered a plate of fried chicken and barbecued ribs from Delilah's lunch stand there.

He bolted it down and dashed off to meet his train.

He had a dinner appointment in Manhattan to keep.

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