Last weekend, I was walking around Seattle with a copy of the current Zagat Guide in my back pocket. Like millions of tourists traveling around the nation, I was using Zagat to lead me to fine restaurants. A lot of people are eating mediocre meals and drinking bland commercial wine thanks to Zagat. While invariably Zagat will lead you to packed restaurants, only with difficulty will it lead you to adventurous cuisine and great wine lists – except if price is no object and you don’t need a guide for that.
The trouble with Zagat is that you have to read between the lines for the guide to lead you to a great (meaning exciting food) restaurant. If you eat by the numbers, Zagat will give you the massively successful corporate-group operations (in this case Seattle’s Wild Ginger) that deliver reliably efficient food with boring results. Now, I understand this is what the vast majority of the dining public is seeking and they are great business concepts; what they are not are exciting places to eat.
It is well to remember that Zagat is a simple popularity contest, not a thoughtful review by experienced dinners. The better marketed a restaurant is, the more customers they have and the more Zagat votes they get. When it comes to Zagat, more votes are most decidedly not always better. Zagat usually gives you only the restaurants too successful or famous to ignore.
If you want interesting food and wine, buy your Zagat long before you visit a city and read between-the-lines to seek out cutting edge food. An hour of research and comparison with other guides before you arrive will lead you to a much better meal and wine list. The trouble is you often should avoid most of their highest recommendations and often a few less points can be a good thing.
Oddly enough, Zagat can be a treasure trove of ethnic BYO restaurants. You are much better off bringing your own wine to a really fine ethnic restaurant than dealing with hot spots with politically correct corporate food and wine.