It isn't just Michelin that released its latest New York City restaurant guide this week, NYC's Google-owned restaurant guide, the Zagat Survey, was released today, too. Le Bernardin came out on top not just in Food (29 out of 30), it also unseated Danny Meyer's hold on the top of the Most Popular category for the first time in 15 years...yada, yada, yada...do Zagat Survey's results mean anything? Actually, if you know how to read through the lines, they kinda do!
Having worked for Zagat once upon a time and seen how their ratings sausage gets made, yours truly can tell you that the 0-30 numbers the company runs with its reviews really are the average of what Zagat's surveyors reported, and the oft-mocked, quotation-heavy capsule reviews are exactly what they appear to be. And they can help you find good food. Unlike the "review highlights" on, say, Yelp, each of those words in quotes in a Zagat review has been selected by an editor from something an actual surveyor wrote that they felt encapsulated something from the majority of that restaurant's reviews. Ever want a mind-numbing job? Try summarizing, editing and fact-checking thousands of restaurant reviews, year in and year out.
Still, the thing about Zagat's reviews that you need to take into account is where they are coming from. Though the company gives out lots of stats about its surveys [PDF] there are also interesting things they don't tell you. Like how old the 41,604 people who were surveyed for this year's Survey are. With no stats in front of us, just anecdotal evidence, we can tell you that Zagat surveyors skew older and richer than the general population (they do eat out 3 times a week on average) and are creatures of habit and long memories. People who haven't actually eaten at Peter Luger's will rate it well year after year because they can't imagine it has changed (and honestly, it hasn't).
Which isn't to say they don't have good taste. If a Zagat-rated restaurant in New York has over 21 for Food, you are really unlikely to have a bad meal there (Pro tip: because the Zagat Survey has different samples in different cities, the numbers mean different things elsewhere). There is also one exceptional area in the Survey where the numbers don't really match up: Sushi. For whatever reason Zagat's sushi-eating surveyors are a very self-selecting crowd and really love their sushi places—so you'll often see sushi restaurants in the Survey trending a little higher than their ethnic peers.
Anyway! Beyond their ratings, Zagat collects a fair amount of other information from its surveyors and fact checkers that can be interesting. Some stats worth noting this year? The company notes that this year saw 135 "noteworthy" openings and only 68 closings, the best ratio they've seen since 2007; New Yorkers leave an average 19.1 percent tip; Zagat's surveyors don't like to eat in restaurants graded "C" and the average cost of a meal for Zagat surveyors has increased an impressive 4.1 percent in the past year to $43.46 per person. Oh yeah, and a bunch of restaurants (like Totonno's) moved up in their ratings. You can read all the highlights here.
Now, if only Google would start giving out Zagat's stats for free they could really get competitive again...