“Survey” Says: An Interview with Tim Zagat

NJ Survey A few weeks ago, ZAGAT New Jersey Restaurants 2011-12 went on sale, along with a corresponding guide that covers the Jersey Shore’s restaurant scene. The Survey includes coverage of 1,050 restaurants across the state, reviewed by 6,909 diners. Eateries are rated on a 30-point scale in the categories of Food, Décor, and Service.

Nicholas in Red Bank held onto its title of Most Popular (in both the statewide Survey and the Jersey Shore edition), snagging a hard-to-get 29 out of a possible 30 in the ever-important Food category, as well as an impressive 28 for Service. While people continue to go out to eat despite the sagging economy, this was the first Survey in 15 years that saw a dip in the average meal cost ($38.48 this year vs. $39.24 last year).

I love the accessibility and easy-to-comprehend format of the guide, but I have to say I find reading reviewers’ comments to be the most fun: The cocktails at The Palm in Atlantic City’s Tropicana are described as “hefty,” and the dishes at Thai Kitchen (in Bridgewater, Chester, and Hillsborough) are, apparently, “not afraid to be spicy.”

Tim Zagat, the Survey’s co-founder, co-chair, and CEO, started the now-international series with his wife, Nina, more than 30 years ago. He took a few minutes to chat with Jersey Bites, following the release of the 2011-12 guides for the Garden State. (And for anyone who hasn’t Googled it yet, Zagat rhymes with “the cat.”)

JERSEY BITES: What has surprised you about the growth of the Survey over the years?
TIM ZAGAT: When we started the Survey in 1979, we believed that the shared opinions and experiences of thousands of avid diners were more reliable than the opinion of one critic. We never had any idea of turning it into a business. Thankfully, enough people agreed with our premise that the Survey grew into what it is today.

How much has your online presence affected the number of people who ultimately participate in the Survey?
Starting in 2003, we began to survey exclusively online. This made it possible for more people to participate on a regular basis and in any language. For example, we currently have surveys in Japanese that cover six cities. This change in voting also saved us enormous amounts of money in tabulating the results. In the last two years, we have even increased voting via mobile phone and roughly 20% of our voting is done on our mobile application today.

How do you choose a restaurant when you’re going out to eat?
Our guides are designed with the understanding that the reader is looking for different restaurants almost every day. For example, if you’re taking your boss or an important client out to dinner, you may start by thinking of what they’d like to eat—perhaps steak, or something else sophisticated—but generally with high scores across the board. Going out to eat with family or friends may mean looking for a more affordable price point and decor so that it is more comfortable and casual; choosing a place to go before or after a movie usually calls for something near the theater that’s easy and quick (pizza or burgers); when you’re looking for romance, the decor and service are more important, with the key determinant being if your significant other will like it. Taking children out to dinner means making sure it is a place where they can be noisy and spill their soda without anyone noticing. What we believe the guide should do is help people make smart dining decisions for any occasion.

The Survey is available in so many formats now, from the traditional hard copy, to the website, to mobile apps. Which form of the Survey do you like to refer to for your own personal use?
We’ve adopted a platform-agnostic approach to how we make our content available, so however consumers want to access Zagat, they are able to. Personally, I always have a copy in my jacket pocket for immediate access.

Do you prefer to try new places or return to tried-and-true spots?
This is hard to answer, because we visit a lot of new restaurants to see what they look like, but like most people, we return to our favorite spots, especially those that are in close proximity to our office or our apartment.

What is the most valuable thing about the way the Survey is set up?
The most valuable aspect of our Survey is that we curate the thoughts and opinions of thousands of diners into concise, reliable ratings and reviews. The ratings and reviews reflect the collective opinions of customers who eat at each restaurant throughout the year. Sometimes they are uniform and sometimes they’re divided. Each review considers the food, décor, and service scores as well as the estimated cost, with the numerical ratings used as the “lines on the field” in which the restaurant is the player. Because our reviews are concise, they are also easy to read and adapt onto mobile phones.

Is there always a new Survey in the works?
Yes. Surveying goes on year-round on ZAGAT.com and via our iPhone application. While we’ve produced surveys to all varieties of travel and leisure including movies, music, theater, golf, hotels, shopping, nightlife and of course, restaurants, we are always expanding into new markets.

How do you suggest a person go about using your guide as a reference?
The Survey asks diners to separately rate a restaurant on its food, decor, service, and then estimate the cost. We use this model to identify the range of observations that are important to diners. As a reference, we include Top Lists that are broken out to cover different cuisines, neighborhoods and special features of restaurants so that the guide offers offer immediate access to the information diners are looking for.

How often do you eat at NJ restaurants? What’s been your best experience?
We personally eat out in New Jersey a few times a year, but our local editors are professional food writers and the 6,909 people who voted in the survey eat out by the thousands every day.

Rachel Bozek is a freelance writer and editor based in suburban Essex County. She grew up in Bergen County, and has lost track of how much time she’s spent on LBI and in the Wildwoods. Her search for the perfect pancake continues. www.rachelbozek.com