In a bizarre twist that cannot possibly construed as self-promotion, online newsletter Manhattan User's Guide interviews its publisher, Charlie Suisman. Suisman worked at Zagat's in 2000 and has some choice opinions about the "indispensible" restaurant guide:
SUISMAN: A number of smart, talented people spend virtually all day, every day stringing together those supposedly pithy quotes, and as they pass before you, you have to spray on some alliteration or insert a pun. It's what passes at Zagat for wit.
Uh oh, them be fighting words! Read on for more pearls of angry wisdom from the little website that dares to confront the Zagat's empire of crappy picks and pans.
MUG: But aren't those quotes helpful?
SUISMAN: Not by my lights. They're far too equivocating, with way too many yes/but constructions. Here's how it works. Editors, most of whom have never been to the restaurant in question, cherry-pick the most lively comments and string them into a single sentence (though semi-colons get around that limitation). An editor must reflect the numbers that a restaurant has received: if a restaurant scores 27s, you're not going to see anything in the way of negative comments (even if there are a sizeable number), except perhaps for price, whereas a restaurant that has 18 points, must contain some negative quotes. Nearly everything in between ends up with that yes/but construction, so restaurant X is fine, but it's too crowded, or too noisy, or too expensive, or too funky, or the waiters are wannabe actors, or it's hard to get a table.
They're so confined and consumed by those ridiculous strictures on how to 'sound like Zagat' that it has become logy, outmoded, and tiresome look how often you find the words 'wags', 'digs', 'vittles', 'cholesterol', 'grub', 'secret', 'like a trip to Paris'. I think the web now provides more informed and illuminating opinions (Ed.: see below). And I've grown increasingly disenchanted with the Zagat concept over the years. I'm all for majority rule, but not in matters of taste. I'd rather find a critic I find sympathetic and use them as a touchstone over a statistical winner. Not infrequently, the comments are culled from a very small number of respondents. And I know from experience that most of the comments from Zagat surveyors aren't much beyond the "great place, delicious food" ilk.
MUG: Are you saying all the respondents have questionable taste?
SUISMAN: Of course not. The point is, there is no way to know if the people who vote have been to the restaurant recently, or at all, or what their frame of reference is. About his surveyors, Zagat said in a Business Week article from December, 2002, "We've been able to select a network of people who are very passionate about certain things, like food...They could be food and wine society members, or people who eat out as a way of life, like executives." That's just a load of hornswoggling humbug. Zagat doesn't select surveyors anyone can play. And while it's true that they could be wine society members or executives, it's equally true that they could not be. And since when do executives have the edge on judging food? And, that's an awfully elitist notion for a supposedly democratic guide.