The last time we spoke with the friendly folk at Zagat Survey, we were only one among hundreds of whiners complaining that the on-line version of their populist restaurant guide didn't include Houston -- or any other Texas city, for that matter.
"It isn't a conspiracy," Jessie Soodalter, then head of digital development for Zagat, promised us last May. "It's a data conversion issue. We'll get Houston on-line just as soon as we can."
Zagat was true to its word, and Houston is now one of the 29 dining destination cities featured at www.zagat.com. You can search 560 Houston restaurants by any combination of rating, cost, cuisine or location, or by "Zagat list" category, such as top food, decor or service. Quick search options let you look for a specific cafe by name, or by the letters it begins with, or by letters it contains or even by what it "sounds like."
Since Zagat ratings are essentially a popularity contest decided by the votes of thousands of local consumers, its conclusions are useful in direct proportion to your faith in the taste of the masses. No doubt the compiled statistics for top food and service categories are helpful to Houston's first-time visitors, but our city's devoted foodies won't find any surprises there: DeVille, Cafe Annie, Chez Nous and Rotisserie for Beef and Bird, for example, dominate the top spots in both lists. The fact that on-line voters can't add or rate a restaurant that's not already in the Zagat database will continue to slant the outcome in favor of the most familiar fixtures on our restaurant scene.
The coarse-grained rating system can also skew the results. Voters assign from zero (fair to poor) to three (excellent) points for food, decor and service, then estimate the cost for a single meal. Low-cost restaurants with high points show up in the "Best Buy" category, which not only tips the scale toward cheap, er, inexpensive places such as bakeries, burger joints and taco stands, but it also weighs lunch-only places over full dinner service outlets. "This means the free lunches at the Star of Hope mission would get a stellar review," groused one local critic.
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Zagat's "Teflon" list is an amusing concept. " 'Teflons' get a lot of business, despite so-so food," explains the guide. "But they have other attractions that prevent criticism from sticking." I can think of several locally owned eateries I'd be tempted to add to Houston's Teflon list, but Zagat's honorees are drawn from the ranks of national franchises: Bennigan's, Boston Market, Hard Rock Cafe and the like. This amounts to shooting fish in a barrel, I'm afraid.
Much more interesting from the insider's perspective is Zagat's list of "sleepers," those places described as "little known" with "good to excellent" food. They nailed several of my personal favorites, including Fusion Cafe [3722 Main, (713)874-1116], Kanomwan [1011 Telephone Road, (713)923-4230], Nara Restaurant & Sushi Bar [11124 Westheimer, (713)266-2255] -- accurately described as "electic Japanese" -- and Paulie's [1834 Westheimer, (713)807-7271], plus many more that were new to me. This sleeper list could serve as a useful "dining mine" road map no matter how well you think you know the Houston restaurant scene.
And I admit I take an evil pleasure in reading the new "Unfit for Print" section, anonymous outtakes from Zagat's surveys that the editors note are "comments our lawyers said we couldn't print." Possibly my favorite is the Oscar Wilde-inspired description of "the immature eating the inedible"; but the advice to "wear black and bring Maalox" could be a food reviewer's credo. So many local candidates come to mind for these bons mots, I only wish I could print them all.
The Zagat on-line service is still free to all comers, no credit cards, no commitment. Although voting on restaurants requires membership registration, it's a quick and painless process. So get out there and vote. Me? I'm aiming for the unprintable list.