America's Volume Dealer

Joseph Stalin, a canny political operator, once observed something to the effect that "people who vote do not decide elections. The people who count the votes decide elections." Uncle Joe spoke a South Ossetian-accented Russian, so an exact translation of the statement may be worded a bit differently. The spirit of the thing, though, is pure Uncle Joe.

Normally, a column in the Cafe section is not where one would expect to find a quote from Him, as Alexander Solzhenitsyn often referred to Stalin, even if He did know a good lamb shish-kabob when it was served. It's just that our thoughts turn to votes and tallies this time of year, when the new edition of the Zagat Survey of Houston restaurants appears.

The Zagat Survey began in New York City in 1979, when the husband-and-wife team of Tim and Nina Zagat -- both attorneys -- assembled the opinions of 200 friends and acquaintances into a little self-published guide to local restaurants. That was then. This year, there are Zagat restaurant guides for 45 markets worldwide, plus guides to hotels, resorts and airlines. Last year, Zagat published its first Survey of New York City Nightlife, in which participants rated everything from biker bars to cabarets. Customers can access all of this information in a variety of ways: via the Internet, cell phones, pagers, Palm Pilots and, of course, the good ol' fashioned burgundy-colored booklet. The entire enterprise is reportedly valued at $120 million. A plan to take the company public was floated last year, but seems to be on hold since the meltdown of the tech stock market earlier this year.

The beauty spot of this enterprise lies in how the surveys are accomplished. Diners pay for their own meals, at an average cost (as reported in the November 2000 issue of Commentary magazine) of $33.17 per meal. For the New York City guide, the Zagats claim an average of 1,800 meals were reported per restaurant included in the survey. Multiplied by the approximately 1,800 restaurants listed, it means that Zagat's nearly 20,000 participants ate some 3.2 million meals, spending more than $106 million in the course of their research. That works out to an average annual dining tab in New York City alone of $5,307.20! It also averages out to 160 meals per surveyor. The researcher's compensation? Each one received a free copy of the Zagat Survey, an $11.95 value. About 600,000 copies of the booklet were then sold to paying customers.

Houston's 2001/2002 guide, according to a page signed by Tim and Nina, reflects a more modest effort. About 1,100 participants rated 990 restaurants in the Houston and Galveston areas. Given that New York has more than 18,000 restaurants versus Houston's 8,000 or so, the percentage of restaurants rated is roughly equal. Houstonians seem to eat out more often, at the rate of 4.4 meals per week according to Zagat statistics, rather than the three times per week logged by New York participants. Perhaps that's a reflection of the lower cost of dining in Houston, given by local Zagat editor Margaret Luellen Briggs as averaging $20.87 per meal. However, the survey crew in Houston averaged only 258 meals per restaurant, less than one-sixth of the New York average.

Statistics aside, the write-up of each restaurant goes on for all of 50 or 60 words. The words are festooned with a veritable Milky Way of quotation marks, suggesting that the surveyors are being extensively quoted. The words of the respondents are strung together to form, mostly, generic sentences of praise or criticism. Benjy's, for example, is thusly described: "Skinny people dressed in black" adore the "state-of-the- art," "modern" decor and "trendy" atmosphere at this "popular" Rice Village New American restaurant whose "inventive" Asian-influenced dishes are only slightly upstaged by the stylish staff ("waiters are prettier than the food"); it's "crowded" and "noisy," but that's to be expected for an "L.A.-in-Houston" experience; by the way, "Sunday brunch is divine." But, even with an average of 258 submitted reports, the 62 words of this write-up do not contain one concrete word describing the food. That, one suspects, is an editorial choice, and an odd one. It is a style that has more in common with refrigerator magnet poetry than with informed criticism.

The Zagat Survey form, for those who have not seen one, contains a scale from zero through three. The seemingly fine-tuned rating numbers seen in the actual guide, from one through 30, are generated by Zagat computers. Additionally, the survey forms are sent out once a year, so memories, while democratically large in number, are usually dimmed by time. (Quick! Describe in detail what you had for lunch exactly ten days prior to reading this article.)

Finally, the survey participants are not required to document the meals they ate. No copies of menus. No receipts. No Day-Timer entries even. Thus, there is little control over potential manipulations: A competitor or a seduced and abandoned hostess could freely dis a restaurant. Or one could vote for a friend's enterprise. One could vote based on another's experiences. One could even rate a restaurant one hated three years ago. The list could go on. There simply are no controls save for a computer program that allegedly checks for major discrepancies -- like, say, a $30-per-entrée restaurant being described as having an average check of $10. A somewhat fishy aspect of the Zagat method is the fact that the 2001/2002 guide already lists, albeit in unrated form, restaurants that only opened for business this year, such as Aries (4315 Montrose Boulevard, 713-526-4404) or Zula (705 Main Street, 713-227-7052).

The Commentary article also quotes a professional restaurant critic who observes, "Once you learn to hate a restaurant you never go back, [but] since you do not evaluate a restaurant for Zagat unless you have been there in the past year, those who continue to rate a place are, disproportionately, its admirers -- fans -- while the opinions of detractors go unrecorded." The article goes on to say that this phenomenon was dubbed by New York Times critic William Grimes as "The Zagat Effect."

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George Alexander