Teresa Byrne-Dodge, editor and publisher of the bimonthly My Table: Houston's Dining Magazine, has worked on the Houston Zagat since 1988, usually as editor, last time as local coordinator, when Margaret Luellen Briggs (a former restaurant reviewer for the Houston Press) did the duties.
"The information in the old guide was pretty much from 2000, so it's getting old. They sell data, and it needs to be current," Byrne-Dodge says. "I kept waiting to hear something about the 2003 edition. Then this guy at SuperStand, before they closed, told me Zagat wasn't doing one again. I was floored. They're so popular; they always sell out."
The city Zagat was a staple for diners, a slim volume of listings and diner comments that made choosing a restaurant fun and easy. No one in the restaurant business could believe the early rumors that it had been canceled. Byrne-Dodge had no luck trying to reach Zagat in New York City. "It was frustrating. I called, and all I got was voice mail. Finally I got an e-mail from them." The text of that message was pretty simple, and pretty blasé, considering Byrne-Dodge has been a contractor with the company for years.
It began: "Thank you for your interest in Zagat Surveys! The 2003 Houston Restaurant guide has been discontinued. We apologize for any inconvenience this may cause you. Unfortunately we did not have enough responses from our Patron Questionnaires with which to continue to publish the book."
"They never prepared questionnaires," says Byrne-Dodge. "I do that. And I didn't do anything this time because they never contacted me."
The last Houston guide, which includes Galveston, was compiled from 1,100 survey participants eating 256,260 meals per year. Many send in the form in the back of the book, and others respond with comments online at www.zagat.com, but most came from Byrne-Dodge's own subscriber and mail lists. The last edition covered only 990 eateries, barely a fifth of our area restaurants.
"Houston proper has 4,595," says Juli Salvagio, executive director of the Houston Restaurant Association. "In the greater Houston area it's 6,759 restaurants. And we are the largest restaurant association in Texas, with 11,000 members. Certainly this isn't the place to get rid of it."
But Tim Zagat, who with wife Nina has done Zagat guides for 24 years, begs to differ. "I'm not totally sure [despite the company's firm e-mail response], but I think we're doing a best of Texas. We'll have restaurants from Houston, Dallas-Fort Worth (the only other Texas Zagat published in the past), San Antonio, Austin and El Paso."
Why the change? Zagat says it was "purely" an editorial decision. "I talked with my friends and editors and that's what they wanted. But that could change." However, he admits that the Houston and Dallas-Fort Worth guides are not on the 2003 schedule and he hasn't sat down with his editors yet. Editors like Byrne-Dodge. There is also no set time for this best of Texas guide, which would surely include fewer Houston spots and have local diners skipping over Dallas and San Antonio eateries.
Salvagio says that "Houston is not always known for its restaurants, but we have great ones, and practically one on every corner," with an active dining population. According to the 2001/2002 guide, Houston's average diner eats out 4.4 times a week, the highest ratio in the nation. It's a fact Zagat confirms.
"Maybe they should have bought more copies," says Zagat, whose company is now focusing on golf course, nightspot and other entertainment guides. However, there is still a stable of other major city guides on tap, but none in Texas and no other state guides. So now, it's surprising, the nation's fourth-largest city gets the shaft. World-class city or not, Houston appears on the verge of having to compete with Dallas and the rest of the state for restaurant coverage in Zagat publications.
As for Byrne-Dodge, who was not contacted prior to the decision: "I would do one myself, but my contract precludes me from doing a survey guide for something like ten years." Maybe someone else will take up the challenge.