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In Print: can 2,000 restaurant critics be wrong?

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The Zagat survey of restaurants, a familiar phenomenon to diners in New York City, arrived in Chicago last year, and 1,200 local foodies volunteered their opinions on the city's eateries for it. The published compilation of all those opinions, the Zagat Chicago Restaurant Survey, went to three printings, and the publishers are now in the home stretch of polling for the 1989 edition. I caught up with Zagat's local operative, Carolyn McGuire, in the penthouse party room of the high rise where she lives. The room offered air-conditioning, a gorgeous view of the city, but no lights--we couldn't find the switch--so we talked about food in the dark.

"The Zagat survey started in 1979," says McGuire, who is also the associate travel editor of the Tribune. "The Zagats were lawyers who had lived for a while in Europe and had always been interested in food. So they started a little newsletter for their friends about interesting restaurants that they or their friends had found, and it just snowballed. They decided that they were onto something and went public with it." They were right. This year's New York version, for example, is the best-selling restaurant guide in that city.

"When I first read about the Zagat survey, I said, 'What a great idea! Why hasn't somebody done this before?' The palate of 1,200 people is more diverse, and they can get to many more places many more times than a single critic. Not that there's anything wrong with professional critics--I think we need them. It's fun to say, 'Jean-Marie Brownson said this, and Allen Kelson said this, and Pat Bruno said this, and I disagree.'"

McGuire is hoping for 2,000 volunteer critics this year, which will make this survey far broader than the rest of Chicago restaurant criticism. If the Zagateers average three dinners out per week, they will eat 312,000 meals this year and spend--using a modest average of $20 per meal--more than $6 million. The influential Chicago magazine team of reviewers, in comparison, will probably eat fewer than 2,500 restaurant dinners and spend considerably less than $100,000.

Despite the statistical difference, McGuire says the conclusions are similar. "If last time is any indication," she says, "the Zagateers tend to agree with the critics." Ambria was the surveys most popular restaurant, followed by Carlos' and Le Francais. The ratings run from 1 to 30 in the food category; Le Francais and Carlos' topped the list at 28, Yoshi's and Cafe Provencal came in a point behind. La Tour rated tops in decor. All the above agrees with the professional critics' assessments, says McGuire. However, she says, "the Berghoff is an example of a place much more popular with Zagateers than with the critics. Because Zagateers pay for their own food, theyre probably more value oriented than critics. We got more comments about the Berghoff than any other restaurant, if I remember correctly."

The '88 book lists more than 500 restaurants. "There are the food, decor, and service ratings," says McGuire, "how much it costs, and a space for comments that we found pithy or witty." The comments range from a suburban spaghetti house being dubbed "dolorous Del Rio" to Benihana's chefs being described "real cutups." Pith widely overshadows wit.

As far as it goes, the survey tends to be right on. But it doesn't separate decor from ambience. The furnishings at the Home Run Inn, for example, are just fine, but the place can be a hellish mix of screaming kids, juke-box music, White Sox baseball broadcasts, and the rattle of pinball machines. It also lumps the quality and variety of food in one category--which leads to odd equations. Is the limited menu at the bare-bones Playa Azul on 18th Street better than the variety and atmosphere at Cafe Ba-Ba-Reeba!, Leslee's, La Paella, the Palm, and Tufano (aka the Vernon Park Tap)? The Zagat survey says it is.

Despite the shortcomings of reviews by majority opinion, this and other surveys have done well. McGuire reports that there are now 20,000 Zagateers nationwide. There are surveys going in Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington, D.C., New Orleans, Dallas, Houston, San Diego, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. The flagship New York poll is expecting 3,500 responses this year and sales of more than 200,000 copies of the tally.

Those who want to get in on the '89 survey should send a stamped, self-addressed business-size envelope to Zagat Survey, 1960 Lincoln Park West, room 1903, Chicago, Illinois 60614. You'll be sent a questionnaire asking you to rate any restaurants you've visited in the past year--more than 500 are listed, and there's space for write-ins if your favorite is not among them. If you return the questionnaire by the September 6 deadline, Zagat will send you a free copy of the resulting book, which with its listings of phone numbers, hours, prices, and so on is a useful thing to have even if you don't care about anyone else's opinion.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.

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