Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Grade Inflation and Other Oddities in the Zagat Guide

Interesting article on Zagat Math from SmartMoney magazine.

The guide — which millions of consumers have come to rely on — bills itself as an industry "report card" with grades handed out by the voting public. But what's become of all those tough, if not picky, reviewers? When the Zagats started selling their 1983 New York restaurant guide, it was no mean feat for a chef to score a food rating of 20 or higher, the benchmark for "very good to excellent" in Zagat terms. Only one in four New York restaurants did so at the time. Today fully 70% reach those heights. It's as if the bottom tier dropped out: Just over a decade ago 189 out of 1,300 New York restaurants rated 15 or below; today only 23 do, despite the fact that the guide now rates more than 1,500 restaurants. Step outside restaurants and the numbers look even more buoyant — including a rather impressive handicap in the golf guides, where two clubs have managed a perfect 30 for their courses.

The Zagat guides definitely have their place, but they are not the end all, be all. They're based on eater surveys, (and as the article reveals, often based on surprisingly few reponses) and formerly good restaurants tend to stay high in the ratings for a long time based on reputation and memory, not actual recent meals. And like any restaurant rating system, your tastes may not agree with the reviewers. If I'm planning a trip somewhere, I might use the Zagat guides as a starting point to identify some potential candidates, then follow that up with research on places like eGullet, Chowhound, or LTHForum to get a broader perspective.

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