Since the 1980s, Zagat has published an annual survey of restaurant reviews. And although it was onc considered one of the most reliable sources of restaurant recommendations, today, with so many restaurant reviews, ratings, and guides to choose from, Zagat doesn’t carry quite the same weight.
Zagat predated the internet age, and those that came up in it might not know much about the slim burgundy book, including how it’s pronounced (it’s Zuh-GAT, rhymes with “cat”). For those people, here’s a primer.
Historically, Zagat is a restaurant guidebook that assigns numbered ratings to dining establishments across four different categories: food, decor, service, and cost. Unlike other published dining guides, like Michelin, Zagat’s restaurant ratings and reviews are crowdsourced: They’re based on a survey of thousands of people. A restaurant’s final numbered rating is an aggregate of survey data, and Zagat pulls from the survey’s comment section to fill out its distinct review blurbs, filled with those “iconic” “partial” quotes.
Zagat was founded by two married lawyers who dined out as a hobby. As the story goes, in 1979, Nina and Tim Zagat were hosting a dinner party at their New York City home when their friends — also serious diners — started complaining about professional newspaper restaurant critics. Tim Zagat was struck with a lighting bolt of an idea: instead of relying on just a few opinions for restaurant recommendations, he would poll his friends.
He issued a typewritten survey to 10 of the couple’s friends. They then passed it along to their friends, chain mail style. For the first survey of New York City restaurants, called the 1980 NYC Restaurant Survey, 200 amateur critics rated 100 restaurants on food, decor, service, cleanliness, and cost. (Cleanliness was eventually dropped as a category.) They also provided the comments that Tim and Nina Zagat used to form collectively written, paragraph-long restaurant reviews.
At the time, the survey was groundbreaking. It served as the first-ever space for critical eaters to share their opinions, and on its website, Zagat declares itself the “original provider of user-generated content.”
In 1983, the Zagats produced 10,000 copies of their self-published survey and distributed them to bookstores, according to an Edible Manhattan profile. For years, the couple worked as lawyers who peddled dining guides on the side, but by 1990, both transitioned to focus on the Zagat guide full time. Ten years in, the survey had expanded to cover multiple cities, including Boston and Chicago, and paperback Zagat surveys were widely available at bookstores as well as in checkout lines and coffee shops.
The survey results mattered, too. A Zagat guidebook starred in a 1995 Saturday Night Live sketch, in which a married couple, played by Chris Farley (dressed as a woman) and Adam Sandler, bicker about which Zagat-recommended restaurants to visit for their 35th wedding anniversary. While the sketch didn’t exactly make the brand seem cool, it solidified its place in popular culture. When Brooklyn restaurant the Grocery got a near-perfect Zagat score of 28 in 2003, the news appeared on the front page of the New York Times.
When Zagat hit the internet, it put its survey results — the very things that powered it through decades of relevance — behind a paywall. Online, not as many people cared that Zagat was the original user-generated food review outlet, when new user-generated food review outlets, like Yelp, provided content for free. According to a 2010 article from the New York Times, Zagat’s online traffic was dismal. In September of that year, Zagat had 570,000 unique visitors, compared to Yelp’s 9.4 million. Because of the paywall, Zagat’s content didn’t show up in Google search results, likely affecting the traffic.
This obviously changed when Google purchased Zagat in 2011. Tim and Nina Zagat started looking to sell the company as early as 2008, the year they announced that they were ready to sell their stake for $200 million. After three years on the market, Google acquired Zagat for $151 million to, presumably, groom it as a competitor to Yelp, a longtime tech-world rival.
The following years weren’t as delightful as anticipated, at least for Zagat. After Google incorporated Zagat’s data into its search and map programs, it didn’t pay much attention to promoting the Zagat name or branding. Zagat’s city coverage dwindled: a 2013 site redesign stripped the number of cities Zagat covered online from 30 to nine. Today, Zagat lists 38 cities as “Zagat cities,” although it’s unclear how frequently the content is updated.
While under Google ownership, Zagat also changed its ratings system. For more than 35 years, the Zagat guides asked their survey participants to rate restaurants on a scale between one and three across four categories. The scores were averaged and multiplied by 10 to produce the published rating of up to 30. But in 2016, Zagat switched to a system that scores restaurants on a scale of one to five stars. Zagat converted all of its ratings to the new star system, which was easy enough to comprehend. A restaurant previously rated 29 points for food and 28 points for decor would now have 4.9 stars for food and 4.8 stars for decor, respectively.
Unsurprisingly, Zagat’s published guidebooks have suffered in the internet age. In 2003, Zagat published surveys in 70 different cities. But today, as Google announces its sale, the only survey still updated and available in print is the Zagat survey for New York City, the place where it all started.
Check out my related post: How Rapha pedalled its way to success?