Technically Speaking: Zagat rewards the best trained chefs, not the best burger flippers.
Technically Speaking: Zagat rewards the best trained chefs, not the best burger flippers. Credit: Photo by Darrow Montgomery

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The man at the corner table to my right is dining alone, which has the effect of shining a stage light on him at Marcel’s, the West End restaurant where polished serving-dome sophistication is still a point of pride, not a shtick to shed as soon as times turn tough. Diners typically don’t come here to sup in isolated silence. They typically arrive in pairs or foursomes, primped and primed to luxuriate, each group with its own reason to revel in Robert Wiedmaier’s refined, highly technical French-Flemish cooking. It might be an anniversary. It might be a night out with the spouse.

This lone gentleman, however, had another reason for dining at Marcel’s, and it lay in the slim burgundy volume to his right. It was the brand new 2011 Zagat guide, which had just named Marcel’s the best restaurant in D.C. for sheer cooking prowess. Wiedmaier’s place had earned 29 points for food, jumping five spots from the previous survey to earn top honors. Marcel’s leaped ahead of not only perennial front-runners Inn at Little Washington and Makoto but also L’Auberge Provençale, CityZen, and the Obama-approved Komi.

The man admitted that Zagat’s coronation had attracted him to Marcel’s. When I asked how he liked his meal, he said it was “pretty good” but quickly noted that The Washington Post’s Tom Sietsema had given Marcel’s only three stars in his last dining guide, rating it below eight other restaurants, including Rasika, 2941, Citronelle, and Restaurant Eve. “I like The Washington Post’s [rankings] more,” he told me across our tables.

His, of course, is only one opinion. And in the democratic world of Zagat, it would be given equal weight to the dozens of other reviews posted on the Marcel’s page at, which formed the restaurant’s food rating. It would be equal to your opinion, my opinion, Sietsema’s opinion, even Wiedmaier’s opinion, should any of us have the inclination to share our thoughts on Zagat’s website. The very process is designed to undermine the ink-stained aristocracy of professional critics. That’s why, back in the era before the Web, so many restaurateurs loved the Zagat approach.

“What made Zagat great and what made it so revolutionary, to the great benefit of restaurants and diners alike, was that it put the power in the hands of the people to decide in the most immediate ways of the technology of that time allowed,” says Michael Landrum, the man behind the mini-Ray’s the Steaks empire and something of a student of Zagat’s.

“Zagat’s,” Landrum adds, “has remained true to its integrity and it’s remained true to its original mission…However, I will say that the Internet does that job of putting the power in the hands of the people much better today, for better or for worse, on a much larger scale.”

It is Zagat’s scale and demographics that make me wonder about the guide’s relevancy to modern diners. Don’t get me wrong; I don’t question for a second that Wiedmaier is one of the best chefs in D.C. His kitchen at Marcel’s produces plates of utter refinement, from the restaurant’s signature boudin blanc to the equally ethereal lobster with translucent ribbons of pappardelle, all of which conceal the old school skills and Old World muscle that went into each. The chef himself, of course, is thrilled about snagging Zagat’s top prize, as he should be. The Zagat name still carries weight.

No, what I question is how a democratic survey can produce a top food list dominated by restaurants of such refinement and exclusivity. From Marcel’s to L’Auberge Provençale, there is not a restaurant on Zagat’s top 10 food list where two people could easily dine for under $100. Even though a high-performing Peruvian chicken outlet or a mom-and-pop Thai eatery could technically earn 29 or 30 points on a Zagat survey, they never do. The highest-rated casual restaurants in the new guide are Pasta Plus, Honey Pig Gooldaegee, and Ray’s Hell Burger, each rated at 26 points for food. Zagat’s process may be democratic, but it invariably produces winners who come from the gastronomic aristocracy.

Now contrast this with the top 10 restaurants that currently occupy Yelp’s Best of D.C. list. Yes, you’ll find some overlap with Zagat’s top 10—CityZen and Komi appear on both—but you’ll also find some genuine oddities, the kind of places that seem to materialize from a public more attuned to the economics and tastes of single young adults living in the city. These oddballs include not only Greek Deli and Catering off Dupont Circle and A. Litteri in the Florida Avenue Market complex but also two street vendors, Mr. P’s Ribs & Fish in Brentwood and Manouch Hot Dog Stand near George Washington University. None of these four even merit a mention in Zagat, let alone a spot among its top 10 in food.

How to explain the drastically different lists from two democratic online surveys? Voter turn-out may be a good place to start. During its most recent balloting period from Jan. 7 to June 17, Zagat attracted 6,484 diners to cast votes for restaurants in the D.C./Baltimore metropolitan area. That figure represents a 751-vote decline from the previous survey, in 2009. “I can’t say for sure” why there was a decline, co-founder Nina Zagat e-mailed me, “but considering the state of the economy, I’m not surprised. The fact that 34% of this year’s DC/Baltimore surveyors report dining out less than they did two years ago is an indication that their peers are also eating out less, and, therefore, possibly less inclined to participate.”

Over at Yelp, the numbers are harder to quantify, since the site doesn’t break them down by city. But Yelp Community Manager Tara Lewis e-mailed me to note that the site had 35 million unique visitors in July; Yelp also claims to have more than 12 million reviews already online, 29 percent of which are directed at restaurants. That’s nearly 3.5 million reviews of eateries from coast to coast, but they date back years, not months as they ostensibly do over at Zagat.

It would seem that Zagat has the fresher reviews and ratings (although there’s no guarantee that a Zagat reviewer is writing about a recent experience), while Yelp has the sheer numbers. (By the way, Lewis notes that a Yelp restaurant rating is the “average of all the star ratings [dating] back to the first review, reflecting all of the reviews on that restaurant’s page,” minus the filtered reviews. This means that a restaurant’s rating could be based on experiences that are years old, perhaps even under another chef.)

But then there are the demographics: Yelp claims that 46 percent of its users fall into the 18–34-year-old range; another 36 percent fall within the 35–49 age bracket. By contrast, 34 percent of registered online Zagat users are between the ages of 31 and 40; 29 percent between 41 and 50; and 26 percent between 51 and 64.

This demographic data supports Landrum’s theory on why high-end eateries dominate Zagat’s top food ratings.

“The constituency of Zagat’s over the past 20 years has aged with the core concept and now has different concerns,” the restaurateur told me. “Now the tastes and preferences of the Zagat generation have matured to where high-end and special event restaurants are at the forefront of their dining concerns.”

Wiedmaier, the main beneficiary of this year’s Zagat ratings in D.C., has a theory, too. The chef admits he doesn’t know the methodology behind Zagat, but he suspects the average Zagat voter thinks more like a Michelin inspector, who painstakingly catalogs every minute detail of a meal, from the flatware to the food, and submits a report that will serve as a basis for the restaurant’s final rating. A Michelin three-star rating, in other words, is not based on food alone. So even though Zagat asks reviewers to rank restaurants in three separate categories—food, décor, service—Wiedmaier thinks people tend to “look at food from the standpoint of the whole package.”

Which he thinks is only proper. “You’re mixing apples with oranges,” Wiedmaier says. “You can’t vote the best burger in town with the best boudin blanc in town.” The chef would prefer to see Zagat ask its diners to rate restaurants in different categories, like fine-dining, casual, and fast-food.

As it stands, though, the low-end must compete with the high-end, and the latter always comes out on top with Zagat. I have my own thoughts as to why this happens: I think it, in part, is the result of voting numbers. For example, if I look at Zagat’s most recent survey period, Marcel’s had, by my unofficial count, 48 reviews posted on its page, which doesn’t include those users who want to keep their ratings private, Nina Zagat told me during a brief phone interview.

I asked Zagat, a former lawyer, what constitutes a valid sample.

“That’s something that our surveying group does, and they have standards for what they regard as a correct sample,” she responded. “And if it’s below that, it gets a triangle,” a symbol that Zagat uses to indicate a “less reliable” sample.

OK, but do you know what the sample amount is?

“No, I don’t,” the founder responded.

Do you have a ball park figure? Is it 20? Is it 30? Is it 100?

“You know, it’s a significant number.”

Can you give me any sort of ball park number?

“No, we don’t usually do that,” Zagat says.

I’m pressing Zagat on the sample size because it strikes me as important. I don’t know squat about statistics, but it strikes me as logical that if you have more people reviewing your place, you’re going to hear more negative comments, which can drag down the food rating. I try to explain this theory to Nina Zagat as best I can. I tell her that Ray’s Hell Burger, to use one example of an affordable restaurant that executes its limited menu with a 30-point precision, probably does 10 times the customer traffic as Marcel’s, which likely hurts its rating. (I later notice that Ray’s Hell Burger had almost twice the number of reviews as Marcel’s during the last voting period on Zagat.)

“I wouldn’t look at it that way at all,” Zagat responded. “I think the more people that you get voting on a place, you may have a greater variety of people who love it and a greater variety of people who don’t like it. But you’re still ending up with an average score, which is not weighted, of what people thought of the place.”

That sounds perfectly reasonable until I start thinking about that single diner at Marcel’s. Here was a man specifically dining at the restaurant to suss out the quality of the food, not to celebrate a birthday or a family visit or some other important moment. Such special occasions tend to generate special feelings about a restaurant. It’s almost a self-fulfilling prophecy. Perfection, I don’t think, is expected (though it may be often achieved at Marcel’s) in those situations.

But my lone man in the corner reminded me of the gastronomic flock that loves to descend upon Hell Burger and similarly trendy eateries: someone with knowledge of food, someone with an apparently discriminating palate and a desire to judge for himself how a publicly praised restaurant is performing. I suspect if more of these types descended upon Marcel’s, we might see a more level playing field among the Zagat’s top food restaurants. The democracy promised by Zagat’s voting process might magically appear.

Marcel’s, 2401 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, (202) 296-1166

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