ZAGAT Survey Goes Online

Restaurant Reviews Now Free on the Net

For nearly 20 years, Tim and Nina Zagat (pronounced za-GAT, rhymes with "the cat") have published restaurant guidebooks based on ratings submitted by diners. The distinctive, burgundy-colored books are dining bibles for many of the most culinarily blessed U.S. cities and a few international destinations as well. The ZAGAT Surveys are unique in that they separately rate the distinct qualities of a restaurant--food, decor and service--based on consumer input.

The Zagats in recent years have also branched out to survey travelers on U.S. hotels, resorts, spas, airlines and car rental companies.

Selling for $9.95 and up, the slim, portable guides have become a multi-million dollar enterprise. So why would the Zagats spend $1 million to build a Web site so they could give away their hard work for free?

A "Wall Street Journal" article quoted Tim Zagat as saying, "If we didn't do it... somebody else would figure out this was a highly efficient way to engage a large number of people and bring them into the same process we have." Not wanting to be another Barnes & Noble or Borders... standing by while an unknown entity like Amazon.com beat them to the punch, the Zagats have charged into the online world, and the result is incredibly good news for visitors to New England.

Two of the first restaurant review guides to go entirely online are for Boston and Connecticut.

For New England to have snared two of the first 20 online spots is not surprising considering the Zagats' ties to this region. Both are native New Yorkers. Nina graduated from Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York, and Tim from Harvard in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Both are also graduates of New Haven, Connecticut's Yale Law School.

Other destinations for which restaurant survey results and reviews are now online are: Atlanta, Baltimore, Chicago, Hawaii, London, Long Island, Los Angeles, New Jersey, New Orleans, New York City, Orlando, Paris, Philadelphia, San Diego, San Francisco, Southern New York State, Toronto and Washington, D.C. Other locations are coming soon.

The zagat.com Web site is easy to navigate, and restaurant reviews are just a few clicks away. Taking a closer look at the Boston guide, it's easy to search for restaurants by any number of Zagat rating criteria, including cuisine, cost, location and special features. You'll also be able to zero in quickly using the links in the right column to reviewers' top picks by food, decor, service or cuisine; to listings by cuisine; to an alphabetical directory; or to a listing by neighborhood. Top overall favorites are viewable as well.

Here are the results of a sample search: As I entered my search criteria, a text box on the right followed my selections, dynamically creating an affirmation of my request: "I am looking for a restaurant that has a food rating of 20 or better, has a decor rating of 15 or better, has a service rating of 19 or better, costs $45 or less, is in Harvard Square." The result when I clicked "find it for me": six restaurants to choose from, with Cafe Celador the top match.

When I clicked on the link for Cafe Celador to learn more about this restaurant, I was prompted to sign up for a free membership. Membership is free until September 1. What happens after September 1? A yet to be determined fee will be charged, and members will be notified via email and can opt in. Sampling the premium benefits free now will not obligate the visitor in any way. Restaurant ratings, search functions, shopping and many other features of the site will remain free. What are the benefits of membership? 

I was immediately whisked back to the Cafe Celador page, where I was able to read that "Hidden on a side street, this 'romantic' French bistro with the 'coziest basement in Cambridge' comes with 'charm and style' and a 'constantly changing menu' that includes 'interesting' and 'innovative' Italian and Mediterranean dishes...." Sounds delightful!

I was also able to click on the "Map" button to see where the restaurant is located and get directions. Pertinent information is also included on such things as what credit cards are accepted, smoking policy, and whether takeout is available.

If you were worried about the Zagats not profiting from this "give it away free" venture, fear not! The "Wall Street Journal" article reported that the new Web site rang up 80 book sales while they slept during its first night online.