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Interview with Nina Zagat Celebrating the Release of “Zagat Washington, DC & Baltimore Restaurants 2011″

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2011 Zagat Washington, DC Crowns a New King of Food Ratings: Marcel's

In celebration of yesterday’s release of “Zagat Washington, DC & Baltimore Restaurants 2011,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Mrs. Nina Zagat—matron of the Zagat survey empire. In case you do not know about the burgundy-colored restaurant Bible, the Zagat survey has become one of the world’s most preeminent guide books for restaurants as well as travel and entertainment.  There are many restaurant guides out there, from international publications (i.e. Michelin and Wine Spectator) to local ones (i.e. Washingtonian and The Washington Post)—all of them are conducted by a purportedly “expert” panel or individual. In contrast, the Zagat survey has the voting surveyors—like you and me—determine the best restaurants by rating them on food, décor, and service, plus a brief qualitative description. For their efforts, surveyors are usually compensated with a copy of the guide to which they contributed.

This year’s DC-Baltimore Zagat survey shows several notable changes among the top food ratings. For the first time in the history of the DC Zagat survey, three restaurants—Marcel’s, The Inn at Little Washington, Komi—earned 29/30 food rating.  Special congratulations to Marcel’s Chef Robert Wiedmaier for earning his first-ever highest food rating for the DC survey.  Additionally, four moderate or inexpensive restaurants debuted in the top 40 food ratings, including Honey Pig Gooldaegee, Ray’s Hell Burger/Ray’s Hell Burger Too, Amsterdam Falafelshop, and Masala Art. Finally, in Baltimore, not a single Japanese restaurant made the top 20 for food ratings—a first since I started following the Zagat in 2002.

During the interview, Mrs. Zagat emphatically stated that the Washington, DC area “continues to become an important food destination.”  DC has certainly been a hot city for top restaurateurs and chefs to enter from other culinary cities such as New York City, San Francisco, etc. While prominent chefs like Jean Georges, Charlie Palmer, Michael Mina, and Wolfgang Puck have opened highly-rated restaurants in DC, none of them made the top 40 for food ratings.

Speaking of high food ratings, the DC area is proudly home to The Inn at Little Washington—the only restaurant in the DC-Baltimore guide’s history to ever earn the perfect 30/30.  Naturally, I wondered if any restaurant ever received the perfect 30 for either décor or service, to which Mrs. Zagat said she could not immediately recall off the top of her head.  In the case for latter, it is not a surprise because the most frequently polled complaint among surveyors is inadequate service.

When discussing about how restaurants and diners are adapting to the prolonged economic downturn, Mrs. Zagat noted, “General interest [of diners] is paying attention to cost and getting good deals.  Chefs are experimenting with different dishes [to raise the level of interest of diners]… Restaurants are grateful and welcoming of customers during this difficult economy.”  From a diner’s point-of-view, agreeing with Mrs. Zagat, I feel a greater sense of appreciation from chefs/owners and managers.  Unfortunately, in my experience, the sense of appreciation does not necessarily translate into the quality of service provided by under-trained servers possibly due to cost-cutting, which seems more distinguishable at fine restaurants.

The Zagat Survey has been tremendously helpful for me when searching for fine restaurants not only in the DC area but also when traveling abroad to cities like New York City, San Francisco, and London. The guide is very well-organized so that you can find a restaurant by cuisine/specialty food item, neighborhood, and other special categories like late-night dining and brunch spots. Like any restaurant guide, you don’t want to rely solely on it. For instance, it is not the most accurate in rating Asian cuisines in general. Nonetheless, it is the first place I go for initial screening of restaurants, specifically fine dining places—for which it has been very reliable.

Enjoy your adventures in dining out, maybe with the help of Zagat survey. Also, vote in the next survey to let your voice be heard and to receive a free copy of the Zagat survey!