Stirring the pot with Florence Fabricant

Zagats At Guild Hall




Come sit at my knee, child. Let me tell you of a time before crowdsourcing was a word, when a curator worked at a museum, and “yelp” was the noise a dog made.

In those long-ago days (okay, 40 years ago), Tim and Nina Zagat, a successful lawyer couple, maybe a little sick of the rat race — Zagat is pronounced like “a cat,” by the way; their words, not mine — started “a hobby,” said Nina Zagat.

The Zagats will be talking about their famed Zagat Guide with hostess Florence Fabricant at Guild Hall’s “Stirring the Pot” event on Sunday, July 28, at 11 AM. And they will be talking about how they got from a friendly survey to one of the most highly-regarded guides in the dining world.

At the time the Zagats were conceptualizing their guide, people were getting their restaurant advice from newspaper and magazine critics — one voice which wielded a lot of power. “Our concept was simple,” Tim Zagat said. “Sharing the experiences of a large number of restaurant goers was more likely to be accurate than the opinion of any one person.”

“And as more and more people became familiar with our survey results and found them to be accurate, they developed trust in them,” said Nina Zagat.

Back in 1979, the Zagats sent surveys to 200 of their closest friends to get their opinions on New York’s best-known restaurants. The result was a mimeographed sheet of over 100 reviews, each made up of quotes readers could “actually understand.” Eventually, the “burgundy bible,” as the book became known, spread to cities around the world, even recently with special sections including food trucks in larger cities. At the height of publication in the mid-2000s, their surveys included 70 cities, and no foodies worth their weight in tuna tartare could be found without a well dog-eared copy in their possession.

The Zagats were recognized as Entrepreneurs of the Year by Ernst & Young in 2000, and in 2001 were inducted into New York University’s Entrepreneurship Hall of Fame. They are also inductees of the Hospitality Industry Hall of Honor and the James Beard Who’s Who in Food & Beverage, are Fellows of the Culinary Institute of America, and have served on the White House Conference on Travel and Tourism.

Google purchased the Zagat company in 2011, leading to less dog-eared bibles and more digital age intel, and only last year the brand was acquired by Infatuation.com. But a new Zagat 2020 New York City Restaurants Guide will be published this fall to celebrate the Zagats’ four decades of working together.

Tim and Nina Zagat married in 1965. How has it been working together for all of these years? “Any good marriage has the understanding that you can disagree about specifics as long as you share the same overall goals. That has certainly been true in our case,” answered Nina Zagat.

In addition to the numerous merits she and Tim have received, Nina was named one of the Leading Women Entrepreneurs of the World by the Star Group in 2001, one of Crain’s Top Tech 100, featuring New York City’s most influential people in technology in 2001, and one of Crain’s New York 100 Most Influential Women in 2007.

“With many friends who live in the East End, we have visited regularly over the years,” she continued, speaking of the couple’s upcoming talk at Guild Hall. “We also published restaurant guides to Long Island, which, of course, focused on the East End, with thousands of residents participating.”

As far as where they see the dining world heading, Tim Zagat said, “The changes in the dining world since our start 40 years ago have been revolutionary on every level. We see this culinary revolution as ongoing, with even more improvements to come.”

Join Florence Fabricant and the day’s guest chefs for a complimentary continental breakfast at 10 AM, prior to the talk. Bring your vintage, dog-eared Zagat Guide from home and the Zagats will host a signing following the interview and Q&A, limit one book per ticket holder.

For more information and tickets, visit www.guildhall.org.

bridget@indyeastend.com