Tucked inside The Lowell hotel in New York, Majorelle is one of those impeccably decorated restaurants that seems perfectly at ease in Manhattan’s Upper East Side. The restaurant was designed by Obama White House decorator Michael S. Smith. On a rainy Tuesday in August, Tim and Nina Zagat, the founders of the eponymous guide empire, chose the spot as the site for an interview with Sous-Vide, and being selected by the Zagats themselves is certainly not lost on the restaurant.
Naturally, the couple—joined by longtime friend and Cuisine Solutions Chairman and CEO Stanislas Vilgrain—seem to know nearly everyone in the house, from restaurateur Charles Masson to hotel owner Fouad Chartouni, seated nearby, and many guests. “This restaurant, in my view, is as beautiful as any restaurant in New York,” Tim Zagat tells Chartouni when he stops by the table—and coming from a man who’s been observing the New York City restaurant scene for nearly four decades, that’s quite a compliment.
The Zagats weren’t always the world’s most famous name in restaurant ratings, of course. Many years of overseeing their iconic dining guides may have made Tim and Nina into experts on the industry—and their name a household brand—but their interest began from a humble love of food after meeting as law students at Yale Law School. Nina Zagat recalls with fondness cooking for Tim during their early years together: “I had a great eater who loved tasting it all, so that was a big encouragement,” she says. The pair moved to Paris after graduation, where they both worked as lawyers and Nina attended Le Cordon Bleu. There, they began creating lists of highly rated restaurants in the existing Paris guides to reference when entertaining clients.
They called it Le Guide des Guides, or The Guide of the Guides. Then, having moved back to New York, in 1979 the Zagats started surveying their community. They asked family and friends, then friends of friends, then friends of those friends, to tell them about the places where they dined. These first surveys turned out to be the key to getting reliable intel on the sheer enormity of dining options in New York.
“If you want to cover a large number of restaurants, you can’t do it with just one person,” Tim says. “For example, if you go to a different restaurant for lunch and dinner five days a week, that means that you can go to 10 restaurants a week, once each; in a year, you might go to 520 restaurants, once each. There are 18,000 full service restaurants in New York. How could any one person possibly cover the New York scene?”
At the time, it was a completely new and innovative approach to evaluating restaurants. Instead of employing one full-time critic as a newspaper might, Zagat relied on thousands of amateur critics. By 2000, the Zagats had 48,000 surveyors eating out 25,000 times a day in New York alone. Today, people call this crowdsourcing. “We were trying to do something different from critics who are definitionally ‘critical,’” Tim says. “We were basically surveying regular restaurant-goers, and asking them to share what they honestly thought.”
The idea was not without challenges. Not everyone saw the new approach—built on the unfiltered opinions of normal people— as a slam-dunk. Over a plate of Majorelle’s Côtelettes d’Agneau au Romarin (lamb chops with rosemary), Nina describes the difficulty of finding a publisher for their first guide. “They all turned us down, saying it wasn’t a viable concept, saying that people didn’t want to know what people like them thought, they wanted to know what the experts thought,” she remembers. Eventually, they paid for the printing themselves.
The resulting success is now legendary. Craig Claiborne, the renowned restaurant critic for The New York Times, described the guides in a letter to the Zagats as “A marvellous, incorruptible—and to my mind—indispensable compendium of capsule reviews … It is one of the great contributions to dining in this country.” Other food writers came to call the Zagat guide “the Burgundy Bible.” At its peak, the New York guide sold 650,000 copies each year, Tim says. The Zagat brand eventually branched into 90 other cities and a host of other fields such as hotels, spas and resorts, movies, and golf courses. It became an integral part of informed wayfinding—long before reviews for nearly any product or service became available at the swipe of a fingertip. “The most mobile thing you could have at the time was our guide; it easily could fit in your pocket or a pocketbook,” Nina says. By 1999, the guides had extended online. “We gave a voice to the consumer,” adds Tim, “which now doesn’t seem strange, but in those days nobody had ever heard of asking normal people to say what they thought.”
Coupled with the explosion of social media—starting with MySpace in 2003, and followed by Yelp, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and Instagram—the last two decades have opened the floodgates for user-generated content. “You created an industry that 30, 40 years later became the norm,” Vilgrain says to the couple during lunch.
The Zagats’ influence extends beyond the who’s who (or where’s where) in the restaurant industry. The couple also helped Vilgrain and Cuisine Solutions advocate for sous vide in New York when it came under fire in the mid- 2000s. “We were able to make them look at the absurdity of the issue because, in the end, if you forbid sous vide you should also forbid sushi and sashimi,” Vilgrain says. Today, many New York restaurants use sous vide.
After the Zagat brand’s sale to Google in 2011 and a subsequent 2018 sale by Google to The Infatuation, another digital restaurant guide, the Zagats have now stepped back from day-to-day work on the guides. “Since that time, we’ve been meeting with The Infatuation and trying to be as helpful as we can,” Nina says. In November, The Infatuation will publish the Zagat 2020 New York City Restaurants guide, the first print guide under its umbrella. “We’re looking forward to using the new guide,” Tim says.
While any changes to the content of the new guide remain to be seen, one thing appears the same—that iconic burgundy cover, chosen by the Zagats decades ago. Says Tim: “Burgundy seemed like a good color to go with food.”