Nina and Tim Zagat

A weeklong electronic journal.
June 4 1999 5:14 PM

Nina and Tim Zagat

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We ate gloriously here in Los Angeles today. First, at the launch of our new Marketplace Survey at Campanile, we got to sample the wares of dozens of the area's finest purveyors. Barney Greengrass brought latkes topped with dollops of caviar; Edelweiss brought their famous chocolate-covered pretzels ("better than sex," the Survey says); Whole Foods brought mango chicken, "It's Alive" salad, and artichoke bottoms. Then, for dinner we went to Matsuhisa, the fabulous Japanese restaurant on La Cienega and, according to our L.A. Survey, the city's second best restaurant (exceeded only by Patina). There, we were treated to omakase, when all ordering is left in the hands of the chef.

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Matsuhisa scrupulously honored all nine articles of our Diners' Bill of Rights, our fledgling effort to improve the experience of dining for customers and restaurateurs alike, to which we alluded yesterday. But--let's admit it--we're privileged characters, especially where we're known. In no way are our dining experiences representative. Even though restaurants have grown more professional and attentive in recent years, dining out can still be an expensive ordeal. That's where our proposed Diners' Bill of Rights (which you can find at www.zagat.com) comes in.

As a code of conduct, it's still in its early stages, more Articles of Confederation than Constitution. In fact, it's on our Web site precisely so that all you latter-day Hamiltons and Jeffersons out there can comment on it. No one's affixed a John Hancock to any of it yet; later this summer, perhaps at the Culinary Institute of America or a New York City venue, we hope to meet with a group of prominent restaurant owners to finalize the text.

This is what the founding father--and mother--have come up with:

1) The right to courteous, hospitable, informative service, starting with reservations handling. Sometimes the fancier and more successful the restaurant, the more contemptibly they treat people, subjecting customers to long waits on the phone, misinformation, and other assorted abuses. Sometimes, before you even get to a restaurant you're mad at them, and once you arrive they only compound matters with their haughtiness. The revolution over the training of chefs in the last 20 years still hasn't reached the front of many restaurants; to paraphrase Al Jolson, you have to walk a million miles for one of their smiles.

2) The right to be seated within 10 minutes of reservation. Realistically, this may have to be lengthened a bit, but hey, what are constitutional conventions, even electronic ones, for? In any case, reservations have to mean something. And if you're made to wait, you should be tended to--i.e., informed of the time remaining and, perhaps, handed some noshes or a free drink.

3) The right to clean, sanitary facilities and fresh, healthful food. Of course, some of this is already the law in most jurisdictions. But it's amazing how careless some restaurants are; Tim goes into kitchens as much as he can, and reports that some of them, even in popular restaurants, are pigsties. The lawyers in us recognize the definitional problems here; the two of us disagree, for instance, on whether or not foie gras, delicious as it is, is ipso facto unhealthy.

4) The right to make special dietary requests. Most good restaurants already take such things in stride, although it's most comfortable for all to discuss it in advance of your arrival.

5) The right to send back any unsatisfactory food or beverage without charge. This involves a cultural change, for most diners are too timid. But for both parties, it makes perfect sense; if a customer feels he had a lousy meal, he'll tell his 10 best friends what a lousy meal he had. With a small and comparatively inexpensive gesture, restaurants can turn potential assassins into their best advocates.

6) The right to smoke-free and cellular phone-free seating. The former is now the law in many jurisdictions; the latter should be regulated, too--by the restaurant. Who the hell wants to spend a meal listening to some loudmouth talk to his stockbroker, especially if he's just made a killing?

7) The right to bring your own wine, subject to a reasonable corkage fee. Surely the most controversial provision--and the most difficult to ratify, since restaurants have large profit margins on their wine--but a matter of fundamental fairness to diners. Still to be determined: what a "reasonable" fee is.

8) The right to complain to the manager. And why not, if you don't get any satisfaction from a waiter? In any case, managers should want to hear of any troubles; it will help them run tighter ships.

9) The right not to tip if dissatisfied with the service. This should go without saying, but so entrenched has tipping become that restaurants feel entitled to something, even if the service is terrible. As George Bush once said, "This cannot stand." (Note to cheapskates: This should not be an excuse to stiff perfectly conscientious waiters).

We've purposely left room for a 10th, and there are many candidates: that restaurants must announce how much specials cost, for instance, or must treat men and women equally.

Some benighted newspaper reporter suggested recently that we were trying to take over the restaurant industry. In fact, that's the last thing we want to do. What we really want is to help the restaurant industry satisfy customer demand. We think that's a win-win situation; keeping customers happy is simply good business. Eventually, we hope, this Diners' Bill of Rights will be as ubiquitious in American restaurants as posters describing the Heimlich maneuver and admonitions to employees to wash their hands after pit stops, but displayed both more prominently and more proudly: in the front, alongside the awards.

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