My dinner with Zagat.

Dissecting the mainstream.
Jan. 28 2007 9:09 PM

My Dinner With Zagat

A night on the town with guidebook royalty.

Illustration by Rob Donnelly. Click image to expand.

Tim Zagat—a "well-built but not portly" man, with "hawk-like features" and the garrulous manner of "a favorite uncle of one of your friends from college"—has the good fortune to work around the corner from the Time Warner Center at 10 Columbus Circle in New York City. This is fortuitous because Zagat and his wife, Nina, the publishers of the best-selling Zagat Survey and America's most famous restaurant enthusiasts, like to go on nighttime perambulations of New York restaurants. With its chic eateries and suave maitre d's, the Time Warner Center offers a good starting place for such an excursion, and an ideal laboratory in which to observe the Zagat aesthetic.

To survey New York restaurants with the Zagats (an honor afforded to journalists who ask nicely) is a bit like sailing the coast of South America with Ferdinand Magellan. If it exists in New York, the Zagats have surveyed it. It can be a restaurant, a night club, a hotel, a wine shop, a gourmet market, or a building. As if to prove the reach of the Zagat empire, Tim Zagat performed an experiment at the Time Warner Center. He walked to the First Republic Bank on the first floor and asked for a copy of Zagat's 2007 Time Warner Center Guide. A bank teller returned with a handful. Zagat then proceeded to the building's information desk and requested another copy of the same Zagat guide. It was furnished. Apologizing now for having a "fat head," he rode the escalator up to the second floor and walked into Borders bookstore. He stopped about 10 feet inside the entrance, so that he could see one clutch of crimson Zagat Survey 2007 guides on the bookshelves and, by turning his body a few degrees to the left, another clutch near the cash registers. "That's called marketing," he said, gesturing at the shelves, and then, pointing at the registers, "and that's called merchandising."

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Tim and Nina are quoted in Zagat's 2007 Time Warner Center Guide as saying, "From the standpoint of dining, this is the most important building in the United States, and that's just based on the restaurants that are already open." Tim has been coming here a lot lately. He revealed that he'd been to Porter House New York three times in the last two weeks—a rare thing, since the Zagats are professionally predisposed to eat at restaurants all over New York City. "What time is it now, 7?" Zagat asked, surveying the dining room. "By 7:30 or 8, this place will not have an empty seat. It failed utterly as a steakhouse when it was called V. It looked like a Las Vegas bordello. I wouldn't know what a Las Vegas bordello looks like—I want that on the record. … It was a nice space, but it wasn't a steakhouse design. Now, here's the menu. This place is not cheap."

Michael Lomonaco, Porter House's chef, arrived. Zagat said, "Michael has two brothers, and they are doctors, and I'll say this about him. He personifies the professionalism a doctor would have and it shows."

"I appreciate that," Lomonaco said.

Zagat continued, "Coming over and seeing the business you've been doing, I think you're going to be here a long time."