found and cultivated the careers of Warhol and
Lichtenstein and Rosenquist and Goings, many
artists. [Editor’s note: He died in 2012.] As a lark,
Ivan suggested—because Tim was unhappy
with the food and wine critics—that they start
Tim: It was probably the effect of all the wine I’d
drunk, but I said, “Why don’t we do a survey?
Everybody give me 10 names of people you
think would like to do this and I’ll ask them to
share their opinions.” We tried to decipher [the
feedback] into as concise a little review as we
could. I went to see [culinary icon] James Beard
at somebody’s suggestion, and he said, “Don’t
have cleanliness [as a category].” I said, “Why?”
And he said, “Because the day that they sue you,
the restaurant which you thought was dirty will
suddenly be very clean.”
Kyle Zolner, Zagat VP of survey research (2000–
2011); Google quantitative marketing manager
(2011–2017): You want to force people to make
the decision [with the 0 to 3 rating system]—is
it excellent or very good?—because if you give
everyone a bigger scale it’s going to pile up. The
distribution would be much tighter.
Dan Entin, Zagat product management
(2004–2008); Zagat digital product director
(2010–2011) and Zagat product lead at Google
(2011–2015): [This] meant that you had to take
a side. Did you like it, or did you not? Making
people take a stand was a valuable differentiator to that process.
Nina: As people got interested, we started circulating [the survey] through our law firms,
and then accounting firms and PR firms, places
where [people] ate out a lot as part of their work.
Daniel Boulud, chef, restaurateur, and founder
of the Dinex Group: In the ’80s, Tim would
always have pockets full of either guides or
review forms, to be done by hand and sent to
him. I was [executive chef] at Le Cirque, and
Tim would come in and pass [questionnaires]
around to anyone he knew at the restaurant or
who wanted to do the survey.
Tim: The first year we had 200 people. The next
year we had 500. The third we had a thousand.
Nina: We had huge expenses because we had to
make copies of all the questionnaires, send them
out to [people], then send [the results to data pro-cessors]. When we started realizing how much
this was costing, we decided that we ought to print
it as a book and see if we could find a publisher.
Tim: It wasn’t until the fourth year [in late 1982]
that we started selling it.
Nina: Every single publisher we saw turned us
down. They said people didn’t want to hear from
other people like them; they wanted to hear from
experts. Because it was social, local, and mobile,
they didn’t want it. Which of course was the best
thing that ever happened to us. . . . We started
printing these books ourselves, distributing
them ourselves. We put boxes of books in the
back of our station wagon and drove up Madi-
son Avenue and down Lexington Avenue, stop-
ping in bookstores and asking them if they
would like to carry our guides. . .
Tim: We got it into Doubleday, which was a small
book-shop chain at the time. It turned out we
were one of the best sellers. . . . As soon as the
other stores saw [that], we didn’t have much
trouble getting into bookstores.
THE BRAND EXPANDS;
AND INFILTRATES THE
A custom printing division helps boost the company as it tackles more cities, and in 1988 Zagat
launches a guide for hotels, resorts, and spas.
In 1992, Tim helps organize New York City’s
first annual Restaurant Week to coincide with
the Democratic National Convention (
multicourse lunches are offered for $19.92). By the
end of the ’90s, Tim becomes chairman of the
city’s tourism bureau, and Zagat is publishing
editions in London, Paris, and Tokyo.
Tim: Pete Gogolak came to us from one of the financial printing companies. [He was an executive
at Charles P. Young, and later at RR Donnelley.] He
had scored more points for the New York Giants
than any player in the history of the franchise . . .
and pioneered kicking soccer style. And he said, “I
like what you’re doing. Could I get deluxe customized copies?” He said, “I’d like to have a really nice
cover, imprint in gold leaf [my] company’s name,
have gilding around it, and have a ribbon in it.”
Then he said how many copies he’d like— 5,000.
Bingo! The lights came on and we said, “Of course
Nina: He is an enormously charismatic guy, and
he would go around to all of his best clients, getting these big companies to want to buy their own
custom Zagat guides. . . . The change in business
model, [to focus on] these specialized books as
opposed to the bookstores, was what really made
the company so profitable.
Tom Sietsema, food critic for The Washington
Post and former junior reporter: When readers called us about where to go for a romantic
restaurant, or what’s a great room with a view,
the guides were always within reach, right next
to a dictionary.
Alice Waters, chef, owner of Chez Panisse, and
founder of the Edible Schoolyard project: I
learned about it when it was still in New York
and thought it was incredibly useful [from a
consumer’s perspective]. . . . It’s terribly important to us that we’re meeting [diners’] expectations as well as ours.
Tim: The surveyors became our marketing team,
because they were all saying, “I did this. See?
They quoted me.” Let’s say a restaurant was
crowded and noisy. A hundred people said it
was crowded and noisy. They all thought they’d
Drew Nieporent, founder, Myriad Restaurant
Group: It was always funny—you’d get a few
people [who came into a restaurant] who would
say, “I’m a Zagat reviewer.” In the early days,
they wanted you to know that. They wanted to
be taken care of.
Nathan Myhrvold, former Microso; director
and VP (1986–1996) and CTO (1996–2000);
investor, Zagat; founder, Modernist Cuisine: I
met [Tim and Nina] when I was at Microsoft in
the early 1990s. They named me the chief gastro-nomical officer of Zagat and gave me a business
card. I have to say, it was the only useful business
card I’ve ever had, because you could present [it
at] a restaurant that wasn’t treating you well and
suddenly everything would change.
Allan Ripp, Zagat public relations director
(1986–2003): Tim was relentless about marching out books even if there was a small market.
If he could find an editor in Kansas City or St.
Louis, it was worth it to continue spreading the
brand and creating national data.
Tim: I would usually go around with friends,
sometimes people from the media. We’d go to 20
restaurants in a night, in and out in five minutes.
. . . Anytime I saw something that looked attractive, I’d say, “Stop,” and we’d go in.
Eric Ripert, chef and co-owner, Le Bernardin: He
came to the kitchen many times. It was not even
like, “Can I go to the kitchen?” He would just get
up from the table and go to the kitchen and say
hello and even give some Zagats to the cooks. The
cooks were, I think, very surprised and amused
by the situation, that Tim Zagat was giving them
Zagats. Believe me, they were taking them.
Danny Meyer, restaurateur; CEO, Union Square
Hospitality Group: I remember the days when
they would just walk in and out, they may not
even eat, but they would just want to get a sense,
a smell, a look, I think, to correlate the feedback
they were getting from their reviewers.
Tim: We were very much aware of the possibility