Few experiences are more satisfying than accompanying Tim Zagat on one of his regular tours of New York's restaurants. At first, when we enter Lattanzi, a "fancy-schmanzy" Italian place on Restaurant Row, the maitre d' is his usual, supercilious self, looking us up and down dubiously, wondering what on earth we're doing in his establishment. Then, after Tim Zagat introduces himself, he's transformed into an oleaginous sycophant, like Basil Fawlty trying to ingratiate himself with the chairman of the local golf club.
"Oh Mr Zagat, Sir," he says, clicking his fingers and sending Manuel look-a-likes scurrying in all directions, "I didn't recognise you, forgive me. Please, sit down, here, our best table. Have a glass of wine, some food, anything, compliments of the house."
The reason for this is that Tim Zagat is the co-publisher, along with his wife Nina, of the ZagatSurvey, the best-selling restaurant guide in New York. Known to everyone as Zagat's, the idea behind the guide is simple. Rather than reproduce the opinions of professional food critics, Zagat's is a distilation of over 16,000 different people's opinions, each having filled out a questionaire in which they award restaurants marks out of three for food, decor and service. The result is a survey of 1,800 New York restaurants, with each awarded a set of marks reflecting the views of ordinary customers rather than corpulent experts. Zagat's is a democratic, American version of The Good Food Guide.
Every year in April and September Tim Zagat makes his rounds of New York restaurants, like a Bishop inspecting his diocese. The ostensible purpose of these visits is to see which establishments have opened and closed since the previous year's guide was compiled, but the real reason is so Tim--a 55-year-old bear of a man--can be fawned upon by grovelling restaurateurs. He's a "Big Foot", the New York equivalent of a VIP, and he clearly enormously enjoys the attention he gets when he lumbers into a swanky restaurant.
"I'm Tim Zagat, by the way," he tells those maitre d's not quick enough to recognise him immediately. If that doesn't work, he thrusts a copy of Zagat's under their noses and says, "I do this." In the two dozen or so restaurants we visited on a single night last week, this ploy never once failed to have its desired effect.
Zagat's--pronounced Zuh-gat's--has expanded dramatically since it first appeared in 1979. In those days it encompassed only a few sheets of paper and Tim and Nina Zagat distributed it free to their friends. By 1982 they were printing 7,500 copies and they decided to turn it into a business. Tim gave up practicing law in 1987 to devote himself to it full time and today the New York guide sells almost half a million copies a year.
"I have a great life," says Tim. "I can get up every morning and do my hobby. I get paid to do my hobby!"
There are over 30 different Zagat guides, covering dozens of different North American cities, and 1997 will see Tim and Nina's first foray into Europe when they produce a survey of London restaurants. Anyone can become a Zagat surveyor, all you have to do is send a stamped-addressed-envelope to their London headquarters.
"Have you ever been to Bouley?" Tim asks me, referring to the French restauarant in Tribeca which has been voted the best restaurant in New York by Zagat's five years running. Minutes later we are being led through the dining room like Kings to be presented to David Bouley, the "genius" French chef whose Harley Davidson is parked ostentatiously just outside the kitchen door.
As Tim regales him--an old friend--with a long anecdote about taking out a group of Russian astronauts the night before, I notice a seating plan pinned to the wall by the door leading from the kitchen to the dining area. Next to some of the tables is a little asterix--these are the "special" customers who will be bombarded with free food and wine all night, "compliments of Mr Bouley". One of the names has "Zagat" written underneath it in brackets. It belongs to a friend of Tim's who works in the Mayor's office. As a favour, Tim booked the table for her, ensuring she'll get the VIP treatment.
Tim sees nothing wrong with boldly announcing who he is whenever he enters a restaurant. "I don't have to travel incognito," he explains, "because I don't vote in the Survey." Indeed, as the publisher of Zagat's he thinks it would be "unethical" if he were to vote in the Survey. You can't help admiring the logic which enables him to justify being treated like a God wherever he goes. In effect, he shamelessly exploits the ignorance of restaurateurs who mistakenly believe that treating him well will effect their rating in the guide, though he insists he pays for everything he consumes.
It's impossible to dislike Tim Zagat as he swans from restaurant to restaurant, soaking up the adulation. New York is his brair patch and he clearly loves every inch of it. When he was stabbed in a cinema watching Dances With Wolves a few years ago by a mugger he refused to talk to the press about it, not wanting to contribute to the image of New York as a dangerous town. He even went back the following week to see the rest of the film.
We finish up our evening together at the Oriental Garden, a sea food restaurant in China Town, where Tim polishes off the best part of a ten-and-a-half pound lobster washed down with Chinese beer. True to his word, he scrupulously pays for the meal, though before we're served he makes sure the maitre d' knows exactly who he is. "I'm Tim Zagat, by the way," he says, whipping out a copy of the guide. "I do this."