Those madly-compiling consumer-survey people at Zagat have released their 2006 (I realize this may be confusing since it is still 2005) America’s Top Restaurants guide, and find that the food just keeps getting better, but the service generally still smells like the dumpster out back in the alley where the homeless guy sleeps.
The book addresses 1,352 eateries in 41 cities across our fair land, surveyed by over 115,000 Zagatian restaurant-goers. In addition to rating and reviewing the most significant eateries in each city, the survey includes comparative data regarding meal costs, tipping, favorite cuisines, customer complaints, dining out frequency, and addresses a variety of national dining trends and issues.
“Its an eater’s market out there,” Tim Zagat, CEO of Zagat Survey said in announcing the guide’s highlights. “The number of really good restaurants in every city has soared over the last few years while meal prices have remained relatively consistent.”
On the Zagat’s 30-point food ratings scale, San Francisco (21.50), Las Vegas (21.10) and Miami (21.01) lead the pack. Food ratings are at their highest point ever nationally, consistently rising city by city over the past ten years. Unfortunately, service ratings lag behind food ratings everywhere by almost two points.
When asked what irritates them the most about eating out, there was a great deal of consistency in diners’ responses: “poor service” led the way in every city. Nationally, 72% of complaints focused on service. The remaining 28% of complaints were about Noise/Crowds (11%), Food (5%), Prices (4%), Traffic/Parking (4%), and the mysterious Other (4%).
“Year after year, our surveys show that service is the weak link in the restaurant industry,” added Mr. Zagat. One would think that restaurants could really get ahead by focusing ostentatiously on service, but what do I know?
Regarding prices, meals this year are 3% more expensive than they were a year ago, with a national average of $32.60. New York leads the pack with an average meal tab of $37.61, 50% more than those in Atlanta ($24.72) or Seattle ($25.56). However, when compared to cities such as Tokyo ($70.64), London ($67.69) and Paris ($62.97), New York’s restaurants are a virtual steal.
On the question of tipping, the results present a clear contrast between the east and west coasts. Restaurant-goers in Philadelphia (19.2%), Atlanta (19.1%) and Boston (18.9%) are the nation’s most generous tippers, while diners in Seattle (18%), Los Angeles and San Francisco (both at 18.3) turn out to be the least. Nationwide, the average tip has been going up over the last several years from 18% in 2000 to 18.7% today – seems pretty reasonable to me. I give between 15-25% depending upon the level of service, what kind of mood I’m in, and how much I’ve had to drink.
The frequency with which Zagat’s surveyors dine out or take out has reached a national average of 53% and continues to grow. Similarly, according to market research publisher Packaged Facts, Americans eat 70 billion meals from more than 870,000 foodservice establishments a year.
Among the key trends this year is the rise of Japanese food, which clearly isn’t just for Californians anymore. In fact, sushi restaurants lead the Top Food and/or Most Popular lists in Boston (Oishii), Charlotte (Niko), Chicago (Mirai Sushi), Dallas (Tepo), Denver (Sushi Den), Las Vegas (Nobu), Long Island (Kotobuki), Los Angeles (Matsuhisa and Katsu-ya), Miami (Matsuri), New York (Sushi Yasuda), Portland (Saburo’s), San Diego (Sushi Ota), San Francisco (Sushi Ran), Seattle (Nishino) and Washington D.C. (Makoto), among others. On the other hand, fine Chinese dining, once the leading Asian cuisine in the U.S., seems to have stalled, with not even one Chinese restaurant reaching the Top Food Rankings.
And Zagat surveyors hold a special place in their hearts for New Orleans. The new guide addresses the Big Easy, saying, “Our hearts and minds have also been with New Orleans, which at press time is just starting to recover from Hurricane Katrina. Nevertheless, we have included the Crescent City section here, in the hope and faith that one of America’s richest restaurant capitals will rise again.”
What they said.