Young and Hungry

WTF: Makoto Is Once Again the Top-Rated Restaurant in the Annual Zagat Guide

ZAG08_CoverI obviously have nothing against Makoto, the meditative Japanese bento box of a restaurant in the Palisades, which specializes in kaiseki cuisine. I mean, I included the place among my 50 favorite restaurants in the D.C. area.

What does bother me about Makoto, however, is its stranglehold on the top spot in the annual D.C./Baltimore Zagat survey.

The 2010 guide just hit the streets, and once again Makoto tops the list. It scored 29 out of a possible 30 points in the food category, tying for No. 1 with Patrick O'Connell's Inn at Little Washington. I'm not sure how many years in a row now Makoto has claimed the crown, but I know the restaurant also tied for first last year with—yep, you guessed it—the Inn at Little Washington. Makoto also won in 2006.

The obvious question here is this: How can this tiny restaurant continually claim the top spot with D.C.-area Zagat raters and yet never crack the top tier of the local critics' lists? Makoto is No. 36 among the Washingtonian's Top 100 Restaurants for 2009 and didn't even make the cut on Tom Sietsema's most recent Dining Guide.

We may never know the reasons for Makoto's dominance, but last year when the 2009 Zagat guide was released, I wrote a column for the Onion's A.V. Club in which I speculated on possible explanations for Makoto's winning streak:

[I]t likely has to do with at least two factors: Zagat raters are self-selected (which statisticians will tell you can lead to survey anomalies) and all restaurants, regardless of cuisine, are weighed on the same 30-point scale (which means that, technically, a well-executed taco joint could top Citronelle in the food category). That’s not to say Makoto doesn’t deserve its lofty 29-point rating, but perhaps Makoto’s customers are less burdened by expectations than those who enter Komi or Palena or Eve. Or maybe Makoto’s fans have just learned to stuff the ballot box without detection.

A year later, after scanning the latest Zagat guide, I'd like to make a few more observations. For starters: Not only did Makoto and the Inn at Little Washington repeat as top performers this year, but so did Matchbox (top-rated for burgers, tied with Five Guys), Pasta Plus (top-rated pizza, tied with 2Amys), El Mariachi (somehow tied for the best Mexican with Oyamel), and probably others that I can't verify right now.

Now consider this: The 2010 guide says it is based on "7,235 avid local diners" who "collectively...bring roughly 1.1 million annual meals' worth of experience to this Survey."

Guess how many people took part in last year's survey? That's right, 7,235.

Something stinks here. I have an e-mail to the D.C. Zagat editor Olga Boikess, who is a kind and reasonable person. I'm hoping she can shed some light on what has historically been a very opaque voting process.

  • dc foodie

    That's why I don't rely on Zagat for restaurant direction - I rely on writers like you, Tom at the WaPo, and websites like DC Foodies, Yelp (sparingly) as well as the various blogs (Rockwell, Cowan, etc).

  • Elena Hork

    It's simply another reason why rating restaurants on a scale is beyond stupid. Food like art is subjective. Why do we have the need to do this? Because we like ranking things. And a horrible urge to have pointless lists. The wine points scale, equally stupid, like figure skating.

  • Michelle

    Makoto is the most amazing restaurant ever! That was the best meal of my life...that's not hyperbole. Next week, I am going back again for my anniversary. They deserve to be at the top.

  • Capital Spice

    We loved our Makoto experience...they really do what they do exceptionally well.

    It surprises me that more of the local critics DON'T rate Makoto more highly. Perhaps it's simply a matter of there not being enough places that do kaiseki poorly to show just how well-executed it is here. It may also reflect some inherent bias (non-malicious) toward restuarants whose menus and service are more in line with the French/European tradition than the Japanese.

  • Jon

    Im a long time Zagat reviewer and I dont give a "well executed Taco place" the same high score I would give to Eve or The Inn at Little Washington. Good fast food rates as a 20 or so, not a 30.

  • Pingback: More on Makoto and Zagat’s Undying Love For It - Young & Hungry - Washington City Paper

  • Pingback: Zagat Responds to Y&H Posts on Makoto and Its Repetitive Guides - Young & Hungry - Washington City Paper