Young and Hungry

Zagat Responds to Y&H Posts on Makoto and Repetitive Guides

ZAG08_CoverThis weekend, Tiffany Barbalato, director of communications for Zagat, e-mailed to address some of the questions raised in two Y&H posts from last week, the first wondering about Makoto's quick ascendancy to (and permanent place among) D.C.'s top restaurants and the other detailing Zagat's oddly duplicate guides on even years. Barbalato was responding for Olga Boikess, the local D.C. Zagat editor who's on vacation.

Makoto, Barbalato notes, actually edged out the Inn at Little Washington for the top spot in the 2009 and 2010 guides, which are based on the same survey data. "Makoto in fact has a higher score of 28.9024 vs. Inn at Little Washington with a 28.8495," she writes. "We include an asterisk footnote in the guides to indicate when restaurants are in fact tied."

Barbalato has an explanation for Makoto's popularity: "Simply put, surveyors love its food, using words like 'impeccable' and 'perfection' to describe it. Americans' appreciation for Japanese cuisine has grown dramatically over the last decade, not just in DC, but all over the country," she writes.

The publicist can't tell me, however, how many votes a restaurant must tally before its rating is deemed statistically acceptable to the Zagat powers.

As for the essentially duplicate guides on even years, Barbalato writes to say Zagat confesses right at the start of each book (and online) that the 2010 survey is just an update.

"As you know, we are adding new content to daily and encourage surveyors to vote and add member reviews year-round. However, the printed '2010 DC/Baltimore Survey is an update reflecting significant developments since our last Survey was published.' (see first paragraph of book). As Michael Birchenall pointed out to you, we compile new survey results and prepare a new guide for Washington, DC/Baltimore every other year. This is why the winning restaurants and top lists you refer to in the 2010 guide are the same as last year's."

I wrote back to Barbalato to say I found her information lacking. First of all, I don't think that Zagat's language either in the book or online adequately conveys the idea that even-year guides are based on the previous year's surveys. In other words, I don't know if customers understand that they're still paying for old data and old ratings. A lot can happen to a restaurant in one year's time.

Second, I asked Zagat to address its historically opaque voting process and detail exactly how the guide deals with potential ballot-box stuffing. Until I can get a better grasp of how Zagat compiles survey data, and prevents fraud, I don't think I can give the guide much credence.

  • Daniel

    Zagat and Yelp are both great for looking up locations, hours, phone numbers, etc., but not much else.

  • dc foodie

    Love it. Keep it going, Tim. Keep it going!

    And I agree Daniel, only I would give more credence to Yelp - at least there you can read personal reviews from real people (and can disregard the overly laudatory or critical ones that might be stooges). Whereas with Zagat it seems to be anonymous voters and a rating system that does not produce statistically valid results.

    /Note: I have nothing against Makoto and bet it is a great meal. In fact I have tried to visit it on more than one occasion (but had scheduling problems and could not do it). That being said, I am completely unsold on the fact that a niche restaurant like Makoto with such few seats could ever garner as much voter support as places like Little Inn do. Completely unrealistic.

  • Lou

    I can't stand nor give Zagat any credibility. It's just so.......trashy? a weird way.

  • Simon

    I find Yelp a lot more useful than Zagat's ever was. I've found lots of new places on Yelp that I'd never heard of; can't recall ever hearing about a new place in Zagat's.

  • winenegress

    I use Zagat more for looking up location and general information about cuisine. Having live in the NY metro area for the past decade or so, I will say it's not only DC where the rankings are like insects trapped in amber. I do use their online links to restaurants that use Open Table, which is pretty convenient. Does Yelp link to Open Table (I have heard some less than flattering things about some quid pro quos on that site so I don't use it)?

  • Daniel

    I have been burned one too many times by Yelp reviews. Whether or not they're plants, I just don't know if the person reviewing has a palate.

    In the DC area, we're blessed to have great local reviewers, and great community sites like, that I don't miss Yelp at all.

    When traveling, if I can't get recommendations from friends, I usually try Chowhound.

  • winenegress


    I know some people who post to Chowhound regularly and they seemed to have credibility and no marketing or financial ties to the places they write about. Good recommendation.