The Survey: An Interview with Nina Zagat

By Sarah Begley ‘12

Nina Safronoff Zagat ’63, along with her husband, Tim Zagat, founded the Zagat Survey. The iconic maroon books have pervaded restaurant society for decades, and the ratings have become even more relevant of late, now that they have been integrated with the Google+ local pages. Zagat speaks about the restaurant industry, the evolution of the Survey, and her path to success.

Nina Zagat '63 with husband Tim.
Nina Zagat '63 with husband Tim.

Many are surprised to learn that you studied at Yale Law School and practiced law for many years. What kind of law did you practice?
I had a general practice within Shearman & Sterling, a large Wall Street law firm. For over 20 years, I did everything for individual clients—taxes, estate planning, foundations, etc. I also coordinated with the corporate and litigation departments for our individual clients. Early in my legal career my husband, Tim, and I were transferred to Paris. (Tim was with the law firm of Hughes, Hubbard & Reed.) We worked in Paris for two years and loved every minute of it. Then we came back to reality in New York City. During the two decades after returning to New York I worked for a large number of prominent clients.

How did you first become interested in food?
As a child I loved picking blueberries with my grandmother and watching everything she did in the kitchen. I didn’t do any cooking until I went to Yale. I was dating Tim, and I experimented with cooking for fun and relaxation. At law school we were working with complicated concepts, and I wouldn’t know if I totally understood something like torts until the end of the term. But with cooking, I found that I could make a meal, and within a couple of hours I would know if it was a success. The immediate feedback was satisfying, especially since I got lots of positive feedback from Tim.

While you and Mr. Zagat were practicing in Paris, I believe you took classes at Le Cordon Bleu.
My interest in food and cooking blossomed while I was living in Paris. Attending Le Cordon Bleu was my recreation. Also, Tim and I went to all kinds of wonderful restaurants, both in France and throughout Europe. And the local markets where we shopped in the sixth arrondissement were extraordinary—they piqued my interest in cooking and the French language. The classes at Le Cordon Bleu were all in French.

How did the Survey first begin?
The Survey started as a hobby. When we lived in Paris we created a one-page restaurant list called Le Guide des Guides. It was a comparison of the ratings of Paris restaurants by all the different guides and by a group of our friends. We wanted to make sure that every time we had to take a client out, for example, we would be making a smart choice. It turned out that Le Guide des Guides was very popular among our friends and clients.

So you brought that concept back with you to New York when you returned.

When we were back in New York, we realized that we couldn’t rely on the information that we got from the local restaurant critics. When it was five o’clock and we were talking about getting together for dinner, it wasn’t very helpful to think of a review that might have appeared in the paper a couple of months before. More importantly, we found that we often disagreed with the restaurant critics and preferred to hear what our friends thought. Also, restaurant critics were likely to be writing long reviews describing the restaurant’s lighting and how the cream sauce was made. We wanted to know: How is the food? How is the décor? How is the service? How much does it cost? What type of food is served? What part of town is it in? We wanted to get this information in a short, easy-to-use format similar to what we had done in Paris.

In a New York magazine profile in 1985, just as the Survey was taking off, your husband said that your approach worked better than that of professional restaurant critics because “a hundred mouths are better than one.” Today, crowd-sourced information is so popular, but back then that democratic approach was ahead of its time.
Yes, our democratic, social approach was totally new. We believed that polling a cross-section of our friends would give us more accurate, reliable results than any critic could. We started in 1979 with our wine-tasting group, then friends of friends. We kept expanding organically. The democratic approach was core to what we were doing. In 1982, when we started thinking about publishing our guide commercially, we spoke to many major publishers. They all turned us down. One of the reasons they gave was that our ratings and reviews were based on ordinary people rather than professionals. We were going against the grain. Another reason was that we wanted to have a pocketsize guide, essentially making it mobile. The publishers thought it would get lost on bookstore shelves. Finally, the publishers said that local content would never sell. Ironically, the fact that our vision was to have something that was social, local, and mobile was the reason that the professionals rejected us. Of course, that’s exactly the reason the guides became popular, and that they’re so current today. We also thought it was important to present the information in an organized way. So by separately rating food, décor, service, and cost, we would give people a way to make smart decisions for themselves about what was most important to them. People are looking for different things at different times, and we empowered them to make their own decisions—to make choices that were the right ones for them.

Do you think that restaurants take certain factors to heart more than others? Are the specialized ratings ever a reality-check for some restaurants?
I believe that restaurants read the ratings and reviews and trust them; they know that the methodology is fair, and that the opinions come from their own clients. When they see their results, they have, in essence, a report card that gives them a good snapshot of how they’re doing. And, of course, if they see that one of their scores is low, we hope and believe that they will try to improve. Then both they and their customers benefit.

Do you think that the Zagat Survey ever had make-or-break power over new restaurants?
No. We don’t give a full rating until we get the feedback of many customers over time. What we’re doing is putting the feedback from consumers in an orderly format and curating their comments into a carefully edited short review. That information gives other consumers a way of comparing places, making informed decisions, and being comfortable in trying new experiences.

Speaking of the people who write in and share their feedback with you, do you believe that anyone can be a restaurant critic? Or are certain qualities necessary?
People who love to eat out, who love food, and who are interested enough to participate are the kind of people we want to hear from. They are also the people who like to participate in our surveys.

You think it’s a self-selecting group, then?
Yes. People would not take the time to participate in it if they were not really interested. That is also true for the other areas we survey—hotels, shopping, nightlife, etc.

When you and your husband go out to try new places, what kind of restaurants do you prefer? Do you have favorite cuisines? Favorite settings? A preference for upscale or downscale?
Tim and I are always interested in trying new places and staying up to date. I’ve always been interested in places that have high food scores but that might not do so well in terms of their décor and service, and are, therefore, usually inexpensive. Places that are able to deliver great food at reasonable prices are definitely worth trying. I used to specialize in finding those places when we had young children, because you didn’t have to worry if they were a little rambunctious or dropped things on the floor. At an elegant restaurant, children feel out of place.

Let’s fast-forward a little. In recent years, you’ve made some changes in the business model—especially since Google purchased Zagat in September 2011. What has changed, and how has it affected your leadership at the company?
We always charged for our content; now it is free. The content is available across all Google platforms as well as in bookstores. People can access the content when they’re doing a search on Google, on Google+, or through the popular Google Maps app for iOS and Android. We’re also expanding much more quickly around the world. Tim and I remain co-chairs of Zagat.

I have to mention Yelp, which has emerged as a direct competitor. How does Zagat differ from Yelp? I know, for example, that Zagat offers crowd-sourced but edited information; on Yelp, a single reviewer writes an entire chunk of text.
Our surveys have always been based on the information provided by the participants. However, we saw from the beginning that it wasn’t very useful to just have pages and pages of comments on a particular place. We’ve always believed that the most useful way to present this information to consumers is to curate the reviews, to pull together quotes from lots of different people based on the numerical ratings received by a place.
For example, if a restaurant gets a 28 for food on our 30-point scale, an editor can’t pick quotes—no matter how funny they might be—if they’re describing bad food. So within the ballpark of the numerical ratings, Zagat editors pick the comments that are the most relevant to all of the key factors in one’s choice of a restaurant—i.e., food, décor, service, and cost.
That exercise is extremely time-consuming, and it involves a great deal of editorial skill. It’s what makes the Zagat content more useful than sorting through pages and pages of comments.

In an interview with the New York Times in 2010, you and your husband said you had no plans to retire. Is that still the case?
Yes. We both love what we’re doing at Google. We’re staying busyand challenged.

Any advice to young Vassar grads about choosing career paths?
To succeed you have to do what you love, and you have to stay open-minded. For example, when I graduated from Vassar, I would never have imagined that I would create Zagat Survey with my husband. You must be ready to take opportunities as they come along. But only do things that you really love, because you’re only going to succeed in things where you put in extraordinary effort.

Sarah Begley ‘12 is an assistant at Newsweek and the Daily Beast.