Zagat New York City Restaurant Survey

Spending, Tipping Up; Closings, Service Gripes Down; Newcomers Gather Steam, Great Year Ahead; Smoking Ban Fuels Dining Out; Bottled Water Given the Boot - 71% of Diners Prefer NYC Tap
Top Spots: Union Square Cafe (Popularity); Le Bernardin (Food); Danube (Decor); Daniel (Service)

NEW YORK, Oct. 20 /PRNewswire/ -- New York restaurant-goers, who have been shaken and stirred the past several years by multiple economic and psychic challenges, finally seem to have regained their footing and are poised for a breakout in the coming year, according to the 2004 Zagat New York City Restaurant Survey.

Zagat surveyors report they are both eating out and spending more than they were two years ago, when the city was reeling from recession, anthrax scares and the full brunt of September 11, never mind the white-out winter of 2002 or the black-out, rain-out summer of 2003. No wonder tipping went up in that same period, while per-meal spending ticked up this past year, especially at NY's more expensive eateries. But the city's restaurateurs looking to inflate tabs by selling bottled water will find their glass half full as 71% of the Zagat respondents say they prefer tap water when eating "at a fine dining restaurant."

And the city's recent smoking ban, far from curbing restaurant traffic, has given it a major lift. Meanwhile, openings are perking up, closings dropping, and service complaints continue to trend downward. And on the way is the best crop of new restaurants that the city has seen in many years. What's not to feel good about? Zagat has also reached a milestone -- the 2004 guide is the 25th annual edition of the Survey. What started humbly in 1979 as a two-page Xeroxed sheet rating 75 restaurants by 200 avid amateur critics has now become the world's best-selling dining guide series. The latest book draws from a record 29,361 volunteer diners, assessing 1,918 NYC restaurants.

The sheer statistical breadth of Zagat's NY coverage has reached some 5.2 million restaurant visits in the past year, or 14,200 surveyor meals out daily. Worldwide, Zagat now has over 250,000 registered surveyors rating not just restaurants but hotels, nightlife destinations, shopping, home entertaining resources, theater, movies, even golf courses. Last month, Zagat issued its first-ever Music Guide rating the 1,000 top albums of all times. The beat goes on.

Here are summary news points from the silver anniversary Zagat NYC Survey:

1) Diner Frequency Steady, Mood Rising -- Surveyors' pace of eating out this year was a healthy 3.4 meals per week, just a few hundredths of a point less than last year's rate. However, Zagat detects clear signs of renewed diner optimism in New York. Thirty-two percent of surveyors report they are eating out more this year than they did in 2001 (including the post-Sept. 11 drop.) And 53% say they are spending more per meal this year than in 2001, with only 12% claiming to spend less. That such a strong sense of improvement on two major fronts is reported by such a large group of active diners is a bellwether for a further upswing in restaurant activity in 2004.

2) Newcomers Gain Strength -- The Survey lists 174 noteworthy restaurant openings this year, a number that bumped up in recent weeks, with a lot more on the way (see below), though the total is still well off the all-time high of 311 in 2000. Closings, which soared last year to 104, settled to 91 this past year. It says a lot about the dynamism of the NY restaurant scene that 174 new places constitutes an "off" year and is still nearly double the rate of closings. And the same pattern of openings outpacing closings prevailed throughout the city's last recession from 1988-1992.

3) Butts Out, Butts In -- Those who warned that NY's total ban on smoking would scorch the city's restaurant industry have a few ashes on their faces. Only 4% of the large Zagat sampling said they are eating out less as a result of the smoke-out policy; while almost six times as many, i.e. 23%, report eating out more given the smoke-free environment in the city's restaurants and bars; 73% said the laws (both state and city) had no effect on their dining frequency.

4) Hold the Pellegrino -- Devotees of New York's famously delicious tap water showed their clear preference in this year's survey: 71% of the Zagat respondents said they would rather be served tap than bottled water when eating "at a fine dining restaurant." That's a sparkling recommendation for the NYC reservoir system, with or without bubbles.

5) New Vintages -- While not one for the record books, the class of 2003 is maturing well and 2004 already looks like a vintage year. Just this fall have come the opening of several standouts: Lever House, a sleek New American power spot in the eponymous landmark building on Park Ave.; Mix in NY on 58th Street, combining the talents of uber-chef Alain Ducasse and impresario Jeffrey Chodorow; Schiller's, Keith McNally's model-heavy Lower East Side Brasserie; 'Cesca, Tom (Ouest) Valenti's Southern Italian gift to the West Side; and the noisiest launch of all, Rocco's on 22nd Street, which starred in its own TV reality show. Set to arrive in coming months is an even more impressive crop of newcomers, led by a flurry of A-list openings at the new AOL, excuse us, Time-Warner complex at Columbus Circle. Gray Kunz, the original maestro of Lespinasse will bring in a new international spot; Jean-Georges Vongerichten is importing his Las Vegas steakhouse Prime; and Thomas Keller returns to NY with an offshoot of his Napa Valley French Laundry, many gourmets' choice as the nation's best restaurant. They'll be joined by Ginza Sushi-Ko, from celebrated LA sushi chef Masa Takayama, who rated an astounding 29 for food last year. Other major sightings on the horizon: Spice Market, a Kunz- Vongerichten collaboration in the Meatpacking District; Vento Trattoria, the next sure thing from Steve "Midas Touch" Hanson; Ono, a new Japanese from Jeffrey Chodorow; Lucy, a Phil Suarez Oaxacan; Le Table, a French Provincial downtowner backed by cosmetics maker Occitane; and Riingo, an ambitious Japanese-American from Aquavit chef Marcus Samuelsson. It is even rumored that Chicago's best-known chef, Charlie Trotter, is headed here.

6) Home vs. Home Cooking -- Little noticed among the big-named arrivistes, the number of moderately-priced casual neighborhood restaurants with homey, hearty food continues to increase - 74% of this year's newcomers fit those criteria, which Zagat describes as Better Alternative to Home ("BATH"). Among the more tempting BATH spots around town this year: Celeste, Efendi, Five Front, Mermaid Inn and Westville.

7) Cost Controlled -- After several years of high inflation, the average cost per surveyor meal rose only 0.3 percent to $37.06 this year (drink and tip included). Among the city's 20 most expensive dining rooms, the cost was $91.73, a modest 1.2 percent increase over last year. In contrast, the overall inflation from 2000-2002 was 12.4 percent and 20.5 percent respectively. Although Gotham remains America's most expensive dining city, it is a relative soup kitchen compared with London ($51), Paris ($53) and especially Tokyo -- where the overall average is $67 and the 20 highest-priced meals average a cool $171.

8) Service Gripes Down -- Ratings for service continue to lag behind those for food, however New Yorkers' views of service have improved markedly. This year the average service rating for all NY restaurants was 17.91 percent. Five years ago it was 17.12. Just three years ago, 65% of Zagat diners cited service as their No. 1 complaint about eating out in NY; this year, it's a mere 52%, compared to other main gripes (17% - noise; 13% -- prices; 10% -- crowding; and only 1% -- food). This suggests that NY's front of the house has made significant strides in enhancing customer satisfaction -- the fact that the average tip has increased from 18% to 18.5% during this period is further confirmation.

9) Meyer's Turf War -- Despite the constant churning of NY's restaurant waters, only five establishments in the Survey's 25-year run have crested as tops in Popularity, Lutece (1980-88), Four Seasons (1989- 91), Bouley (1992-96), Union Square Cafe (1997-2002); Gramercy Tavern (2003). No restaurant ever reclaimed its Number 1 rank after being displaced ... until now. After dipping to second place last year following six straight championship seasons, Union Square Cafe, Danny Meyer and Michael Romano's civilized "paradigm of a NY restaurant," returns as the Survey's Most Popular eatery, only beating out its own sibling, Gramercy Tavern. Also unprecedented, Meyer now boasts two other spots secure in the Top 20: Eleven Madison Park (14) and Tabla (17).

10) Ratings Game -- In another big-time comeback, Le Bernardin, Maguy LeCoze and Eric Ripert's "marveilleux" French seafood shrine snatched back the No. 1 spot for Food away from Daniel, Daniel Boulud's French East Sider. Both were among seven restaurants with a 28 surveyor rating for cuisine (out of a perfect 30), including Brooklyn's Peter Luger (moving up to No. 3 from 9); Nobu, Bouley (up from No. 11), Jean Georges, and Grocery, Brooklyn's Smith Streeter that leapt to No. 7 from No. 36. With the departure of the Rainbow Room, a new winner was named for Decor -- Danube, David Bouley's Klimt-inspired homage to old Vienna in a jewelbox setting in TriBeCa. As for Service, Daniel set the pace with a 27. To see Zagat's top ratings in over 40 other categories, check pp. 9-19.

11) Twenty Year Wonders -- Two restaurants have dominated their respective categories for the last 20 years, Brooklyn steakhouse Peter Luger and Greenwich Village Italian Il Mulino. Peter Luger has retained its dominance with a nearly 3-point Food lead over its nearest competitor. However, Il Mulino finally lost its Top Spot to Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich's Babbo. Both restaurants still have stellar scores.

12) Other Movers -- Among restaurants shifting five spots or more in Popularity: Bouley, coming back to form and jumping to No. 12 (from 18); Atlantic Grill, to No. 20 (from 30); Ouest, a big leap to No. 27 (from 45); old-timer Felidia, to No. 33 (from 44); plus seven first-timers to the Top 50: Compass, Blue Ribbon, Town, Aix, Haru, Tao, and Nobu, Next Door. Among places slipping noticeably: Asia de Cuba, dropping to 29 (from 19) and Union Pacific, which fell to 32 (from 21), no doubt while star chef Rocco di Spirito was off taping The Restaurant.

13) Favorite Cuisines -- Italian cuisine, still the most popular ethnic in NY, has nonetheless dropped in recent years: 32% of surveyors identify it as their favorite food, vs. 37% three years ago. French is Number 2 at 18%, consistent with past years. But Japanese continues to streak, now tagged as the favorite by 15% of diners, up from only 4% three years ago. Thai likewise has gained sharply, 8%, up from 2%, calling it their favorite. On the other hand, Chinese food has been declining in popularity, dropping from 9% to 7%.

14) Buyers' Market -- Due to its unmatched depth of authentic cuisines and storefront eateries across every neighborhood, NY has plenty of options for bargain-hunting diners. As always, the Zagat guide maintains a list of "Bang for the Buck" winners headed this year by Mama's Food Shop, a pair of Greenwich Village "June Cleaver" comfort fooders, with a 22 Food rating at only $14 each. No. 2 top buy is Bereket, a Lower East Side Turkish kababerie whose 20 Food score qualifies it as a classic NY treasure, especially at $11 a head. Best Buys include 100 full menu restaurants and specialty shops ( Krispy Kreme leads the latter), as well as 200 Bargain Prix Fixe Menus at the city's finer restaurants (pp. 21-22).

15) Out of the Picture -- Two restaurant departures stand out this year. Lespinasse, the ultra-formal (and ultra-expensive) French room in the St. Regis Hotel and last month came word that La Cote Basque, Jean- Jacques Rachou's mural-filled, old-world French spot on W. 55th Street, would end its 45-year run in February to reopen as a casual brasserie. More modest passings in 2003 included Butterfield 81, Campagna, Christer's, Della Femina, Pazo, Sushisay, Two Two Two, and NY's long-running omelet queen, Mme. Romaine de Lyon.

16) Wandering Ears -- Noise complaints may rank second among diners' leading gripes (behind poor service), but surveyors remain selective about what's intrusive, reserving their right to enjoy a good eavesdrop. Thirty-two percent say that overhearing the next table is irritating, "no matter what's being said." However, 44% say listening to a neighbor's conversation can be quite entertaining, if not a much- needed diversion -- "I'll have what she's having!"