September 06, 1999 12:00 PM

With his treadmill set at a not-exactly-Olympian 3.5 mph, Tim Zagat puffs his way through a two-mile workout at his New York City gym. “I am in obvious need of this,” says the 59-year-old publisher. “I go to about 600 restaurants a year. People are always bringing out new dishes to try. And,” he adds with a grin, “I have to try them all.”

He and wife Nina, 57, didn’t cook up a dining-guide empire by sticking to salads. Twenty years ago, the two created their first Zagat Survey, a photocopied, two-page labor of love compiling 175 friends’ and acquaintances’ evaluations of a few dozen New York City eateries. Now their slim maroon guidebooks rate a belly-busting 17,000 restaurants in 27 U.S. cities and regions and five foreign locales, thanks to some 100,000 volunteer survey takers. And the Zagats, who added a U.S. hotel guide in 1988, are on an expansion binge, introducing nightlife surveys that will hit shelves next month, launching a “Web site and touting a Diners’ Bill of Rights. The icing on the cake: The Zagats, who in ’98 sold 650,000-plus New York City dining guides alone, grossed upwards of $20 million last year.

The onetime Yale Law School classmates are pleased as punch that Americans’ increasing taste for dining out has helped turn their passion into a publishing sensation. “We came along at the right time,” says Tim Zagat (pronounced zuh-GAT). “Wouldn’t you rather have 3,000 opinions on whether a place is good than just one?” Indeed, though chefs have at times taken potshots at the Zagats’ populist approach—scolding survey takers’ stodgy tastes or claiming the results are skewed by ballot-box stuffing—plenty of foodies swear by it. “When I read [newspaper] reviews, many times I’m wondering, ‘Does this person like what I like?’ ” says Italian-food lover Bill Cosby, a Zagat fan and friend. “Zagat is what a whole bunch of people say, so that gives me more of a feeling for it.”

The Zagats didn’t set out to be gourmet gurus. Neither Manhattan-reared Tim nor Long Islander Nina had sophisticated taste buds when they began dating their first semester at Yale Law in 1963. “When I was growing up, there was one kind of lettuce—iceberg,” recalls Nina. But when Nina took up cooking as a stressbuster, Tim, she says, was “an extremely appreciative audience.”

They wed in 1965, then spent three years working—and dining—in Paris. After returning to New York to continue law careers (Tim in corporate litigation, Nina in estate law) and to raise sons Ted, now 24 and a management consultant, and John, 22, a college senior, they pursued their culinary avocation with gusto. In 1979, after a dinner-party debate about the trustworthiness of restaurant reviewers, they put together their first annual survey, asking food-savvy friends for numerical ratings and witty comments about local eateries. “It was a hobby,” says Nina. “We had a good time with it.”

By 1981 they were giving away 10,000 copies a year. To recoup costs they decided to sell the guides, which they distributed themselves after several publishers turned them down. (Survey takers get free copies.) As business sizzled, Tim quit his day job in 1986, Nina in 1990. Now the Zagats command a staff of 140 full-and part-timers—and plenty of clout. Readers buzz over each year’s top food scores (in ’99, Le Bernardin was No. 1 in New York City, Le Francais in Chicago and Patina in L.A.) or applaud upsets, such as when the humble Manhattan takeout stand that inspired Seinfeld’s “Soup Nazi” outscored chic Le Cirque 2000 in 1998.

When not barnstorming eateries around the country, the Zagats hole up in a plush pad overlooking Manhattan’s Central Park or at their 160-acre estate two hours north of the city. Nina spends downtime collecting antiques; Tim moonlights as chairman of New York City’s visitor’s bureau. They also promote their nine-point Diners’ Bill of Rights, which includes expectations of “courteous, hospitable, informative service” and cellular-phone-free dining areas. Some of the 40 restaurateurs they invited to a summit last month groused about the proposed rules, but “this is our way of getting people talking about these issues,” says Nina. (When Tim later whips out his cell phone at dinner at Manhattan’s Tavern on the Green, she mutters, “I should bop him over the head.”)

But not even arguments about etiquette can curb the Zagats’ appetite for what they do. “There’s a real ebullience about them and food,” says ABC newsman Peter Jennings, a pal. “They genuinely believe in their eaters.”

Samantha Miller

Bob Meadows in New York City

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