STUFFING THE JUDGES--AND A BALLOT BOX

Restaurant critic Merrill Shindler, who, with associate Karen Berk, is in charge of the L.A. edition of the Zagat Restaurant Survey, has asked me to clarify my recent remarks on the apparent statistical inaccuracy of the poll.

Though it is true that no conventional statistical adjustments are made to the results, Shindler says, he and Berk do compare restaurant scores from the community at large with those of a test group of 50 respondents whom they know personally and whose taste they trust. Then, he says, if any one establishment gets very high or very low scores, they have a pretty good chance of determining if there's any ballot-box stuffing going on.

This might not satisfy a statistician, but it does provide at least some measure of control. And was any hanky-panky in fact uncovered in assembling the first edition of the survey, I asked Shindler.

"Well, there was one case," he replied, "but we didn't need the test group to notice it. One Westside restaurant, which shall remain nameless, was given the top rating on 35 different ballots, all of them filled in with the same typewriter and mailed from the same post office. Whoever did it didn't even bother to give scores to any other places. Needless to say, that stuck out pretty clearly, and we were able to discount the votes."

WHERE THERE'S SMOKE: As noted earlier in this column, many Beverly Hills restaurateurs have been complaining lately about loss of business due to the community's new no-smoking law. I have taken at least some of these complaints with the proverbial grain of salt: I saw with my own eyes that some of the places whose proprietors are bellyaching weren't doing very much business before the ban--and thus, to me, they seem to be using it as some sort of excuse.

Something has happened, though, that convinces me pretty firmly that the smoking ban is indeed a grave problem for at least some establishments: Kurt Niklas, proprietor of the ever-popular, upscale Bistro and Bistro Gardens, has closed the former restaurant for lunch, effective last week. This, he says, is precisely because he has lost the custom of a good many cigarette-using regulars during the day--and, as anyone who has lunched there in the 20 years or so it has been open will recall, the Bistro has always been jammed at noon. Tentatively, Niklas says he plans to reopen for lunch Oct. 1--"but that depends on whether or not there's a change in the smoking law. It's conceivable that we won't reopen at all."

The Bistro Garden, incidentally, is largely an outdoor restaurant, and thus most of its tables are not affected by the ban in the first place.

RUMOR CONTROL: In the past few weeks, some of them quite authoritatively, that veteran local restaurateur Lud Renick had sold his flagship Chronicle in Pasadena. Not so, Renick assures me. "I'm still the proprietor, the general manager and a part-owner," he says. "All that happened was that I took in a few passive partners who thought it might be fun to be in the restaurant business." Renick continues, as well, as owner of the elegant La Couronne in Pasadena and as part-owner of the Santa Monica version of the Chronicle--which, as noted here recently, has a new chef, a new manager and a $100,000 face lift.

WATCHING MANNERS: That booklet about tipping by Miss Manners that I sent away for March 2 still has not arrived. My problem: Should I use my business stationery, my formal note cards or a crudely-lettered post card full of childish invective, in writing to complain?

TASTE: The Woman's Building and the Women's Culinary Alliance join forces for a celebration of California women artists and women chefs at the new Four Seasons Hotel next Sunday. "Food Is Art; Art is Food" will feature a gala buffet prepared by some 45 local chefs and caterers. Among the restaurants represented will be Angeli, Camelions, Chez Helene, Gilliland's, Patout's, Sabroso, Scratch, Sofi, Yanks and the Four Season's own dining room. An art auction will complement the event; works to be auctioned are on display at Scratch in Santa Monica. Tickets to the benefit event are $125. Information: (213) 221-6161.

OTHER AFFAIRS: Cafe Pierre in Manhattan Beach celebrates its 10th anniversary with a special wine maker's dinner Wednesday featuring the wares of Hubert Trimbach, one of the best-known producers in Alsace. . . . Lawry's California Center holds its ninth annual Wine Festival Alfresco Monday and Tuesday. . . . And an exhibition of restaurant, retail and wholesale wine lists and related material from the collection of veteran food and wine writer Roy Brady is on display at Cal State Northridge's Oviatt Library through Aug. 31. The collection spans 169 years, from a sherry bill of lading dated 1818 to this month's computerized wine list from Michael's in Santa Monica.

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