People's Choice or Not, Zagat Has the Food

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Who says L.A. restaurant diners aren't loyal? Just check out the new 1995 Zagat Restaurant Survey. Trendy food lovers may rush off to check out the newest, hottest restaurant, but they remain faithful to their old favorites, too. According to the pocket-sized guide, the restaurant-going public has voted Patina tops in the city for both food and popularity four years in a row.

The Zagat Survey has become an indispensable tool for serious eaters, food professionals and the general public. It's handy for phone numbers, addresses and for its thumbnail sketches of the cuisine and ambience. And it's cheap, too--only $9.95. But the top 50 food ratings have always seemed somewhat mysterious. Are we to believe Shiro is better than Citrus? Le Chardonnay beats Xiomara? Brent's Deli tops Broadway Deli? Give me a break.

Each year restaurant diners are invited to fill out a detailed questionnaire critiquing their favorite restaurants. Once the results are in, each restaurant is then rated on a scale of 0 to 30, based on the computer averaging of the scores received from would-be critics. (Patina scored 28 on food compared with 17 for Tony Roma's rib joint.) Selected comments from participants are also larded through the short text.

According to founder Tim Zagat of New York, who has made a bundle off the public's desire to be temporary restaurant critics, 5,500 people took part in this year's survey.

But some wonder how many of those 5,500 were legitimate restaurant-goers.

"The whole thing is fishy," says Piero Selvaggio, who owns Valentino in Santa Monica, which is again rated L.A.'s top Italian restaurant (although his Sherman Oaks restaurant, Posto, considered to be the Valley's best restaurant, never made the list). "I don't believe that the public has much to do with it. I think (the publishers) just decide what they want to say."

"That's just nonsense," responds Zagat. "Piero is too smart to say something like that; 5,500 people participated in the survey. We have been doing this for nine years in Los Angeles. The fact is the book has stayed the test of time. We go through hoops to make sure nothing like that happens."

"There was some curiosity about the guide the first or second year," Selvaggio adds, "but it's slowly becoming very boring. I'm not a big fan of Zagat."

Neither is Xiomara Ardolina, who owns one of the area's best French bistros. Her Pasadena restaurant, Xiomara, has never made the list of 50 top-rated restaurants. "I don't know why I'm not on the list. Maybe it's because I don't bother to fill out a questionnaire, and I don't hand them out to my loyal customers."

But some restaurateurs do. "We have 30 investors, and we give (the questionnaire) to them to fill out," says Bistro 45 owner Robert Simon. "We don't do any lobbying or send out Zagat forms to large groups of people. But they are available here. I talked to (L.A. Zagat editor) Merrill Shindler about it and he told me, basically, 'Use them (the forms) at your discretion.' "

"I never said that," Shindler says. "I have never left copies at a restaurant. It's not something we do. We discourage restaurateurs from filling them out."

"I'm very scrupulous about it," Simon says. "And I don't ask my customers to say anything about Bistro 45. We just tell them, 'It's Zagat time.' Many restaurateurs hand them out. "

"I handed out photocopies when I was manager at Roxxi," says Robert Ramirez, who now manages Val's in Toluca Lake. "A lot of customers don't know anything about the Zagat. If it's supposed to be the people's choice, how can they vote if they don't have a form?"

"I wish I was that bright," says South Bay restaurateur Michael Franks, whose bistros Fino and Depot joined Chez Melange in the top 50 this year. "I swear I'm real straightforward. We never gave our customers copies to fill out. I'm surprised they (Zagat) even accept Xerox copies."

They don't. According to Zagat, the questionnaires are printed with colored ink in fold-out form to prevent photocopying. All photocopies are tossed out. "We have four or five ways to prevent ballot stuffing," Zagat says. "If we catch anyone trying to play that game, they won't be in the book."

Zagat insists no photocopies were included in this year's results. "People can say what they want," he says. "The Zagat speaks for itself. It's the best-selling guide in Southern California."

*For more restaurant coverage, please see Thursday's Food Section and Sunday's Los Angeles Times Magazine.

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