zagat guide, zagat restaurant guide, zagat new york
Peter Morgan/AP

Can Zagat Survive Web-Based Competition?

October 09, 2008 08:56 AM
by Sarah Amandolare
Revered restaurant guide Zagat has reached its 30th birthday, but will the overabundance of food blogs and online restaurant review sites spoil the party?

Talking About Food on the Web

The 30th edition of the prolific restaurant guide Zagat has just been published, but much has changed since the first, handwritten Zagat “Restaurant Survey” was released in 1980. Instead of competing only with professional food critics in newspapers, Zagat now contends with thousands upon thousands of food and restaurant bloggers, as well as review sites like Yelp and Chowhound, reports the New York Times City Room blog.

The situation poses key questions: Are bloggers and reviewers, most of whom lack any formal culinary training, truly qualified to be offering cooking advice or judging restaurants? Furthermore, is there any real value to the blog of an average home cook, beyond entertainment; and is their work undermining the work of professional food critics and chefs?

According to a March 2007 article in the San Francisco Chronicle, food bloggers and review Web sites have “a profound influence on where consumers spend their eating dollars.” The possibility of a trained chef’s livelihood being sabotaged by an uneducated reviewer is very real. In addition, home cooks who proclaim themselves “foodies” could overshadow the dedication and skill level of true culinary professionals who’ve spent painstaking years perfecting their craft.

However, two well-known newspaper critics see the online food world in a positive light. Michael Bauer of the San Francisco Chronicle said, “I do think the traditional critic still has the most singular influence, but the playing field has been leveled significantly … No longer does the newspaper have a lock on the information. It keeps us all on our toes.”

Frank Bruni of The New York Times lauded the helpfulness of online reviewers, telling the Chronicle, “I don’t think these blogs are diminishing the roles of traditional critics too much, in the sense that traditional critics have a sort of constancy of approach and a set of privileges that keep their work distinct.”

Others say the work of the amateur food bloggers and reviewers is not the problem, but the sheer number of food blogs dilutes their contribution. After learning in August 2007 that there were an estimated 48,000 food blogs on the Web, David Hinckley of the New York Daily News expressed his hunch that most of the blogs were probably presenting recipes.

“We don’t need more recipes. We need to winnow down what we already have,” Hinckley wrote.

So what does the public, which craves cooking advice and restaurant insight, really need?

Pete Wells of Food and Wine magazine pinpoints what makes a good food blog. Among his three requirements, Wells contends, “like any good piece of writing, a blog needs a sense of purpose.” Ultimately, a blogger should be able to explain exactly what his blog is about, according to Wells. Maintaining a purpose will keep readers coming back for more, and establish a blogger’s value amid the maze of online food content creators.

Background: Professional vs. amateur

Craig Claiborne served as food editor and restaurant critic for The New York Times for 29 years, beginning in 1957. Claiborne studied banquet service and classical French cuisine at Ecole Hoteliere de la Societe Suisse des Hoteliers in Switzerland before beginning a “career in food journalism at Gourmet magazine,” reported The Times in Claiborne’s obituary in 2000. Claiborne was always interested in food and cooking, and counted his mother as inspiration.

In contrast, food bloggers Jocelyn McAuley and Michelle Phillips both attribute their interest in food and cooking to their backgrounds in science, reports Eugene Weekly. McAuley has a bachelor’s degree in biology and works at a University of Oregon Lab, posting a few times a week on her blog “Brownie Points.” Phillips is a Ph.D. candidate in biology at the University of Oregon, and incorporates recipes, food photography and anecdotes from her daily life into her blog “The Accidental Scientist.”

Related Topic: Web replacing yearbooks


Most Recent Beyond The Headlines