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Zagat's Survey Offers An Inside View of Dining PDF Print E-mail

Zagat Survey recently posted the results of its annual America's Top Restaurants study. The guide, covering 1,516 eateries in 45 major markets, is based on 25 million meals experienced by over 145,000 surveyors (53% men, 47% women). The average surveyor ate out 3.3 times per week and spent an average $34.21 for a typical dinner, a 2.8% increase over last year. While this year's survey reflects current hard times, the attached list of top rated restaurants reflects enormous progress in the industry by way of both quality and diversity since Zagat Survey started in 1979.

Given the nation's current fiscal woes, grim news from the restaurant front would be no surprise. However, it has so far exhibited a great deal of resilience. As the survey shows, eating out has become a way of life for many Americans, with 50% of all meals prepared outside the home. In short, restaurants have become the family kitchen for the busy two-career families and long working hours mean businesses as often as not foot the bill for eating out. Of course, having business meals be largely tax deductible doesn't hurt.

According to Zagat Survey CEO Tim Zagat, "Americans are still eating out in restaurants, they are just making smarter choices. They're dining in high-end restaurants for lunch instead of dinner, seeking out value prix fixe meals, and taking advantage of more causal neighborhood eateries. Regardless of how the economy is doing, people still have to eat."

Changing Habits: Still, the financial uncertainty has had an effect: When asked what effect the weakening economy had on their dining habits, 33% said they are eating out less and being more sensitive to menu prices; 28% said they are eating in less expensive places, and roughly 20% said they are cutting back on alcohol, appetizers and desserts. Only 34% of surveyors report being unaffected by the economic downturn.

Taking BATHs: One result of the economic downturn is an upturn at what we call "BATH" (Better Alternative to Home) restaurants: casual, modestly-priced eateries (pasta-rias, burger joints, BBQs, upscale diners, noodle shops and myriad ethnics) as well as family dining chains. This genre buys wholesale and produces meals far more efficiently than home cooks. In city after city, our surveys show that BATHs are by far the fastest growing dining segment. That also helps explain the industry's low overall inflation rate. As we measure it, the average cost of a meal increased by less than half of the Consumer Price Index since 1979.

Value Openings: The current downturn will no doubt pressure restaurants to offer an even greater value proposition. Expect to see more low-priced prix-fixe meals. In New York, over 100 restaurants, including such revered places as Jean Georges, Asiate, and Le Cirque, offer fixed price lunch menus in the $20 range. Another approach is the small-plates menu, which allows the customer to eat less and pay less. Also plan on seeing more bargain-priced blue-plate specials.

Less expensive Spin-offs: In response to the current economy, many high level restaurateurs and chefs are expanding their empires with mid-priced or even inexpensive spin-offs like Atlanta's Holeman and Finch, Atlantic City's izakaya, Boston's Alta Strada, Denver's Osteria Marco, Minneapolis' Heidi's, New York City's Bar Boulud and Seattle's Txori. Formal expensive restaurants are also gradually shifting their styles to become casual less expensive brasseries.

Going Green and Health Conscious: Across the country, more and more chefs are using fresh, seasonal and sustainable ingredients. This trend spans high-end restaurants to casual local eateries. It's a smart move, since 69% of our surveyors – especially those on the West Coast – say that locally grown fare is important to them, and 59% say they'd actually pay more for sustainably produced food. In cities like Los Angeles, New York City and San Francisco, some places are even banishing bottled water – and diners seem to approve: only 10% are ordering bottled water and 11% have switched to tap. When it comes to low fat, heart-healthy food items, 69% of diners say they are important to them and 65% agree that trans fats should be banned. In New Orleans and Las Vegas, two of the last major cities not to have banned smoking, this is still a major issue. Recent smoking bans will offer welcome relief to health-conscious diners.

Dollars and Cents: This year, Las Vegas leads the pack as the most expensive city to dine in across the U.S. with the average meal costing a whopping $44.44. New York City ($40.78) is next in line, followed by Miami ($38.86) and San Francisco ($38.70). At the other end of the spectrum are New Orleans ($26.18) and Austin ($26.74). Across the pond a meal in London ($72.39) and Paris ($80.50) may leave US diners in sticker shock. Although dining in the States is far more affordable, inflation at the most expensive restaurants at 5.4% is almost double the overall inflation, and should prove to be a big issue this year.

Service and Tipping: If restaurants want a remedy for the slowing economy, they should teach their staffs to be nicer. When asked what irritates them the most when dining out, a staggering 68% of surveyors said service. Noise/crowds (13%), prices (6%) and food (6%) complaints follow. Despite poor service, diners in recent years have become increasingly generous. The nationwide average tip is now 19%, having inched up from approximately 17% ten years ago.

Favorite Cuisines: Italian remains the nation's favorite cuisine according to a 26% plurality of surveyors. Following close behind is American cuisine (16%), Japanese (12%), French (11%), Mexican (9%) and Thai (8%).

Online Reservations: While 72% of our surveyors make reservations by phone and only 16% reserve online, this is rising fast. Witness San Francisco and Minneapolis, where 49% and 30% of diners reserve via the Internet.

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