Zagat and the Wisdom of Crowds

A couple of books have arrived in the mail recently -and set
me to thinking about the role of critics – Zagat’s America’s Top Restaurants 2008, and
Food & Philosophy: Eat, Think and Be Merry, edited by Fritz Alhoff and Dave
Monroe (Blackwell Publishing).

I opened the Zagat guide and turned to the Minneapolis-St.
Paul section with sadistic relish, eagerly anticipating another opportunity to
trash the plebian tastes of the great unwashed. Zagat’s ratings are compiled
based on reviews from diners, and I’ve been pretty skeptical about reader
restaurant surveys ever since the days when the readers of one local magazine
ranked Leeann Chin as best Chinese. (If my memory is correct, they also rated
McDonald’s as best burger.) Of course, most readers knew better, but the number
who favored the Golden Arches was greater than the number who chose any other
single candidate. In the latest survey, these readers ranked Big Bowl and PF
in the top five for Chinese cuisine, showing that le plus ca change… –
but I digress.

To my great disappointment, I discovered that I really don’t
have much of a beef with the top ten picks in the new Zagat guide. The highest
score, 28 points for food, was a four-way tie between La Belle Vie, 112 Eatery,
Restaurant Alma
and the Bayport Cookery, with Lucia’s, Vincent and D’Amico Cucina one
point behind, followed by Manny’s, Heartland and Fugaise, tied with 26 points

Of course, this is like comparing apples and oranges, but
these are all respectable choices. You can’t really compare La Belle Vie, the
112 eatery and Manny’s, but these three are all best of kind, or at least very
good restaurants. I do have to admit that the last time I dined at La Belle
Vie, sometime around hour three and course eight of a nine-round gastronomic
blowout, I found myself getting a little bored, but that’s just me.

The one major omission from Zagat’s Top 10 is Saffron, which
I would put pretty close to the top of my list. Based on my most recent dining
experience, I would also put Cosmos and maybe Wolfgang Puck’s 20.21 and Little
in my top 10, but I am not sure which restaurants I would bump to make
room – probably Manny’s, and maybe the Bayport Cookery.

Zagat also lists ten "Other Noteworthy Places", including
B.A.N.K., Chambers Kitchen, Cosmos, Cue, the Dakota, Oceanaire, Solera, Saint
Paul Grill, Town Talk Diner,
and 20.21.
These are also very deserving restaurants, mostly, though I would drop
the Saint Paul Grill and the too-noisy Town Talk Diner to make room for some
sentimental favorites: the Grand Café, Corner Table, and the Atlas Grille.

By now, you are probably wondering what any of this has to
do with the anthology of essays about food and philosophy. Well, the connection
is pretty slender, but (WARNING: SHAMELESS SELF-PROMOTION AHEAD!) it just so
happens that an essay of mine was included, titled "Who Needs a Critic: The
Standard of Taste and the Power of Branding." (The original title was
Gastroporn and the Power of Branding, but that sounded a little too kinky for
something that might wind up on an academic c.v.) And it just so happens that
in a couple of paragraphs somewhere in the middle of the essay, I mention
Zagat. I’ll spare you the philosophical jargon and cut to the meat of the
argument, which is that enterprises like Zagat are among the factors that
undermine the authority of critics. If I may quote myself (and why not?; in the
essay I quote David Hume and Charlie the Tuna):

"What we are witnessing in slow motion is the collapse of a
regime of (gastronomic) truth for which the daily newspaper served as a central
instrument, and the ascendancy of a rival discourse in which advertising, brand
and image are central…"The publishing empire of Zagat, which invites all of its
readers to rate food, service and atmosphere on numerical scales and then
publishes their scores, undermines the very premises of the taste hierarchy by
treating all its reviewers as "authorized knowers.""

Zagat is an interesting example of what James Surowiecki has
labeled "the wisdom of crowds." Surowiecki, a writer for the New Yorker
magazine, argues that the aggregated opinions of a large group of ordinary people
are often a more accurate source of information than the judgments of experts.

At any rate, quite apart from the philosophical
thumb-sucking, there is an interesting question here: If part of what
restaurant critics are supposed to do is to serve as reliable predictors of
what restaurants their readers are most likely to enjoy, and if it turns out
that a compilation of data from diners can predict those tastes with greater
accuracy than a critic can, what role is left for restaurant critics?

You might object that the aggregate judgment of Zagat’s
guides can only reflect the judgments of its middle-brow reviewers, and that
consumers with a more refined or exotic sensibility will still want to turn to
Iggers or Bauer, but it’s really only a matter of time before the algorithms
get a bit more sophisticated. Like Netflix, which can predict which movies you
will like based on which movies thousands of others with similar taste profiles
have enjoyed, Zagat’s legions, and smart software, will soon be able to offer
more reliable advice than any one critic – especially one with a fixation on hole-in-the-wall Chinese eateries.

So, what’s a critic to do? Maybe a better role for us is to
be storytellers – but that’s another story.