Zagat 2003 NYC Survey Finds Diners Widely
Favor ‘Casual, Local’ Places
NEW YORK, Oct. 21, 2002 - While not exactly basking in the best of times,
New York’s restaurants— and NY diners— have survived recession, terror
and other existential jitters of the past year in a surprisingly strong
state, with a few unexpected side dishes to go along with real growth that
may have been unthinkable a year ago. So reports the 2003 Zagat New York
City Restaurant Survey published this week.
Despite the after-shocks of 9/11 that left many restaurants near-empty
for weeks last fall, dining frequency and per-meal spending ended up only
marginally off from near-record levels turned in before the economy tanked
and the terrorists struck. The most pronounced change is that people are
eating closer to home and are more price sensitive. And in one of those
silver linings that come from true adversity, NY diners have detected improvements
in service, crowding, prices and even noise levels when eating out—a kinder,
gentler restaurant scene, which may explain why the average tip also nudged
up this year.
Here are main news points from the 2003 NYC Survey covering 1,924 restaurants
|1) Keeping Pace — Zagat diners reported collectively
eating out 3.5 meals a week. Though a drop from last year’s
pace of 3.7 meals, it’s worth noting that ten years ago, surveyors were
dining out just 3.1 times weekly. This modest decline
is remarkable when recalling how dramatically restaurant-going fell
after Sept. 11. Overall, this year’s guide reflects consumer
input on 4.7 million dining experiences citywide, or 12,900 restaurant
meals per day.
|2) More Meals, More Meals Out — Two years
ago, with the bull market ending its long run, surveyors reported skipping
two lunches and dinners weekly, sign that a go-go economy didn’t
always wait to eat. This year, surveyors say they forego only one meal
per week, a possible indication of shifting priorities in more stressful
times. But as the number of home-made meals inched up, so did the
number from take-out kitchens and restaurants: the net effect is
that NYers are taking 61% of their weekly lunches and dinners from
outside sources. In addition, surveyors visited each restaurant
rated in the guide an average of 9.6 times—a 37% jump over last year’s
return rate of 7.0 meals per restaurant rated.
|3) Sticking With Favorites, the Closer the Better
— In the past year, NYers have stayed closer to home when eating
out, a fact of life that has favored many informal neighborhood eateries,
including those in the outer boroughs and suburbs. Surveyors
say they frequent “casual, local” places for 68% of their meals out,
a major boost to the hundreds of “BATH” restaurants covered by the
Survey (as in “Better Alternative to Home”). In fact, this
has been a boom year for restaurants in NYC’s residential neighborhoods
and surrounding suburbs.
|4) Overall Spending Barely Dips — Like consumers
elsewhere, NY diners haven’t exactly pulled back their spending in
the face of economic challenges: NY surveyors spent an average $36.95
per meal this year (drink and tip included), a less than one percent
decline from last year’s mean tab of $37.29, though worth noting
that it was the first drop in average meal cost since the early 1990s.
(Prior to this year, per-meal spending in NY had increased steadily
by 27% since 1996.) NY still reigns as the most expensive U.S.
dining city— the average among 30 major markets recently surveyed is $28.10,
with Houston the lowest at $20.87. But consider that the average
restaurant meal is $59.15 in Tokyo, $49.98 in London, and $46.75 in
Paris and NY doesn’t seem so forbidding.
|5) Somebody’s Still Splurging — Even in recession,
many of NY’s richer restaurants are still humming with their core
patrons: indeed, the average meal cost at the city’s 20 most expensive
eateries jumped 7.4% this year to $90.68. That follows an upward
trend of 39% since 1996, when the top 20 averaged a mere $65. The
super-haute French Alain Ducasse led all big spenders with an average tab
of $193 (though Ducasse no longer offer a choice of fancy pens for signing
the bill). Also out in front is Kuruma Zushi, a discreet and “spectacular”
second-floor sushi den on East 47th St. where the check averages $108.
NY’s priciest might humble diners in New Orleans (where the 20 priciest
average $48) or Vancouver ($36), but they pale in comparison with Paris
($118), Osaka ($144) and Tokyo ($159).
|6) Perceived Improvement Helps Tips — If you haven’t noticed,
NY restaurants have changed for the better since last year’s terror
attacks—or so say 29% of Zagat surveyors. Half of those believe
that service has improved, while 47% are thankful for less crowding.
In fact, while service remains the Number 1 complaint, protests have dropped
markedly: 53% of Zagat diners cite it as the main irritant to dining
out, compared with 65% two years ago. A small group of optimists
believe that prices are lower and that restaurants are quieter this year.
Such perceptions could account for a bump up in tips this year—the average
NY gratuity was 18.5%, compared with 18.0% last year. The story is
similar elsewhere, with tipping in all other major markets hitting 18%
or higher this year.
|7) Openings Down, But Better Than Expected — A year ago
would anyone have forecast that nearly 200 new restaurants would
have dared open in NY given the myriad challenges of Sept. 11 and the recession?
In truth, the pace of notable newcomers has fallen sharply since an all-time
high of 311 recorded two years ago, but the 186 openings this year is an
impressive showing and a credit to the resilience of the city’s restaurant
economy. Closings, meanwhile, rose to 104 -- it was the narrowest
differential (82) of the two indexes since the end of the last recession
|8) Lights Out — Among the prominent restaurant exits this
past year: Alison on Dominick, Atlas, Arizona 206, Box Tree, Cello, Hudson
River Club, Marylou’s, Palio, Peacock Alley, Quilty’s and San Ambroeus.
One revved-up theme joint that ran out of gas was Harley Davidson Cafe.
At press time, Ratners, the original brash, velvet rope kosher dairy restaurant,
served its last blintz. The grandest departure was the Russian Tea
Room, whose revival two years ago never struck a chord with diners, despite
the efforts of RTR’s late owner Werner Leroy.
|9) Impressive Debuts — Owner Steve Hanson (Ruby
Foo, Blue Water Grill) is one who sees NY’s dining glass more than
half-full: Hanson’s Be Our Guest, Inc. launched three new restaurants
in 2002: Blue Fin, Dos Caminos and Fiamma, the latter a hosteria-style
SoHo Italian on three levels. These joined a solid gallery of newcomers,
including: Alias (Lower East Side sibling to 71 Clinton); Atelier
(posh, tranquil dining room at new Ritz-Carlton on Central Park South);
Blue Smoke (Danny Meyer’s Gramercy paean to barbecue and jazz); Compass
(“happening” Lincoln Center New American); Django (Midtown French brasserie
designed by David Rockwell); Harrison (TriBeCa Med-American already an
“instant classic); Kai (pricey East Side Japanese with formal kaiseki menu);
L’Impero (Tudor City Italian w/cruise ship interior); Marseille (Theater
District Med-brasserie); and Nam (sexy, downtown Nouvelle Vietnamese).
Even David Emil, who lost so much as co-owner of Windows on the World,
has reason to feel good again with Noche, his dramatic new Latin-American
on Broadway. Star chefs Rick Moonan (RM) and Jonathan Waxman (Washington
Park) also brought smart new entrants to market.
|10) More to Come — And multiple major projects are in
the works: Tom Keller (chef/owner of French Laundry, the foodies’ Fort
Knox in Napa, CA), will return to NY with a branch of his sublime Californian
in the new AOL Time-Warner building on Columbus Circle. Also coming
to the AOL address: Ginza Sushi-Ko, a Beverly Hills import from celebrated
sushi chef Masa Takayama, and Prime, a Jean-Georges Vongerichten steakhouse.
Jean-Georges is also readying 66, an ambitious TriBeCa Chinese, and Spice
Market, “a vast Asian in the Meatpacking District.” Other prime-timers
to come: WD-50, from Wylie Dufresne (71 Clinton Fresh Food); Aix,
a new Westsider from Didier Virot; and Morrell’s, Flatiron American from
the famous wine purveyors. And believe it or not, buttoned-up Alain
Ducasse is set to open a more casual eatery—think of a cottage sitting
next to Versailles.
|11) My Oh Meyer, Danny Does It Again — From the time it
opened in 1985 Danny Meyer’s Union Square Cafe had never slipped in Zagat’s
Popularity rankings, climbing steadily for a decade before reigning
the last six years as NY surveyors’ favorite restaurant. That
singular streak just ended, but it is doubtful Meyer is crestfallen:
his Gramercy Tavern has just moved ahead of USC as the city’s No. 1
favorite. Meyer and chef Tom Collicchio’s “passionate” Flatiron New
American is “perfection personified,” with service so good that Zagat
advises, “try not to ‘hug the waiter.’” Not content with the. top
two seeds, Meyer saw two of his younger offspring join the Top 20:
No. 13-ranked Eleven Madison Park and No. 20 Tabla. No other NY restaurant
success story matches the Meyer dynasty.
|12) Up & Comers — Elsewhere in Popularity, Nobu, Drew
Nieporent’s celebrity-thick TriBeCa Japanese, jumped from No. 11 to No.
5; Blue Water Grill, Steve Hanson’s scene-making seafooder in a restored
Union Square bank, vaulted from No. 17 to No. 9; Balthazar, Keith McNalley’s
buzzy SoHo brasserie, came on from No. 20 to No. 12; Chef David Bouley
debuted his new made-over namesake Bouley at No. 19. Other first-timers
to the Top 50: Artisanal (22), Craft (26), Yama (33), Lupa (40),
Ouest (45), and Ocean Grill (49).
|13) Best in Show — Atop the Zagat Food chain stands
Daniel, Daniel Boulud’s “life-altering” East Side French, which led
five other restaurants with a 28-rating (out of 30) for cuisine.
Daniel turned in the best all-around score, the only NY restaurant
to average 28 for combined Food/Decor/Service ratings. Catapulting
from No. 21 to No. 2 in Food this year was Sushi Yasuda, a “Zen-like oasis”
near the UN boasting “ultra-fresh” fish and a delectable omakase menu under
master chef Maomichi Yasuda. Other, familiar 28-ers for Food:
Jean-Georges, Le Bernardin, Chanterelle and Nobu. As for best all-around
Survey performances, here are the Top 10: Daniel, Chanterelle, Lespinasse,
Danube, Le Bernardin, Alain Ducasse, Gramercy Tavern, La Grenouille, Four
Seasons, and Jean Georges, proof that haute Euro/French still largely rules
the roost in NY. Back atop the Decor ratings this year: Rainbow
Room: its 28 score soars above everything, including its 19 Food
rating. And best rated Newcomer: Compass, the magnetic New
American energizing the food scene near Lincoln Center.
|14) More Boroughs, More Japanese — In the Survey’s
foreword, the Zagats note the growing number of quality restaurants outside
Manhattan imprinting on NYC diners -- 11% of entries this year (217) are
in the city’s four other boroughs, with heavy emphasis on Brooklyn.
Another trend has been the assimilation of Japanese restaurants among top-tier
winners. A decade ago only one restaurant (Sushisay) managed a Food
score of even 25; this year’s Survey counts 12 Japanese with ratings of
26 or higher. And whereas two years ago, only 4% of surveyors named
Japanese their favorite cuisine, that number was 13% this year. NY’s
most popular cuisine continues to be Italian.
|15) Dollar-Wise — Lest anyone doubt the affordability
of NY dining, there are the Survey’s irrefutable value indexes (pp.
20-22), including over 200 prix-fixe lunch and dinner options with
prices $20-$40 below average a la carte meal costs. And for
a great tour of the city’s rich ethnic dining map, consult Best Buys, featuring
full-menu and specialty food stops of all nationalities whose Survey ratings
compare most favorably to prices. This year’s best-eating bang for
the NY buck goes to Bereket, a 24/7 Turkish outpost on the Lower East Side
where “cabbies and clubgoers” congregate in the “wee hours” for “damn good
kebabs” and “rapid-fire” counter service: it rates 21 for Food, only
$11 a head.
|16) The Waiting Game — While diners gripe about
long lines and reservation snafus, they are not so quick to bail
out: on average, surveyors say they will wait nearly 18 minutes
for a table even if they have a reservation; without a reservation, they
are willing to wait up to 33-plus minutes for a table.
The 2003 Zagat Survey of New York City
Restaurants was edited by Curt Gathje and Carol Diuguid; restaurant
coverage was coordinated by Larry Cohn. The pocket-sized guide covers 1,924
restaurants across some 90 different cuisines and dining styles.