Hotel Online  Special Report



New York City 2003 Restaurant Survey; Dining Frequency and
Spending Drop, New Restaurants Still Outnumber Closures
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 citywide: 

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 of 1991-92. 
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.

Michelle Lehmann
 [email protected]
Also See: Sheraton Survey Indicates Hotels Have Plenty of Room for Improvement When It Comes to Dining;  A Good Burger Beats Foie Gras / Dec 2000
Top 10 Dining Out Trends of 2003; Restaurants Focused on Keeping Guest Counts Up for 2003 / Nov 2002
San Francisco CVB Survey Studies Dining Preferences of Average American / Oct 1999

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