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The 2012 Zagat survey: Baltimoreans among nation's least frequent diners

By Richard Gorelick

The Baltimore Sun

5:00 AM EDT, October 25, 2011

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Baltimoreans, a new Zagat survey says, are among the nation's least frequent diners, but they tip just fine. Only diners in Boston and Philadelphia say they dine out less frequently.

On Tuesday, Zagat releases its 2012 America’s Top Restaurants Survey, covering 1,578 of the nation’s top restaurants across 45 U.S. markets, including Baltimore, which is yoked together in most, but not all, of the survey questions with Washington.

Restaurant owners in Baltimore-D.C. area may have their work cut out for them. Diners in our market say they eat out an average of 2.6 times a week, which ranks 43rd among the 45 markets surveyed and far below the national average of 3.1 times a week. The four top gourmandizing markets are all in Texas — Houston, Austin, Dallas and San Antonio. "In Texas, everyobdy throws the kids in the station wagon and goes to a family style restaurant," Zagat said in a phone interview.

Service, as it has been for year after year, is the number one irritant to survey responders nationwide -- 66 percent say it's what most irritates them about restaurants, followed by noise/crowds at 16 percent.

Tim Zagat, in a phone interview, says that he doesn't expect that to change. "Chefs not only professinals, they're also celebrities, but you never see front of house personnel on televison," Zagat said. "And you won't until you have schools that teach them what to do. Until the job is professionalized, (the service issue) is going to hold back the entire industry."

Zagat singled out Danny Meyer as someone who does understand the importance of service. "Danny Meyer understands that more than anybody. Then there are chefs like Eric Ripert who are so nice that they attract nice people." 

Baltimore and Washington were considered separately in the survey’s meal-cost comparison. The national average meal cost was $35.65, and average meal in Baltimore was $34.29, just a buck and a half less than the $35.99 average D.C. meal. Las Vegas, at $47.53, was the highest.

But interestingly, when the survey included only the 20 most expensive restaurants in each city, the average in Baltimore was $62.02, well below the national average of $79.39 and staggeringly below the average very expensive meal in New York City, which was $163.34. 

On the other hand, 63 percent of diners in the Baltimore-D.C. market say they’d pay more for food that is locally sourced, organic or sustainably raised. That’s above the national average of 57 percent. The city where diners care most about “green” food was — you guessed it — Portland, Ore. And the city where the diners don’t seem to care so much where there food comes from was Las Vegas, which makes perfect sense.

And as for tipping, diners in Baltimore-D.C. tip 19.2 percent, right at the national average of 19.3.The annual Zagat survey inclues a round-up of (previoulsy published) lists of the five restaurants in each area. Topping Baltimore's list is Charleston, the only restaurant in the city to receive a score of 28 out of 30 in the food category.