The word on where folks like to eat

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Europe has the Michelin Guide. Travelers have Frommer's. But diners who want to know what folks like them think about restaurants in their area turn to Zagat Survey - dark-red paperback rating guides that editors call "organized word-of-mouth."

The latest Zagat (zuh-GAT) guide to Washington, D.C./Baltimore restaurants was released this month. Top honors went to the Charleston and other perennial favorites: Prime Rib, Tio Pepe and Helmand.

The guides are the brainchild of Nina and Tim Zagat, former New York City lawyers who were always looking for just the right restaurant for their clients.

They kept their own lists of good eats in the city and soon found their notes were being copied and used by others. The Zagats turned their passion for good food into a full-time publishing enterprise with restaurant guides in nearly all major U.S. cities.

The Washington, D.C./Baltimore guide is continuously found in the top 10 on the Washington Post best-sellers list, and in recent years, Zagat has expanded into the European dining scene with its Paris guide, published in both French and English.

Each Zagat guide is locally edited, using responses from locally distributed surveys and compiled by individuals who reside in the city for which the book will be published.

In Baltimore, Annapolis and Frederick the editing falls to Marty Katz, a Northwest Baltimore resident who has been involved in publishing the guides for six years. He works with Olga Boikess, who handles the reviews of the restaurants in Washington, D.C., and its suburbs.

To compile the Zagat guide, Katz and his "helpful hands" distribute "many thousands" of dining surveys during the winter months. While the survey-distribution numbers are considered proprietary information, in the 2003 Zagat guide, the publishers said that 4,300 people had participated in the ranking of restaurants in the Washington, D.C./Baltimore guide.

Because the Zagat guides are user-based indexes, Katz knows the quality of the reviews he reads becomes more reliable as more foodies take the time to fill out the surveys. So Katz goes wherever restaurant diners may be found - at farmers' markets, the symphony, art festivals, zydeco dances and bookstores off the beaten path.

Katz selects these locations based on a common theme: He's looking for consumers who know quality. The Waverly Farmers' Market during the winter months is the kind of place Katz likes to find prospective reviewers. There are few shoppers, but the ones who will brave the cold are die-hard market goers.

On any given Saturday morning in the months of January through March, you can find him there, wearing his baseball cap and greeting shoppers with a question, "Want to be a restaurant reviewer? You get a free book."

Maybe it's the "free book" part of Katz's spiel that makes shoppers stop. But more likely, it's the opportunity to rant and rave or extol the virtues of their Baltimore dining experiences.

And Katz hears it all. "I can be speaking with someone who may not be emotional about other subjects, but talk to them about food and they get very animated. Baltimore diners clearly have a personal stake in this. They have a lot of history in their neighborhoods, and talking to individuals about their food is emotional."

These are people who know restaurants and eat out frequently. The diners who completed Zagat surveys for the 2003 Washington, D.C./Baltimore guide consumed (collectively) more than 586,000 meals in the last year.

"I want to know where people like to eat," Katz says. "All kinds of people ... artists, people from Towson, food-centric individuals. We try to make a guide that tells visitors what they can expect, while warning them of bad food and introducing them to Baltimore's new or undiscovered places."

Reviewers are asked to rate restaurants on food, decor, service and cost on a point system of 0 to 30 (with 30 being a "near-perfect experience"). The results are tabulated by a third-party firm, leaving no opportunity for the editors to manipulate the numbers.

Katz encourages diners to say exactly what's on their mind. That can make for some very interesting reading and quite a hefty editing assignment. The final review for any given restaurant looks like a paragraph of anonymous quotes strung together to paint a picture. One can get a sense from this blurb from the 2003 guide:

"They know their fish" at this "attractive" "see-and-be seen" Greek-Med scene in Fells Point, and it's so "amazingly fresh" "it's worth the effort to try to find a parking place," especially if you can "hold court out on the lovely patio"; detractors note, though, that "reservations aren't honored on time," "it's noisy in the extreme" and the staff can be "rude" (and "do you need a secret code to get decent service here?"); the bottom line: the finny fare is "a treat, but expect to pay for it" in more ways than one.

Can you guess the restaurant? It's Kali's Court in Fells Point and if you've never set foot inside, the above review paints quite a picture. Numerically, the restaurant receives a 24 rating for its food, a 24 for decor, 21 for service and $43 for the average cost of the price of dinner for one, including one drink and tip.

What does the staff at Kali's Court say of the Zagat review? Christopher Paternotte, the restaurant's chef de cuisine, replies, "I don't think the guide reflects on the restaurant exactly, but it leads you down the right path. I'm not sure I would take the reviews literally. You know, I think we have the best fish in the city. But do you have to wait awhile to eat it? Yeah, maybe. But you wait in a lot of restaurants."

The vote for the most popular restaurant in Baltimore went to Charleston, which was called "an 'impressive' 'special-occasion' treat that's just about 'perfect.' "

The comments naturally pleased executive chef and co-owner Cindy Wolf. "Being recognized by the Zagat Survey is a great honor because it means that people in the region are responding to what is truly a labor of love," she says. "To be named 'most popular' restaurant in Baltimore, and recognized in several other categories, demonstrates that hard work and dedication to our craft will ensure achievement of the greatest results."

Another review, for Joy America Cafe, was not as well-received by its staff. And the reasons for dissatisfaction are easy to understand: The description in the guide says, in part, that, "If the 'crazy art food' gets any taller, 'you might need a demolition permit' to eat."

This review could have been accurate at one time, but that was nearly three years ago, before Spike and Charlie Gjerde took over the restaurant in the American Visionary Art Museum and began running a different kind of show.

"It gets frustrating for us to see things like this in the guide," says service manager Brian Deegan. "But I do think we would also be disappointed if we were not part of it. We tend to see the guide as a means of attracting out-of-towners, but we know we get most of our local business through positive word-of-mouth."

(For the record, the menu now focuses on global cuisine with a decidedly Latin flair and very little height.)

For his part, Katz is careful to remain "relatively anonymous" when dining out, knowing that the Zagat guide does not always please food-industry professionals. But he is quick to point out that he has very little to do with the actual success or failure of Baltimore's dining institutions, or with the accuracy of reviewers' recollections. In his own words, "The people have spoken. ... I just record what they say."

Zagat Survey

10 most popular restaurants in Baltimore

Charleston, 1000 Lancaster St., Baltimore, 410-332-7373

Prime Rib, 1101 N. Calvert St., Baltimore, 410-539-1804

Tio Pepe, 10 E. Franklin St., Baltimore, 410-539-4675

Helmand, 806 N. Charles St., Baltimore, 410-752-0311

Ruth's Chris Steakhouse, 600 Water St., Baltimore, 410-783-0033; 1777 Reisterstown Road, Pikesville, 410-837-0033

Morton's of Chicago, 300 S. Charles St., Baltimore, 410-547-8255

Linwood's, 25 Crossroads Drive, Owings Mills, 410-356-3030

Petit Louis Bistro, 4800 Roland Ave., Baltimore, 410-366-9393

Ambassador Dining Room, 3811 Canterbury Road, Baltimore, 410-366-1484

Boccaccio, 925 Eastern Ave., Baltimore, 410-234-1322

10 top food rankings

Prime Rib, 1101 N. Calvert St., Baltimore, 410-539-1804

Samos, 600 S. Oldham St., Baltimore, 410-675-5292

Charleston, 1000 Lancaster St., Baltimore, 410-332-7373

Hampton's, 550 Light St., Baltimore, 410-347-9744

Stone Manor, 5820 Carroll Boyer Road, Middletown, 301-473-5454

208 Talbot, 208 N. Talbot St., St. Michaels, 410-745-3838

Joss Cafe & Sushi Bar, 195 Main St., Annapolis, 410-263-4688

Trattoria Alberto, 1660 Crain Highway S., Glen Burnie, 410-761-0922

Milton Inn, 14833 York Road, Sparks, 410-771-4366

Lewnes' Steakhouse, 401 Fourth St., Eastport, 410-263-1617

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