Monday, October 20, 2003

Zagat Listing Jolted by a Small Brooklyn Spot

Ms. Pachter writing the day's specials on a sidewalk blackboard. "We're just a really good neighborhood restaurant," he said.

The Zagat Survey has always been presented by its publishers, Tim and Nina Zagat, as a statistically accurate representation of consumer opinion based on ratings from tens of thousands of diners, and therefore more reliable than the reviews of individual critics. Diners submit their votes online, rating the food, decor and service on a scale of 0 to 3. Those ratings, averaged and multiplied by 10, result in a number, with 30 the top grade.

In reality, though, a rating, even a superb rating like the 28 that the Grocery and the six other top restaurants received for their food, could be based on a relative handful of votes. To be one of the 50 included in the top food-ranking list takes a minimum of only 100 votes, said Mr. Zagat, a lawyer. He and his wife, also a lawyer, started the survey 25 years ago as an informal poll among friends. They now survey restaurants in 70 cities around the world.

Mr. Zagat said the Grocery deserved its rating.

"I've been there, I think it's a delight," he said. "The food is delicious, very simple."

EL - Only 100 votes? That is more than a stastically valid sample. What they really want to complain about is the tastes of the public as opposed to the critics. Later in the article it is strongly implied that much more than 100 rated this Brooklyn restaurant which has the New York natives in a fuss. From clues I would guess over 400 people highly rated it making it the 7th best restaurant in the New York area.

Zagat has recently also done a top movie guide with the same format. Free with BankAmerica checking.

Mr. Kiely, 37, and Ms. Pachter, 41, are both chefs who met in 1992 when they were working at Savoy in Manhattan (22 in the 2004 guide).

They share a market-driven philosophy with Peter Hoffman, the chef and owner of Savoy, shopping regularly in the Greenmarkets. They opened the Grocery, which serves seasonal American food, in 1999 after spending nearly five years trying to find a space they could afford in Manhattan. Mr. Kiely said he was concerned that their restaurant might not live up to the expectations of people who also dine at Daniel and Jean Georges.

"We're probably the cheapest restaurant on the page," he said. Not on the page, but at least among those at the top of the list. The Zagat surveyors estimate that it costs $46 for a meal, a drink and a tip at the Grocery.

That figure is $90 at Le Bernardin, $100 at Daniel, $76 at Nobu, $82 at Bouley and $90 at Jean Georges.

"It's all pretty simple," Mr. Kiely said. "We don't have the people taking coats. You'll get someone in a dirty apron to seat you. I don't want people to be disappointed, but we're not going to change the way we do things."

Ms. Pachter said that the effect of Zagat has been significant for the Grocery, which entered the survey with a 24 food rating in 2001, rose to 25 the next year and 26 the year after that.

Between 60 and 70 percent of the customers are regulars, Mr. Kiely said. (Danny Meyer said the figure was at least 25 percent at the Union Square Cafe, listed as the most popular restaurant in the survey, and at several other restaurants of which he is a co-owner.)

People who frequent the Grocery say they love the food and call the owners warm and accommodating.

"When I go out to eat, it's my first call," said Carmit Zori, a violinist who lives in Cobble Hill. "The chef is great and the service is wonderful," she said. "And though the prices are not cheap, they are less than Manhattan."

Even if the rating brings a flood of reservation-seekers, Ms. Pachter said, "the size of the room and the limited number of seats control what we can do." She and Mr. Kiely work the kitchen with a sous-chef and a dishwasher.

"We're a true mom and pop restaurant in the modern sense," Ms. Pachter said. "We're cooking, getting ready for service and answering the phones. The phones are the hardest part, just getting through. It's going to be harder now."

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