Just about anyone who dines out regularly has one of those maroon paperback Zagat restaurant guides, with their numerical ratings of restaurants and short descriptions “rampant” with “quotation-marked” words and “phrases.” But until I became one of the two editors of the New Jersey Zagat survey, even I was only vaguely aware of what those numbers specifically represented and why those particular quotations were chosen. (There’s a detailed explanation at the front of each guide, but who among us reads it? We all go directly to the listing for our favorite restaurants to see how they stack up.)

Now that I’ve worked on the last three guides as editor for the southern half of the state — picture a diagonal line splitting the state more or less from Hunterdon County down to Red Bank — I’ve learned the ins and out of how to get the most out of the wealth of info jammed between those maroon covers. I’ve also been tracking how restaurants in our US 1 neighborhood have fared.

First the basics. The 2011-’12 edition, just out, covers 1,050 eateries in New Jersey. Most people are aware that the numerical scores assigned for food, decor, and service reflect the collective opinion of the public who contribute to Zagat’s online survey at zagat.com. Not the opinion of Tim and Nina Zagat, who started the whole thing in New York City in 1979 as a casual information exchange between friends, and certainly not that of us editors. Zagat, by the way, is pronounced zuh-GATT (rhymes with cat).

For this latest edition, the survey closed in December, by which time there were 6,909 respondents who rated as many eateries as they cared to on a scale of zero to 30, and typed in their specific comments — kind or vicious, witty or lame. Still, you would be surprised at how many people think that what’s in there reflects my personal opinion. To the contrary: I’d be fired for injecting my own thoughts. My task is to choose those comments that most accurately reflect the scores and the majority opinion. That’s where the quotation marks come in. If there is a sizeable minority opinion, we editors must represent that, as well.

Pointer No. 1: Get in touch with your inner Zagat. Foodies will naturally want to focus on the food score. Officially, the guide says that a rating of 20 to 25 is “very good to excellent,” with 26 to 30 being “extraordinary to perfection.” Well, you should be the judge of that. I suggest you look at the scores for a few of your personal favorite restaurants and compare them to the scores of some you consider run-of-the-mill. What you’ll come up with is your personal take on worthwhile-ness — and a food score you personally won’t want to go below. This will come in handy when you’re using the guide to choose a restaurant you haven’t been to before.

Pointer No. 2: Not all scores are created equal. Some entries have an inverted triangle to the left of their score box. Despite being clearly explained in the front matter, this symbol is easy to overlook — and I did so myself for many years. But that triangle is important: it means that, while there were enough votes (good, bad, or indifferent) to get the restaurant into the book, the number of votes was not enough to make its scores as reliable as those entries without the triangle. Sometimes, a low vote count but high score means a restaurant is new, small, and/or off the beaten path, so word hasn’t spread yet. Sometimes it indicates that, but not always. Think of the triangle as a signal to find out more before booking a reservation.

Pointer No. 3: Read between the lines. Even before I became professionally involved with Zagat, I noticed that several adjectives popped up repeatedly. I have come to think of them as code words, although they really aren’t that. One is “venerable.” A venerable term, to be sure. But apply it to a restaurant, and I can’t help but interpret it as not just having a longstanding good reputation, but perhaps — just perhaps — it is a restaurant for the senior set (not that there’s anything wrong with that) or it’s past its prime. Another term that raises my eyebrows is “housekeeping.” As in, say, “more attention to housekeeping would be welcomed.” There are housekeeping issues? Is the food really good enough to overcome housekeeping issues?

Pointer No. 4: The list of “Tops” really is the top. Preceding the individual restaurant listings in each book are a variety of Top Scorer lists, starting with the 50 most popular restaurants in the state (don’t get me started) and continuing with tops for food — including by special features, such as having a “winning wine list” or being “child-friendly,” as well as the top five food scorers in each of 16 high-profile towns around the state. For Princeton these are: Elements, Peacock Inn, Blue Point Grill, Ruth’s Chris, and Conte’s. I repeat: the opinions expressed do not necessary reflect those of the South Jersey editor. Other lists exist for top decor and service, for giving the most bang-for-the-buck, and other dimensions.

I have found these lists to be a gold mine. You want to dine outdoors? Well, there’s a list of the top 10 scorers laid out side by side. (Rat’s in Hamilton is the only one in the U.S. 1 readership area to make this list.) Alternatively, you can turn to the back of the book and peruse the list of every restaurant that offers outdoor dining.

So how do some of our area’s high-profile eateries fare in the current survey? The Peacock Inn is listed among Key Newcomers. Making the Most Popular 50 (not counting chains with representation all over the state, like P.F. Chang’s and Ruth’s Chris) are Blue Point Grill, Rat’s, Elements, and New Brunswick’s Due Mari. Ajihei, the tiny sushi and Japanese place on Chambers Street in Princeton, dropped from a 2010 food score of 28 — which put it on par that year with the highest scoring restaurant in the state, Nicholas in Red Bank — to a more than respectable 25. I haven’t spoken to owner/sushi chef Koji Kitamura about this, but I imagine he is relieved. At the time, he told me the added attention only meant that customers were getting annoyed, because they either had to wait too long at this no-reservations spot or because he refuses to seat parties larger than five (as clearly stated in the guide).

Our area proudly boasts three of the top five purveyors of pizza: DeLorenzo’s Pies on Hudson Street in Trenton and in Robbinsville, Hopewell’s Nomad Pizza, and Princeton’s venerable Conte’s. (Venerable in the best sense, of course.)

By the way, the restaurant that took top honors, although not in our area, is once again Nicholas in Red Bank, which recently celebrated its 10th anniversary. It has consistently ranked number one in several categories over those years. For 2011-’12, Nicholas is the single most popular restaurant. It ranks number one for food with an almost perfect score of 29, and for service (28); and has the winning-est of winning wine lists.

“Zagat New Jersey Restaurants 2011-’12” retails for $14.95 and is available on Amazon.com and at bookstores throughout the state.

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