Inside D.C. entertainment

The Zagat guide is finally free, kind of

February 28, 2012 - 10:54 AM
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A cheery man, clearly experienced in the robotic art of street marketing, greeted me outside the Rosslyn Metro this morning, offering free copies of Zagat. Though his enunciation was flawless, he was peddling half-truths. What he handed me was not the famed restaurant guide but rather an advertising card encouraging me to "Tell the world what you think. Rate DC & Baltimore restaurants," and directing me to this website.

Zagat has become irrelevant in the digital age. Once a Bible for diners, the rectangular print guide — which slips nicely into your back pocket, though not as nicely as a smartphone slips into your front pocket — has been decimated by the proliferation of restaurant reviews online, notably Yelp. While its competitors' services are free, and sometimes even include redeemable rewards, Zagat hides its online content behind a paywall ($24.95/year) and charges $9.99 for its iPhone app.

But at least now you can get the dead-tree version of the 2013 Washington, D.C./Baltimore edition, the 2012 version of which retails for $14.95 on Zagat's website, for free. All you have to do is go to their website, create an account, vote on a whole bunch of restaurants, fill out a lengthy survey, and provide your address. And then wait months for the guide to arrive in the mail, only to find that little has changed since the year before, or the year before that.

My parents used to rely on, and trust, Zagat. No longer. My dad says he thumbs the paperback maybe once a month, and only when traveling to unfamiliar cities. Otherwise he just uses OpenTable, and keeps abreast of restaurant openings through Eater. He even says he finds Zagat's website "less user friendly than the actual book." Not good. If Zagat has lost my parents' loyalty, it's probably doomed.

Except that Google bought Zagat last fall, so maybe it'll find a way to become relevant again — by doing more than simply soliciting reviews from the general public. Until then, this article remains the Bible on Zagat.

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