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Zagat's "America's Top Restaurants" guide reveals new trends in dining out

Zagat's 2006 "America's Top Restaurants" guide covers 1,352 eateries in 41 cities nationwide, surveying over 115,000 avid restaurant-goers, and reveals a variety of national dining trends.

"It’s an eater's market out there," Tim Zagat, CEO of Zagat Survey, said in announcing the guide's results. "The number of really good restaurants in every city has soared over the last few years while meal prices have remained relatively consistent."

Facts and Figures
When comparing various U.S. cities, there are some surprising findings this year. For example when it comes to average food ratings, San Francisco (21.50 on Zagat Survey's trademark 30 point scale), Las Vegas (21.10), and Miami (21.01) lead the pack. And there is nationwide good news too: food ratings are at their highest point ever, after inching up in city after city for the past ten years.

Food vs. Service
Unfortunately, service ratings lag behind food ratings everywhere by almost two points on the Zagat scale. When asked what irritates them the most about eating out, there was a great deal of consistency in diners' responses -- "poor service" led the way in every city.

Nationally, 72 percent of complaints focused on service. The remaining complaints were about noise/crowds (11 percent), food (5 percent), prices (4 percent), traffic/parking (4 percent), and other (4 percent).

"Year after year, our surveys show that service is the weak link in the restaurant industry," added Mr. Zagat.

Dollars and Cents
On the whole, meals this year are 3 percent more expensive than they were a year ago. It shouldn't come as much of a surprise that New York is the most costly restaurant city in the nation. With an average meal tab of $37.61, New York restaurants cost at least 50 percent more than those in Atlanta ($24.72) or Seattle ($25.56). In fact, New York exceeds the national average ($32.60) by 15 percent. However, when compared to foreign cities such as Tokyo ($70.64), London ($67.69), and Paris ($62.97), New York's restaurants are a bargain.

Tipping
On the question of tipping, the results present a clear contrast between residents of the East and West Coasts. Restaurant-goers in Philadelphia (19.2 percent), Atlanta (19.1 percent), and Boston (18.9 percent) are the nation's most generous tippers, while diners in Seattle (18 percent), Los Angeles, and San Francisco (both at 18.3) turn out to be the worst. Nationwide, the average tip has been going up over the last several years from 18 percent in 2000 to 18.7 percent today.

Dining Out
By comparison, the frequency with which surveyors dine out or take out does not reflect competition between the two coasts, but rather a clear distinction between the two coasts and the center of the country. So, whereas residents of New York and Los Angeles are among the national leaders (with 60 percent and 55 percent of meals coming from outside the home, respectively), Phoenix (50 percent) and St. Louis (47 percent) trail well behind. The national average has reached 53 percent and is continuing to grow.

Changing Palates
Another trend signaled by the guide is the continuing movement of the American palate away from rich, elaborate preparations toward the simple natural flavors of fresh local produce. As a result, the mark of an acclaimed chef today is no longer the formal French recipe (note the recent closings of such formal French bastions as Maison Robert in Boston, Maisonette in Cincinnati, and Le Cirque, La Cote Basque, and Lutece in New York), but rather the ability to incorporate the freshest possible produce, meats, and seafood from the best local suppliers—like Union Square Cafe in New York, the French Laundry in Napa Valley, Mistral in Seattle, L'Espalier in Boston, Green Zebra in Chicago, and Chef Allen's in Miami.

Dressing Down and Up
While informality has become the mode when it comes to customer attire (hardly any top restaurants require a jacket and tie anymore), restaurants themselves are becoming more and more stylish everyday. High-profile chefs are requiring high-style settings and designers like Frank Gehry, Richard Meier (New York's 66), Todd Oldham (Miami's Wish), and David Rockwell (New York's Nobu) are creating more and more memorable restaurant spaces. With hoteliers, real estate moguls, and casino operators subsidizing million-dollar restaurant build-outs, it's no surprise that chefs are dressing up their dining rooms.

Japanese vs. Chinese
Among the key trends this year is the rise of Japanese food, which clearly isn't just for Californians anymore. In fact, sushi restaurants lead the Top Food and/or Most Popular lists in Boston (Oishii), Charlotte (Niko), Chicago (Mirai Sushi), Dallas (Tepo), Denver (Sushi Den), Las Vegas (Nobu), Long Island (Kotobuki), Los Angeles (Matsuhisa and Katsu-ya), Miami (Matsuri), New York (Sushi Yasuda), Portland (Saburo's), San Diego (Sushi Ota), San Francisco (Sushi Ran), Seattle (Nishino), and Washington D.C. (Makoto), among others. On the other hand, fine Chinese dining, once the leading Asian cuisine in the U.S., seems to have stalled, with not even one Chinese restaurant reaching the Top Food rankings.

New Orleans
Zagat surveyors hold a special place in their hearts for New Orleans. The new guide addresses the city's future hopes head-on, saying, "Our hearts and minds have also been with New Orleans, which at press time is just starting to recover from Hurricane Katrina. Nevertheless, we have included the Crescent City section here, in the hope and faith that one of America's richest restaurant capitals will rise again."

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