Robert Bass, Craig Claiborne, Arthur Schlesinger, Cyrus Vance, and Christie Hefner: These are just a few of the big names who have worked for Tim and Nina Zagat over the years. The husband-and-wife team publishes the Zagat restaurant guides, those slim red volumes full of pithy comments that have become to food lovers what AAA guides are to motorists. And the celebrated names are among the thousands the Zagats call upon for opinions on restaurants in return for a free copy of the guide. The Zagats are food fans from way back. Nina took cooking classes at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, and Tim is a self-professed "gourmand." The survey traces its origins to a night in 1979 when the Zagats and some friends were mulling over the problem of finding good restaurants in New York. "Over the 19th bottle of wine," Tim says, he thought of compiling a one-page summary of his friends' comments on favorite restaurants. The photocopied pages became such hot items among restaurant cognoscenti that by 1982 the couple had taken the idea commercial.
The Zagats met at Yale Law School. Tim, 51, quit his job as a corporate counsel at Gulf & Western Inc. in 1986 to manage the business. Nina, 49, stayed on at law firm Shearman & Sterling but is now leaving to work full time on the guides.
The couple has meanwhile expanded to 26 cities across the U. S. and sold 500,000 guides in 1990. They expect revenues of roughly $3 million in 1991. Pushing into new arenas, the two last year put out a three-volume, nationwide hotel and car-rental survey for $30. In June, they released the Zagat MarketPlace Survey covering upscale groceries in New York City, and prototype of a London restaurant survey has been prepared. But the volume bound to have widest appeal is still in the works: a national survey of fast-food eateries. Let's see if they get chef and food writer Craig Claiborne to contribute to that one.