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The Dish on Two New York Restaurant Guides

Sunday, November 14, 2004; Page P02

Determining what millions of Americans eat is not a responsibility to be taken lightly. In the Big Apple, that charge falls largely to two competing dining guides -- the "Zagat Survey 2005: New York City Restaurants" ($13.95) and "Time Out New York's Eating and Drinking 2005" ($11.95). Which is better equipped to steer the masses through America's culinary capital? New Yorker Seth Sherwood compares.

REVIEWING SYSTEM. The Zagat guide, now in its 26th year, has refined restaurant reviewing into a science. Every year, Zagat surveys thousands of New Yorkers about the places they've eaten. Each respondent rates the establishments in three criteria -- food, decor, service -- on a 30-point scale. Zagat then averages the numbers to determine overall scores. The huge base of reviewers dilutes individual prejudices and minimizes the sway of uncharacteristic aberrations in an eatery's food or service. The numerical ratings allow readers, at least in theory, to quantify the quality of each restaurant and compare it with its rivals.

The Time Out guide, in its sixth year, takes the opposite approach. More literary than scientific, the guide uses no grading systems, relying instead on individual reviewers who write vivid descriptions of each restaurant. But while the reviews are longer, more clever and more descriptive than Zagat's -- which blandly strings together snippets of diners' commentary -- the lack of a weighing system makes it hard to know how restaurants stack up against one another. Moreover, each establishment is visited by only two or three reviewers, so personal bias may creep in.

Advantage: Zagat.

LOGISTICAL INFO. Each Zagat review is accompanied by the restaurant's address, cross street, phone number, Web site and price level. Icons indicate whether the place is open late and takes credit cards. Time Out offers the same info (except Web sites) and heaps on more: hours, nearest subway stops and the specific credit cards accepted. Icons tell if a place is especially cheap or a critical favorite.

Advantage: Time Out.

SCOPE. Zagat reviews 1,946 restaurants, which it breaks down into 93 types of cuisine. Everything from noodle joints to gastronomic temples is covered. All five boroughs are represented, though the focus is clearly on Manhattan and, to a lesser degree, Brooklyn. Fewer than 30 reviews are devoted to the Bronx and Staten Island combined.

Time Out serves up more than 2,000 reviews representing 38 cuisines in a wide range of prices. Though it lacks many specialty categories found in its competitor -- Zagat's attention to Soup, Hot Dogs and Ice Cream Parlors appealed to our late-night cravings -- Time Out shows greater depth in nearly all ethnic cuisines. It also displays a farther geographic reach, pulling in more restaurants from the outer boroughs.

Advantage: Toss-up.

STYLE. As befits a guide built on number-crunching and categorizing, Zagat has as much flash as a middle-aged accountant. Don't expect photos, colors or embellishments -- just facts and figures. Time Out, by contrast, is a fashionista. Dolled up with crisp page design and hundreds of color photos, the guide doesn't just describe food and restaurants, it feeds them to you. Glossy images of sumptuous dishes, sleek dining rooms and sexy local restaurateurs give it the feel of an art book.

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