Food, Wine & Spirits in St. Louis

Thursday, September 15, 2011 / 10:20 AM

StL's Zagat Editor Reflects on Its History and Sale to Google

Sometime in the mid-1980s, Millard Cohen, a local businessman with a great interest in the arts and a great love for fine food and wine, invited me to lunch with Tim Zagat.

I was aware of the Zagat guides, and I was an acolyte in the Gourmet Church of Food and Wine where Millard and some of his friends taught many of us about those two keystones of a better and richer life. These men, a loose group that included Howard Nason, Bob Kabel, Fred Lippmann, Lucian Dressel and Steve Apted, among others, drank primarily first-growth Bordeaux wines. But their love for all wine was such that a number of them helped make the Missouri wine industry a viable entity.

 Well, turns out that Tim was about to expand the pocket-sized, Burgundy-colored books across the country. He and his wife, Nina, were New York lawyers, alumni of Yale where they were classmates of Bill Clinton. The guides began as mimeographed copies of their friends' comments on New York restaurants, and Tim thought he had a good idea.

 Did he ever! A few weeks ago Google bought Zagat for $125 million.

Tim had asked Millard to run the St. Louis book, and Millard called me. He had contacts and mailing lists; I had some writing skill and knew the territory as the Post-Dispatch restaurant writer since 1972.  After the St. Louis book was on solid ground, Millard moved on, and I've been the St. Louis editor ever since, the last 17 years in collaboration with Ann Lemons Pollack, who sometimes shares this space.

Through the years, I've worked with a number of Zagat editors, all of them extremely careful. So careful that I've never seen a typo in any of the guides. Real people send the comments to Zagat, where the editors have a sharp eye for ballot box-stuffing. Zagat sends volumes of print-outs to me, I put together roughly 60-word paragraphs, using the verbiage of several writers. It's also my job to tighten some of the quotes, look for the puns and word plays and make the paragraph a single sentence. Lots of semi-colons, as you may have noticed. 

The numerical ratings are in place the first time I see the print-outs, and I cannot change them. The writers' names are not included, but St. Louis voters are quite sharp. I may have minor disagreements, but I can live with the St. Louis restaurant ratings.

Visiting with Tim in New York can be fun. He took us on his New York Restaurant Tour one night, an event that needed a chauffeur to wait outside while we zipped in and out of some 30 Manhattan restaurants, visiting an owner, having a drink or an appetizer, shaking some hands and moving on. Richard Nixon was dining at Le Cirque. At about 11 o'clock, we went to a real dinner at Cafe Boulud, where we checked out the kitchen and were introduced to a couple of young St. Louis chefs doing what amounted to an apprenticeship under Daniel Boulud. Jim Fiala (The Crossing, Acero, Liluma, The Terrace View, Liluma's Sdie Door) and Cary McDowell (King Louie's, Revival, Winslow's Home) certainly learned their lessons well.

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