20 Cleveland restaurants earned Zagat's approval, whatever that means.

Surveying Zagat 

20 Cleveland restaurants earned Zagat's approval, whatever that means.

The 2003 Zagat Survey of America's Top Restaurants is out and, as always, Cleveland's listings make tasty food for thought.

The good news is that, more than ever, Greater Clevelanders seem to be hip to the merits of locally owned, chef-driven restaurants: Of what are purported to be the city's top 20 dining rooms, not one of them is a link in a chain. Yes, the Johnny's triumvirate (the Bar, the Bistro, and Downtown) made the cut, as well as Hospitality Restaurants' Blue Point Grille (sib to Salmon Dave's and the Cabin Club) -- but those homegrown enterprises are a far cry from Morton's of Chicago and Ruth's Chris Steakhouse, which took up space on the 2000 list.

Another cause for applause is the inclusion, for the first time, of Jeff Uniatowski's Mise (which made the top 10 list, nailing 25 points out of a possible 30 in the food rankings) and Doug Katz's Fire.

Of course, the footwork for Tim and Nina Zagat's annual poll is done not by professional critics or culinarians, but by tens of thousands of volunteer surveyors, "avid local restaurant-goers," as the Zagats describe them. (You, too, can join the crew; just log onto zagat.com to register.) Once the year's rating forms are turned in, local editors in each city help choose the restaurants to be listed and edit the survey results. (We can't tell you who Zagat's Cleveland editor is: Repeated e-mails and phone calls to the N.Y.C. office went unanswered.)

Among the survey's other weaknesses (lack of timeliness . . . the specter of possible ballot-box stuffing), this "review by anonymous committee" approach leads some critics and restaurateurs (us included) to view Zagat as more of a popularity poll than a serious critique. In Cleveland, for example, modest little Phnom Penh (which dishes out excellent, inexpensive Vietnamese and Cambodian fare) gets the same food rating (27 out of 30 points) as Paul Minnillo's Baricelli Inn, and for that matter, a higher food rating than Michael Symon's Lola Bistro. But if a visiting gourmet asked us to point him toward one of Cleveland's top restaurants (which is, after all, what the Zagat Survey claims it's all about), which one do you think we'd be more likely to choose?

This isn't to say that any of this year's listed restaurants don't deserve the props. But in culinary art, as in all art forms, popularity isn't the same as quality. For now, we'll take our Zagat ratings with a dash of salt.

More by Elaine T. Cicora

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