If you ever need to get the lowdown on the Los Angeles restaurant scene, Karen Berk is the one who can dish it out.
For the past 15 years she has been co-editing the Zagat Survey of Los Angeles and Southern California restaurants with fellow editor Merrill Shindler.
The annual survey, published in a compact book, gives the scoop on 1,645 local restaurants, rating them by food, service, d & #233;cor and cost. The survey is done by more than 7,000 regular restaurant-goers who eat out three to four times a week. To participate in the survey, restaurant-goers send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. In exchange for filling out the surveys, diners get a free copy of the Zagat Survey, which has become the bible of the local restaurant scene.
Berk, who eats out three to four times a week herself and is co-founder of the Seasonal Table Cooking School, helped launch the first Zagat Survey when it was started in 1986 by Nina and Tim Zagat in New York.
Over the years, Berk has seen the Los Angeles restaurant scene evolve into a distinctive part of the culinary world by devising its own style of cuisine in a unique restaurant environment.
Question: How did you end up working as the co-editor of the Zagat Survey?
Answer: I had just finished a three-year volunteer project as food editor on the Los Angeles County Museum of Art's cookbook. There was a team of four of us. That was in 1986. I had just finished that and Tim Zagat, who started the Zagat Survey first in New York and then in Washington, D.C., wanted to start a survey here. So he hired me.
Q: How hard was it to start from scratch?
A: It was like selling used cars hard. Nobody had heard of the Zagat Survey. But I think one of the reasons I was hired was that I had a lot of contacts in the law community here, my husband is a lawyer, and in the arts community. But I was very excited about the concept. My job was to put enough people together to do the survey. I remember I went to Jerry Magnin's store on Rodeo Drive, the Polo Store where he had the New York Zagat Survey on display in the store. That was one of the first places I made contact with people who wanted to fill out the survey. That first year we had 1,300 people who participated in the survey. Now it is up to 7,400.
Q: Where else did you find people who wanted to do the survey?
A: I started calling law firms in town where I had contacts. Lawyers like to talk about food and they eat out a lot, so I thought they would be good survey people. Then I went to all the art museum people I knew. Little by little I discovered blocs of people. I also posted the survey in United Airlines' Red Carpet Club. Over the past 15 years, it has become an easy sell to get the word out. One of my greatest finds was the Society of Company Concierges in Los Angeles, which gave out surveys.
Q: What was the worst dining-out experience you've had in Los Angeles?
A: It was about 10 years ago when I was with five other people, and we went to an upscale Westside restaurant where we had reservations. Three of the women in our group had just finished working on a charity project with the chef of the restaurant. We had waited an hour for our table when (actress) Jacqueline Bisset walked in and sat down right away at the table they were clearing for us. That is the kind of thing that leaves an imprint on you. And they didn't even try to do any damage control no free glass of wine, nothing.
Q: How has the Los Angeles restaurant scene changed over the years?
A: The biggest change is what I call the Asianization of the restaurant world. I would say about four of the top 10 best food restaurants listed in our survey are Asian. It has been fascinating to see what has happened. Sushi restaurants have totally mushroomed. Also, there are mixtures of Asian with other cuisine, like French cuisine mixed with Asian, which a lot of people call fusion. Or restaurants will take a nuance of an Asian influence, such as lemongrass, and transfer it to their cuisine. And Indian cooking is showing up here, where before, it was mostly Japanese and Chinese.
Q: What about the atmosphere in restaurants?
A: It has become much more casual, and I think Wolfgang (Puck) was one of the people responsible for changing that. He started the concept of a restaurant with upscale food that had a more casual environment. I think now there are only about three places in town that require a jacket and tie for men. Those are the Hotel Bel-Air, Sir Winston's on the Queen Mary in Long Beach and Windows in the Transamerica Building in downtown Los Angeles.
Q: It seems that more and more restaurants are very noisy or have bad acoustics. Is that a trend?
A: A lot of restaurants want to create an upbeat party atmosphere. This appeals mostly to people in their 20s who go for the scene and don't sit around and talk a lot. And people aren't going to congregate for very long, which means the turnover is very rapid. And a restaurant makes money by turning tables.
Q: How is the restaurant industry doing here in Los Angeles?
A: Right now it's a bit flat. The restaurant industry came through the 1980s strong. There was a period in the early 1990s when business was down that you could attribute to the riots and the earthquake. No one has figured out why it is flat now. Also, Las Vegas is pulling a lot of restaurant workers and chefs to that town.
Q: Any changes on the horizon on the L.A. restaurant scene?
A: I think what is happening is that more people are going out to more family-oriented restaurants. The Outback does an extremely good job of catering to that market, and the Cheesecake Factory is very value-oriented and family-oriented. They give you portions that are big enough for two people. And there are bistros everywhere. Everything is called a bistro, even if it isn't French. There are Asian bistros and Japanese bistros. And we're seeing more hotels that have destination restaurants in them again. The level of the food has gotten higher, such as The Restaurant at Raffles L'Ermitage hotel, Encore at the St. Regis Hotel, and Breeze at the Century Plaza. You're also going to see more Latin American and Caribbean and Mexican restaurants that regionalize their cuisine, such as serving dishes from Oaxaca or Michoacan. And more Peruvian and Argentian cuisine.
Q: How does the Los Angeles restaurant scene compare with that of New York?
A: It doesn't. You can't put them in the same category. New York, discounting Paris, is the middle of the food universe although New York has more variations in food. Paris is almost all French food. New York is where things happen, and there are more restaurants there than any place. It's a culture of people walking, going out to restaurants in their neighborhoods. People live in small apartments and have small quarters. And then they have an international community that is there. We have a segment of that international community.
Q: How do you and co-editor Merrill Shindler divide the work?
A: Basically, Merrill writes the blurbs about the restaurants and I do everything else, from taking care of the surveys to doing the index at the back of the book and organizing the lists at the front of the book.
Q: Why has Shindler become so much better known to the public than you are?
A: Because he has a radio show and writes for the newspapers. He is the more visible one. But I'm involved with the American Institute of Wine and Food, and with various charities. We both started on this together 15 years ago and have worked as a team since then.
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