Diner Survey Finds Angelenos Still Finding Comfort in Food

By TRAVIS PURSER
Staff Reporter

The economy might be slumping, but Los Angeles diners are eating out more often, racking up higher tabs and leaving bigger tips than ever.

At least that's according to 5,900 diners who responded to the 17th edition of the Zagat Survey of Los Angeles restaurants, the small red book that compiles ratings of 1,514 local establishments by quality and type of food, service, decor and price.

There were few surprises in the most recent survey, which is decidedly unscientific and which, over the years, has come under some heat for its findings and methodology. Cafe Bizou was again named L.A.'s most popular restaurant, while the popularity of sushi propelled Matsuhisa, Sushi Sasabune and Sushi Nozawa to the top three food rankings. The top newcomer was Angelini Osteria.

The biggest surprise came in diners' increased spending habits.

A "revolution of food" is taking place in the United States, said Tim Zagat, the guide's co-founder. "If times get hard, women get jobs," and more people end up eating out, he said.

Also, as workers put in more hours during a tight economy, employers compensate by paying for more meals out, he said.

According to the survey, 52 percent of diners said they had not curbed their restaurant habits despite the weak economy. In fact, they eat out even more, according to Zagat: 3.7 meals weekly (1.1 million meals annually), up from last year's 3.6 and higher than the national average of 3.1.

"I am not going out as often, but when I do go out, I make it more special," said Sheri Mobley, president of Mobley Marketing Communications.

Still, she admitted, she relies on restaurants for four or five dinners a week, but makes only a couple big, expensive meals.

Tabs also rose sharply, increasing by 12.2 percent at the most expensive L.A. restaurants to $60.14 from $53.60 last year. As a result, the average per person check jumped 7.1 percent, to $29.32. Last year, the average was $27.37.

That might have helped Jack Srebnik, owner of the "upscale casual" 17th Street Caf & #233; in Santa Monica, where sales have risen slightly this year. Srebnik attributed the increase to new business generated by diners priced out of high-end eateries.

Srebnik, president of the California Restaurant Association, said he's noticed that business at low-priced restaurants is also down.

Tipped off

In previous surveys, Los Angeles diners have been among the nation's most frugal tippers, leaving an average of 17.4 percent of the bill. That lagged the national average of 18.2 percent. This year, those surveyed in Los Angeles said they tip an average of 18 percent, even though restaurant workers interviewed by the Business Journal last month said tipping was down.

Mike Lynn, an associate professor of consumer behavior at the School of Hotel Administration at Cornell University, suggested that the kind of people who tip well might also be the kind of people who respond to Zagat surveys. While open to anyone, questionnaires are sent to members of food and wine societies and are often filled out by higher-income professionals who tend to eat out often. Diners may also request to be included in the survey.

"It's kind of a club," Lynn said. "Frequent diners do tend to tip higher than infrequent diners."

Still, he was surprised at Zagats' report that tips were up, considering the poor state of the economy.

Alan Ripp, a Zagat spokesman, suggested that customers as well as restaurant staff have become "kinder and gentler" since Sept. 11, which could result in bigger tips.

Waiters in Los Angeles are reputed to lack the professional drive of waiters in other cities, which could drive down tips, but service has been a major complaint everywhere, he said. "Culinary schools don't teach service the way they teach ice sculpture," said Ripp.

At Diagilev, a high-end West Hollywood restaurant in the Franco-Russian style gets the top grade locally for service, business has held steady, said manager Troy Denison. "When tips are down, I hear about it," said Denison, whose staff has been content.

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