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Monday, Aug 15, 2022


A mini-explosion in the number of L.A. guide books is providing locals and tourists alike with almost as many options for advice as they have for dining, drinking and entertainment

Important clients from Omaha are coming to town and you want to take them to a spot where the food is fabulous, the drinks are stiff and the star sightings frequent.

Without a clue and not wanting to appear hopelessly out of touch, you head for a bookstore to pick up a local guide book.

Sounds simple enough. The problem is that when you peruse the store’s Local Interest shelf you discover more than two dozen guides each claiming that they and only they have the inside scoop on where to eat and drink in Los Angeles.

Whose got it right? Who’s up to date? Who can you trust?

Some guide books are more credible than others, says Kelly Goodman, manager of Brentano’s Books in the Beverly Center. But the more important question is who wants to know.

“It all depends on what kind of person you are,” Goodman said. “If it’s a wholesome family and they come into the store, I would steer them towards the traditional Fodors or Zagat. If it’s some Euro-trash club kid then I would steer them toward “L.A. Bizarro,” or there’s a lot of great bar guides that are out now.”

Titles galore

While not a huge business, the national guide book market has been growing at a healthy clip over the past decade resulting in many new titles, especially in large cities like Los Angeles.

“It used to be said that local guides couldn’t sell,” said Tim Zagat, whose company markets guides in 70 cities around the world. “We’ve proven that they can and more and more local guides are getting into the act.”

The Zagat Survey, which rates establishments by polling dedicated diners and night owls, last month released its first-ever “Los Angeles Nightlife” guide and now has three local titles dedicated to the L.A. market.

The competitive environment has led publishers to focus their editorial lenses on smaller niches within the cultural landscape of Southern California. In addition to the many guides on restaurants, bars and hotels, there are books that concentrate on gourmet shopping, pet recreation and infamous locales. One national book has a section on local strip clubs. “L.A. Bizarro” is billed by its publisher, St. Martin’s Press in New York, as “the insiders guide to the obscure, the absurd and the perverse in Los Angeles.”

“I see more books trying to target very specific audiences,” said Kristin Petersen, a managing editor at Really Great Books, which just published the second edition of its local “Hungry” guide, which focuses on meals that can be had for $10 or less.

Really Great Books is an anomaly among local guide publishers in that the company is based in Los Angeles. Most publishers are in New York, although they generally rely on locals to write their reviews.

“Being a local business helps us because we try to focus on places that have a neighborhood identity, like Canter’s or Titos Tacos,” said Petersen, whose company also publishes a “Thirsty” guide focusing on local watering holes.

“We give you a better sense of the character and diversity of Los Angeles. Some of these other guide books don’t even get into some local communities like Long Beach or the (San Fernando) Valley.”

The moderate success of its local titles about 10,000 copies of “Hungry” have sold has emboldened Really Great Books to expand into new territory. “Hungry” books are due out next year for Las Vegas and New Orleans.

Credibility test

And while it’s difficult to get a restaurateur or night club owner to admit they care what a good book says about their establishment, the fact that more people are reaching for guides and that more guides are being targeted at locals speaks to their growing influence. In truth, most business owners want their restaurants or clubs listed in as many guides as possible.

“I’m not sure to what degree, but it helps,” said Sia Amiri, general manager of Crustacean, a popular Beverly Hills restaurant and bar that has received positive write-ups in numerous local guides. “Our restaurant is more word of mouth, but if someone sees us in the book it confirms it for them. So it’s good to be in the guides.”

Most people still reach for the tried and true. Goodman said her store sells three Zagat guides for every other guide sold (even though a recent issue of Food and Wine Magazine took issue with the Zagat books). “It has the reputation and it’s really readable,” Goodman said. “They’re pretty much right on when it comes to their restaurant reviews.”

Zagat is quick to tout his company’s survey model as a superior way of ensuring credibility compared to individual reviews.

“Every reader knows five or six restaurants where they work or live, and they know those restaurants better than any reviewer because they eat there once a week,” Zagat said. “You pick up the guide and see what it says. If you don’t agree, you throw it out and never use it again.”

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