Alan Westheimer is presiding over our lunchtime table at Carrabba’s, a noisy, frantically popular Italian restaurant with several Houston locations. His coat is off, his tie is tucked under his suspenders to keep it out of the tomato sauce, and he is looking like the cat that ate the canary. Make that the free-range canary with cilantro pesto. Westheimer—mild-mannered CPA—is living his secret life as an anonymous restaurant reviewer, and he is loving every minute of it.
He is one of 1,309 Houstonians and 670 Dallas and Fort Worth residents who have served this year as unpaid reviewers for the Zagat Restaurant Survey, a sort of populist Michelin that directs readers to restaurants in 23 metropolitan areas around the country. And the reason he is looking particularly pleased with himself is that in November the Houston guide, to which he has contributed assiduously, will go on sale in local bookstores. The Dallas—Fort Worth edition will be released simultaneously.
The slim, burgundy-colored pocket-size Zagat (za-gat) guides—bristling with write-ups and dozens of handy lists—are in their second edition in Texas. Their operating principle is democratic: Ask enough people what they think about anything—even food—and you will arrive at the truth. Eaters are recruited through solicitations to civic groups, private companies, wine and food societies, and individuals. The series has been a fixture in New York City since 1983, where it now attracts seven thousand reviewers and sells 300,000 copies annually. Tim Zagat, the New York co-publisher, is hoping to sell at least 50,000 copies each of the two Texas guides (at $9.95 apiece).
Back at lunch, Westheimer, 48, is proving he’s the right man for the job. He’s so thorough he even talks like a restaurant review. Leaning conspiratorially toward me, he observes, “This house salad has an endearing quality. The lettuce is good quality and fresh—mostly romaine—and it has a cheesy Italian dressing, plus it’s ice cold.” In one year the well-padded accountant ate at 150 restaurants and, for each and every one of them, filled out Zagat’s obsessive-compulsive rating form. For all this, Westheimer receives neither expenses nor recognition. So why does he do it? Simple, he says: “I’ve always wanted to be a restaurant reviewer. It’s a dream come true.”
While Westheimer and his fellow eaters labor at back tables and run up dry-cleaning bills, Zagat’s Dallas and Houston editors are using the upcoming publication of the books to indulge in some traditional rival-bashing. Sniffs Teresa Byrne-Dodge, Houston Metropolitan restaurant writer and the Zagat Houston Survey editor, “The Houston book is much larger; I refer to the Dallas book as a pamphlet. Houston’s restaurants are a much better value than Dallas’.” Ron Ruggless, Dallas Times Herald Lifestyle section editor and Zagat correspondent, snipes back, “People in Houston will eat anywhere, no matter how appalling. Dallas diners are far more discriminating.”
The crowd at Carrabba’s has thinned out now, and as we leave, I can’t resist asking Westheimer if his extensive experience has given him any special clues for finding good restaurants in strange cities. What does he do when he doesn’t know where to eat?
“Me?” he responds, looking momentarily baffled. “I ask the concierge.”