“Mmm … strawberry … my favorite, ” said Ted Zagat, dipping a spoon into a plastic quart container of Stonyfield Farm yogurt. The elder son of Tim and Nina Zagat, the city’s most famous gourmands and founders of the eponymous maroon restaurant surveys, was perched stiffly on a swivel chair in his barren third-floor window office on Columbus Circle, two levels below Mom and Dad.
A fit 6 feet 1 inch, 165 pounds in cordovan wingtips, navy dress slacks and a crisp shirt from Seize Sur Vingt, the 25-year-old Mr. Zagat is picking up the family reins as the founder of Zagat’s “Survey of New York City Nightlife,” edited by Paper contributing editor Christine Muhlke, 28. While his guide is getting a priceless boost from the family name, Mr. Zagat said he resented that The New York Times , in a recent article about his folks, had referred to him as a “princeling”–because, he argued, populism is the very essence of the Zagat way. Populism, however, doesn’t always pay the bills: On the day of his interview, he was planning a large launch party on March 14 at Métrazur in Grand Central, the guest list stacked heavily toward Griscoms and Trumps and McNallys.
What does it say about the state of New York City night life that the city’s newest, soon-to-be-most-visible night-life guide–its cover is black, by the way, not maroon–is being produced by a nice fellow who, one cannot help but say, is something of a square? Whose subway reading material is not Vanity Fair but rather Sun-Tzu’s The Art of War ?
“If you were to spew off the Von Furstenbergs and the Millers to him, he might not even know who they are,” said Alexandra Shapiro, 28, a friend since childhood who works in marketing for Calvin Klein, adding, “And thank God!”
Not that Mr. Zagat is the Jedediah Purdy of New York night life, but …
“You know what I love about him?” said one person who worked on the guide. “He’s earnest. He is a man without irony, and, my God, from living downtown, I just want to run up and kiss him.”
If you can find him. Mr. Zagat has been spending his wee hours glaze-eyed in front of his Powerbook. In addition to his nightlife duties, he is also in charge of getting the Zagat brand name established on line. “I was here till about 2 A.M. last night, but I enjoy it,” said the young man, whose smooth, pink face betrayed no hint of exhaustion. Next to his burbling Palm Pilot lay an apple, slightly bruised, and a pear. Nearby were invitations to a benefit for the Harvard Hasty Pudding Theatricals and to a pal’s engagement party. Mr. Zagat is single. “He’s definitely one of the more eligible bachelors in Manhattan,” said Ms. Shapiro. One co-worker compared him to Prince William. “He blushes when he gets excited,” she cooed.
Night life, of course, is supposed to be exciting. A press release about the guide says the responses were culled from “3,200 N.Y.C. gadabouts,” 88 percent of those in their 30’s or younger. There are various categories, such as “Suits” (Club Macanudo, “A man’s dream”); “Frat House” (Brother Jimmy’s, “good places to ‘meet mall chicks'”); “Enter at Your Own Risk” (the Cock, “a ‘gross-out’ East Village gay bar” ); and “Cyber Scenes” (Esperanto Cafe, “a digital juke that downloads tunes from the Web.”)
Not surprisingly, several of the highest-rated night-life spots happen to be restaurants. The ladies’ favorite is Blue Water Grill–but “watch out for lascivious bankers.” The favorite hangout for “50-somethings”? Tavern on the Green. The highest-rated spot over all was Asia de Cuba (“like Havana before Castro”).
Of course, publishing an annual atlas to what’s hot in New York night life by necessity involves a blind faith that one particular spot will stay hot for more than, say, a month. Asked about the anointment of Asia de Cuba, Village Voice columnist and downtown fixture Michael Musto said, “I thought it lost some luster after J.F.K. died. Was this written after J.F.K. died, if I could be so crass? Three months can make all the difference when it comes to a restaurant; in terms of a nightclub, two weeks can make all the difference.”
“Some of these places that were hot when it went to press, now you sort of roll your eyes,” admitted Ms. Muhlke. “Some of those bars make me scared, they make me want to call 911, but a lot of these sorority girls just love them, and you have to be true to that. I don’t think it’ll be held as the standard bearer that the restaurant guide is. But it’s really fun.”
“I know my favorites aren’t going to be in there,” said Mr. Musto. “I don’t want them to be in there, the last thing I need is a line of people from Weehawken lining up to go to Escuelita.”
Told that Escuelita was, in fact, in the guide (“Gender here is ‘anyone’s guess'”), Mr. Musto replied, “Oh God, no! That’s it, my life’s over. It’s all over. Escuelita’s ruined.”
Loved Lemons as a Child
“I remember when Ted was a baby, he loved lemons,” said his mother. “And grapefruit juice. I thought it was amazing.”
“From the earliest age he loved sushi,” added her husband, whose office is adorned with testimonials from Henry Kissinger, Sumner Redstone and Madeleine Albright. “I mean, it was sort of embarrassing to have a 6-year-old say, ‘Let’s go get sushi.'”
Young Ted attended St. Bernard’s, an Upper East Side private school of the second rank, toting a Mork and Mindy lunchbox packed with peanut butter and jelly. “Were you expecting, like, croque monsieurs –a little pâté ?” he said. There were museum visits and weekends in the country. His little rich friends at St. Bernard’s could be cruel. “At St. Bernard’s, everyone’s parents were either lawyers or doctors or investment bankers,” he said, “so when my parents decided to leave their legal careers and pursue this ‘entrepreneurial’ venture–this was before the whole ‘New Economy’ craze–my classmates all made fun of it and thought that it was so weird, ‘Oh, so your parents are leaving law, and they’re going to write … books. O.K. …”
But as the guide gained momentum in the early 80’s, Ted and younger brother John helped slide questionnaires under the doors of their Central Park West apartment building and rode shotgun in the family Toyota station wagon, boxes of books stacked in the back. “We used to stick him in the front seat, almost handcuffed to the driver’s wheel, so we could run in and out of the stores and not get ticketed,” said Tim Zagat.
Adolescence arrived without major incident. “I was pretty straight and narrow,” said Ted, who, against his parents’ protests, packed himself off to Exeter Academy in 10th grade. “We didn’t want him to go!” chortled his father. “He was wanting a lot of athletic stuff.… Exeter has much tougher rules than we did. When he came back, he thought we were pussycats!”
At boarding school, Ted played lacrosse, soccer, basketball, ran cross- country and wrestled, an unusual choice for his height. “The difference is, I had leverage,” he said.
“He always practiced really hard for sports, and, as a brother, he was harsh at times, but he was always trying to help me get better at sports,” said brother John, a 22-year-old Vassar senior who recently completed a senior thesis on vampires. “He’s been trying to get me to exercise more, but I’ve always been less motivated than him.”
One summer, he landed a job at Paul Bocuse, the renowned restaurant in Lyons, France. It was grueling. “You couldn’t sit down,” he said. “They’d hit you if you did anything wrong. When I got there the first day, they sat me down in front of a crate of potatoes, and the chef peeled one and said, ‘I want them exactly like this,’ and it was just perfectly peeled, sort of like a diamond, it had these facets, and so I sat there and just peeled and peeled and peeled , and it wasn’t until about noon that I peeled one that he was willing to accept, and then he just stuck them all into one of those Cuisinart machines, and turned it into mashed potatoes. Which was the most humiliating thing.”
He spent the next summer bussing tables at Spago in Los Angeles. “I served a lot of famous people,” he said. “At the time, I got a kick out of that.”
Then came Harvard, his father’s alma mater. “Just the red brick kind of Cambridge environment appealed to me,” he said. “It was very similar to Exeter.” He majored in English, played more lacrosse, mentored disadvantaged youth and joined the A.D., one of the college’s controversial male-only “final” clubs.
“I was anticlub,” said his father. “I think the Harvard club system is discriminatory, and I have argued this with him. But he and his roommates were all very much into the club scene.”
“I strongly advocate that women should have an equivalent place to spend time,” said Ted Zagat, “so I wish there was some place like that. By the same token, I didn’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater. We were certainly welcoming to women!”
He met a Wellesley girl, Chrissy Lowris, at an A.D. party when they were juniors, and they dated for almost four years. Despite Ted’s parents’ epicurean status, “We didn’t go to Le Cirque,” she said. “We ran around Central Park a lot. He’s got a great discipline with food. Incredibly so. I was like a dessert fiend, and we’d always get all these desserts, and he would say, ‘No, thank you.'”
Classmate Chad Brown said that at his own drunken 21st-birthday party at Harvard, Ted thoughtfully brought over sandwiches at 3 A.M. “I remember he made them by hand himself,” he said. “They were ham and cheese and mustard.”
But the Le Cirque life style was certainly part of the picture. His old friend Ms. Shapiro said, “What I love is that he appreciates the good things in life. I remember when he was in Aspen–was it Aspen or Telluride?–no, he was in Aspen, I think at the Little Nell, and I remember him calling me and describing in detail the room, you know, the bathtub and the doors and the chocolates they left on the bed and the sheets . He was exposed at a very young age to a very sophisticated world, but it hasn’t jaded him.”
In his office, between bites of his yogurt, Mr. Zagat said cooking for others is one of his hobbies. He described a dinner party he held for 20 people. “I made rosemary chicken and some broccoli rabe,” he said, “Beets, a nice mesclun salad with blue cheese and some nice vinaigrette, and some little crunchy baguettes.”
“I’ve never seen the cooking side of him,” said his current (just friends) roommate Vanessa Valkin, 27, a Financial Times reporter who shares a two-bedroom in the Flatiron District with Mr. Zagat. “He’s extremely tidy. He’s meticulous. Ted eats a lot of sushi. He’s so healthy. There is a lot of discipline about him.”
“He likes having fun but doesn’t let it get in the way of things,” said brother John, who after graduation plans to work at the New York Psychiatric Institute. “Ted’s always been very self-aware and doing what he thinks is best for himself. He wouldn’t do that at the expense of others, but his priority has always been to do what’s best for him, and that’s helped him a lot … He’s not by any means a selfish person, but he definitely does see the value of money and being well-to-do.”
He called back a few moments later. “I just wanted to be sure that I didn’t call him Teddy because it pisses him off.”
The night-life survey came about in part because Ted, who worked stints in investment banking and management consulting after Harvard, didn’t always know where to entertain clients.
“The funny thing about Ted,” said Ms. Shapiro, “is that for a guy who’s in the restaurant business, a year ago I felt that I was telling him what was hot and hip. You’ve got that very trend-setting sort of elite crowd in New York, and he is not part of that.”
It remains to be seen whether that elite crowd will admit to reading a night-life guide, except maybe under the covers when no one’s watching. Indeed, for some, the very existence of a Zagat survey on late-night locales, with its respectable, upper-middle-class aura, represents a defeat for edgy, after-hours New York
“It’s a bit of a sad take on who is actually going to clubs now,” said Chi Chi Valenti, co-owner of Mother in the meatpacking district. “I do think it’s part of a much bigger thing of the way night life has become here, and the real lack of a more creative audience. The really, really underground types of clubs, they’ve been made impossible by the city and by neighborhood associations. Nobody wants that kind of edge. In terms of just taking over some really cool bombed-out space for the night? You have to be a millionaire to do that now.”