Zagat Me, Baby!

zagat nru  Zagat Me, Baby! In a video posted on YouTube, a pretty young woman with long blond tresses twirls in Times Square at night, phone in hand. She’s staring at the screen, which flashes a compass plotted with nearby restaurants. Scores and distances float above a red dot marking a restaurant’s location. She turns: There’s Bond 45! Turns again: There’s Junior’s! So many options, and all Zagat-ranked.

Handy! Or, definitely handier than a little maroon booklet filled with restaurant reviews.

The video is a promotion for Zagat’s new mobile phone application, “nru” (pronounced “near you”), the restaurant guide’s first-ever free mobile application (an earlier iPhone app, “Zagat to Go,” costs $9.99). Phones with Google Android can use “nru” now; a new (and free) version of the app will be released for the iPhone 3G S this fall.

Created in partnership with travel site lastminute.com, “nru” offers free access to Zagat ratings and cost estimates for restaurants, clubs and other businesses in more than 75 cities, including New York. Basically, hold up your phone, find out what’s around. Simple and useful. But can Zagat, whose paperback, très ’90s guide is now 30 years old, compete in the mobile marketplace? Sites like Yelp—the free peer-review site—have compiled similar man-on-the-street information and been ahead of the curve on mobile technology (Yelp launched its iPhone app in July 2008, months before Zagat jumped on the iPhone craze), allowing anyone with a Web browser to access their copious number of citizen judgments. A Yelp representative told The Observer that an upcoming version of their iPhone application will have

Facebook Connect and Twitter integration, too. Zagat, still keeping it slightly old-school, currently has no plans for such social media features.

Is lagging behind the hyper-connected, Twittering world costing Zagat?

Ryan Charles, a product manager for Zagat’s Internet and wireless projects, said the Zagat app has “never left” the 10-most-downloaded iPhone apps in the travel-applications category since its launch in November, but wouldn’t give more detailed numbers on Web traffic or download stats. So it’s hard to tell exactly how successful Zagat has been, mobile-ly speaking, so far.

And in fact, Zagat might find “nru” and Zagat to Go gains an edge over other apps, thanks to the crafty “Zagat Recommends” section, which acts like a personal concierge service. The feature has a choose-your-own-adventure feel, asking the user a series of questions so he or she can find the right Zagat-rated restaurant based on whether it’s for a first date (intimate!) or to break up (crowds, please!), or if patrons “have a trust fund” or are those on the more frugal side of dining.

“The important scenarios help you make a dining decision in a much shorter time,” Mr. Charles said. “We give you sort of a quick answer rather than having to scroll through a bunch of reviews to get an idea of a restaurant.”

Plus, it kind of sounds like a game. Given that “Hero of Sparta” was number one in the App Store last we checked, this can only be a good thing for Zagat.


greagan@observer.com