What Happened to Zagat ’89?

Nobody ever said producing a dining guide was easy. And Tim Zagat has had plenty of problems getting out a new version of the Zagat Chicago Restaurant Survey. What was to have been a 1989 survey has turned into the 1990 edition, delayed by at least six months. Now Zagat is saying the new guide should be out by Thanksgiving (keep your fingers crossed).

Spawned as a New York-based cottage industry by Tim and wife Nina Zagat, the Zagat restaurant surveys are a big business now, well-known among food aficionados as the only major guides wherein customers themselves determine restaurant ratings. The Zagats began in 1979 with just a New York guide, but their collection has expanded rapidly in the past several years to include most major U.S. cities.

Zagat guides are compiled from restaurant rating questionnaires distributed to hundreds of food lovers, who fill them out in return for a free copy of the finished product, and perhaps the comfort of knowing that it is in part a reflection of their critical judgments.

Just how current the new Chicago guide will be is debatable, however, given that most of the ratings forms for the upcoming edition were filled out and returned long ago in 1988. As everyone knows, restaurants frequently get new chefs, new menus, or even new owners, any or all of which may significantly affect the dining experience. But Zagat maintains that no professional restaurant reviewer could come up with a published guide any more current.

When it came to the fact checking required to produce the new Chicago guide, Zagat and his Chicago-based editor (Tribune associate travel editor Carolyn McGuire) encountered a major obstacle. To get nuts-and-bolts information such as phone numbers, hours, etc, questionnaires were sent to upward of 600 restaurants to be listed in the new guide. Owners were asked to fill in information about their establishments and return the forms. It seemed simple enough.

But many small restaurant operators could not fathom the form, or just weren’t willing to return it. That meant McGuire and her small support staff were forced to resort to massive amounts of phone calling to get the details right. To complicate matters, McGuire was sidelined by a debilitating illness during the summer.

Now Zagat says he is in the final stages of editing and collating the new guide. And McGuire says she is doing as much as possible to ensure that the 1990 Zagat Chicago guide at least makes note of the very latest shifts in the restaurant scene.

But Zagat clearly isn’t happy with what has happened. “We should have had this guide out six months ago”, he explains. “It usually takes about three months to produce our New York restaurant guide after we’ve received all the ratings questionnaires from customers. This time it has taken us ten months in Chicago.”

Henceforth, says Zagat, the Chicago guide will come out on an annual basis. So look for those new ratings questionnaires early in 1990.

Harvey Plotnick Gets Romantic

Publisher Harvey Plotnick is keeping a close watch on the New York Times best-seller lists, hoping that Louisa Elliott, his first major foray into the often seamy world of romance fiction, will turn up there in the next few weeks.

“There’s about a 50-50 chance it will,” predicts Plotnick, president of Chicago-based Contemporary Books Inc., heretofore best known as a publisher of sports-related books and cookbooks. Many of these works sold well, mind you, but they did not impress the honchos in east coast publishing circles. Plotnick hopes Louisa Elliott will win him some respect. Contemporary and Avon Books, which will publish the novel in paperback, paid big bucks–$900,000 to be exact–for the U.S. rights. They are marketing it as a major release along the lines of works by Jackie or Joan Collins. It’s a romance set in Victorian England, penned by first-time English author Ann Victoria Roberts.

Though book critics often sniff at this kind of writing, Louisa Elliott has received a few positive reviews, including one from the Boston Herald that said, “This first novel is compelling enough for any season.” But the New York Times has not reviewed the novel, and Plotnick says it probably won’t unless it becomes a runaway bestseller.

Contemporary has 70,000 copies in distribution. Plotnick says it is doing better than expected in independent bookstores but not as well as hoped in the big chains. Per their agreement, Contemporary and Avon will split all profits from both editions of the book, and Plotnick insists there will be profits to split, no matter what turns up in the Times.

Meanwhile Plotnick is forging ahead with more extra-juicy releases. Elements of Chance by Barbara Wilkins, a former People magazine Los Angeles bureau chief, is due out in late October. Another first novel, Elements is described for publicity purposes as an “opulent, intricate, sizzling novel that fulfills every woman’s fantasy.”

What This City Needs Is a Luxury Hotel

Meet Severyn Ashkenazy, a decidedly outspoken west-coast hotelier looking to make his mark in Chicago. Ashkenazy operates seven superluxe hotels in star-filled Beverly Hills and West Hollywood, the best known of which is L’Ermitage, a 110-suite hotel near the center of action in Beverly Hills. L’Ermitage offers original artwork in every room, a chauffeured limousine at the guests’ disposal, and strawberries, sour cream, and brown sugar delivered to their suites each afternoon in season. Such luxuries don’t come cheap, of course; the common executive suite goes for $255 to $295 a night, and top-of-the-line suites with three bedrooms can hit $1,500.

Ashkenazy visited Chicago last week to scout possible locations for a small hotel along the lines of L’Ermitage. Though he speaks with a beguilingly gentle Continental lilt, he clearly is a fierce competitor in the cutthroat hotel industry.

Ashkenazy found the other luxury hotels that have opened in Chicago recently–the Fairmont, Four Seasons, Hotel Nikko, and Swiss Grand among them–sadly lacking. “They really are nothing more than upholstered Hyatts,” he insists unabashedly, adding that none of the great European hotels have more than 200 rooms. “All the great hotels are small,” he notes. But he did have a few kind words for the Hotel 21 East, where he was staying: “It’s very hip and doesn’t pretend to be something it isn’t.”

Ashkenazy had no timetable for opening a Chicago hotel. It would depend, he said, on finding the right location and making the right deal.