From mimeographed reviews, Tim and Nina Zagat built a publishing empire
Tim and Nina Zagat were providing user-generated content decades before people used the term.
The Zagats, who met in law school, got the idea that the people who eat in restaurants might be a good source of information. In a culture where the restaurant critic was king, publishing experts said no to the Zagat guide.
“We were very lucky that every publisher turned us down,” Nina Zagat said in an interview with her husband at the company’s office overlooking Columbus Circle. Tim Zagat agreed, saying, “We were better off” being forced to self-publish and set up what would become a multifaceted publishing empire.
“We believed in something that all the professionals thought was ridiculous,” Nina said. “If you look at it today, I think history has proven us right.”
Indeed. When it comes to speedy, reliable, cleanly edited analysis based on user experience, the Zagats have become the go-to place. Today, the company’s content appears in the old booklets and on new iPads, and there’s a flourishing business creating customized guides for corporate clients of all stripes. For instance, there’s a guidebook to Harlem initiated by the arrival of President Clinton at his West 125th Street office a few years ago. Zagat content was ideal for computers and mobile devices—even before those things existed—because the writing is presented in a clear and digestible format.
“We’ve always been focused on having our content on any platform people want,” Nina said.
The goal: accurate, trusted and reliable information. In the early days, the data were on mimeographed sheets of paper. Today, Zagat is about to launch a new BlackBerry format and already has one of the most-used iPad applications.
It’s been quite a journey for Tim and Nina Zagat, beloved West Siders who love their neighborhood right back. Tim grew up on West 86th Street, eventually making his way to 336 Central Park West and then 55 Central Park West, where the couple has been for close to 40 years. He thinks the area is more diverse than the East Side, along with being a “laid back” place.
“It’s improved enormously,” he said of his home base.
He can remember when horse-drawn wagons with ice were going up and down neighborhood streets—a thought that made his wife raise her eyebrows.
“Nina, you didn’t live there,” Tim said, returning quickly to his recollection, which included a chicken store where customers could kill live chickens. “It was not a place where you wanted to walk too far,” he said. “There were some tough kids around.”
The arrival of Lincoln Center helped usher in a new era.
“The neighborhood has been improving all of my life,” he said, expounding on the glories of both Central and Riverside parks. Of course, as the ultimate restaurant authorities, they also partake of the area’s eateries.
“It’s changed dramatically,” Nina said. “I mean, there is so much more. The Upper West Side for restaurants was a wasteland for a while.”
Although with Fairway and Zabar’s, she added, the West Side has long been rich in prepared food offerings.
For Nina, the West Side was also the right place to be a working mom.
“The West Side was a great place to bring up our sons,” she said, mentioning the couple’s two children, who are now grown.
One is at NYU Medical School and the other works at Univision.
“I couldn’t imagine doing all the things I did if you were working in the city and living in the suburbs,” she said. “Your children also get a better sense of independence at a younger age.”
At one point, Tim thought of getting a house in Riverdale in the Bronx.
“Nina said no,” Tim recalled. “She said she needed to be able to get to the children in 10 minutes.”
And in Manhattan, she could.
Tim and Nina have been married for more than four decades. They work together closely and successfully, and Nina thinks one reason is that both of them had worked independently before teaming up. They also know how to divvy up tasks, with Tim leading the editorial message and Nina handling personnel and extensive new-media efforts.
Sometimes they both need to weigh-in on an issue. That might be where their ability to communicate comes in handy.
“We like to talk about almost anything,” Tim said.
And with their busy lives, there’s plenty to talk about. They share a home in northern Dutchess County, a lovely property that was featured in the New York Times. But they seem very much at home in Manhattan. They love the view from their Central Park West home and even their workplace—most New Yorkers would. Looking out the window, Nina points to the former construction site that has become a lovely iconic space: the fountain at Columbus Circle.
“Look at what’s happened here, right in front of our eyes,” she said, appreciating the urban landscape. “You feel really part of New York.”
And they really are.