RESTAURANTgoers, ``foodies,'' and tourists have long relied on Zagat Survey guides to help them choose restaurants in major United States cities, from Miami to Seattle.
The guide, with its ratings of food, decor, and service and mention of price ranges, becomes a diner's invaluable ``little red book.''
Now, the husband-and-wife team of Tim and Nina Zagat bring years of research and dining experience together in the 1994 Zagat Survey of America's Top Restaurants.
``After 15 years of surveying frequent diners, we've arrived at a point where our database is broad enough nationally, deep enough locally, and current enough through constant voting to produce a thoroughly up-to-date, truly nationwide canvas of America's top restaurants,'' Tim Zagat says. ``We still have a few cities to go, such as Detroit and Minneapolis, but we expect to fill in these gaps.''
The new guide is based on extensive questionnaires filled out by thousands of restaurantgoers who rated close to 1,000 restaurants in 34 cities. This gives any visitor to a particular city a choice of top restaurants - recommended by local diners.
``Let's not mince words: No country in the world has better or more-diverse restaurants than the United States has today,'' Nina and Tim Zagat write.
According to the Zagats, who are based in New York, the overall quality of America's restaurants has dramatically increased, because of improvements at all levels, from ingredients and cooking schools to star chefs and sophisticated consumers.
The No.1 ratings in the ``food'' category include New York's Bouley, Atlanta's Ritz-Carlton (Buckhead), Boston's Olives, Chicago's Le Francais, Houston's Chez Nous, Los Angeles's Patina, Seattle's Herbfarm, and Washington's Inn at Little Washington.
The surveys focused not only on good eating establishments, but also on dining trends. Here are some findings:
* French cuisine has been replaced by what has become known as New American Cuisine, which has influences ranging from Asian to Mediterranean to ``Haute Creole.''
* The cost of dining at top restaurants varies tremendously from city to city. The average cost of a meal at the 20 most-expensive restaurants in New York was about $63, compared with $38 in Dallas, and $25 in Kansas City.
* The average cost of meals has fallen nationwide, though slightly less at top restaurants. In 1991, the average cost of a meal in Los Angeles was about $50, compared with $44 in 1993.
* Nearly 50 percent of complaints concern service. Other gripes include cost, food, smoking, parking, ambience, and noise.