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Dining by the Book
Shelf life varies for restaurant guides

By Carolyn Faye Fox

June 20–July 3, 2001

In the beginning, there was Zagat. People saw that it was good and bought it, and it sprang up in cities across the country. Then along came the local Where to Eat, whose menu-focused format and appealing design gained increasing popularity from one biannual issue to the next. This guide, too, will soon expand its presenence into another as yet unnamed major restaurant city. Most recently, Coo's Illustrated magazine has sought to carve out its own niche with a pocket-sized dining guide purporting to list the 200 top restaurants ratesd by readers of the magazine.

So, which one is The Good Book? Zagat, which set a new standard by rating restaurants according to data gathered from diners' surveys, is still useful, but it isn't the last word in gastronomic guidance anymore. That's partly because the Boston dining scene is now changing– closings! chefs moving! menu shifts!–as quickly as it was expanding a few years ago. In short, it's virtually impossible to be authoriative in a yearly publication, and when the inevitable errors crop up, the credibility of other information can be called into question.

What's more, the diners who eagerly filled out those survey forms in exchange for a free copy of the guide may be losing interest in participating now that the novelty has worn off. Now, this is just a theory. But the Zagat people went to the trouble of sending me, via overnight mail, a huge stack of forms, with a note that suggested I distribute them to interested parties...and return them within about a week to meet the deadline for receiving a free copy of the guide. Comprehensive follow-through, or last-ditch act of desperation?

If Jill Epstein, the publisher of Where to Eat, feels any desperation, it's got nothing to do with her publication. The latest glossy issue (Spring/ Summer 2001) runs over 200 pages, with a restaurant count of 176 Greater Boston eateries organized by neighborhood, plus clear maps and a bonus glossary of culinary terms. The page-per page restaurant menu-focused format is, of course, made possible by the fact that the restaurants pay for the space, but that's not a cavet– just a fact that enable you to think critically about the information provided. It also makes for some oddities in the written introductions to the restaurant menus: for example, it's a shock to read that the fabulously talented exceptionally well-mannered Michael Leviton, chef/co-owner of Lumiere in Newton, has received "national notoriety" for his culinary achievements. Renown, yes. Notoriety? Uh-uh.

Now that we're being fastidious about language, it's time to turn the newest of the bunch. The cover of The Cook's Guide Boston Restaurants 2001–2002 bears the tagline "where locals eat..." That goes a long way toward explaining the inclusion of chains such as T.G.I. Friday's and Bertucci's. And the readers' comments are well-chosen, insightful and sometimes hilarious ("for those who fear Chinese food," "for people whose vocabularies are more sophisticated than their tastebuds," and "like being run over by a circus.")

Because the 200 "top" ( bad word choice) restaurants are chosen of the basis of popularity rather than demanding culinary criteria, you will find places not generally found on any "best dining" lists: for example, Cottonwood Café and Kowloon. What you won't find are names that really deserve a place in this guide, such as Masa or Trattoria a Scalinatella, or spots that opened too recently to be included: Salamander, Pigalle, Olena. And what about Sel de la Terre, Kingfish Hall and Jasper White's Summer Shack?

Maybe next time. It's handy-dandy little guide, and the "sleeper" feature, which lists lesser-known spots that garnered high marks for quality (Franklin Café), is a smart idea that needs to be expanded beyond five restaurants. My advice: Buy all three, and make up your own mind.

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