So how many gifts did the Independent bureau in New York receive this season? Just the one. Clearly, we have not been buttering up the right people. But thanks to Tom Cooper of Douglas Elliman, a fancy estate agent here, for my special edition 2004 Zagat's restaurant guide. It comes with his name embossed on the front - why not mine? - and its pages edged in gold.
Some controversy awaited the publication of this year's Zagat's, New York's bible of where to eat and which establishments to avoid, so I opened it with anticipation. Yes, it is true, Lucky Cheng's, a cabaret- restaurant with cross-dressing waiters, really did get just nine points out of a possible 30 for its food. And the Grocery in Brooklyn, which no one has ever heard of, received 28, a stunning score.
Founded as a bit of a lark 25 years ago by lawyers Tim and Nina Zagat, the book is an annual hit, selling some 650,000 copies. It may not be taken as seriously as France's Michelin Guide with its star system, but it can make all the difference to the fortunes of the 1,918 restaurants it surveys. No wonder some in the business are wary, therefore, of the ever-expanding Zagat tyranny. Tim and Nina trumpet the fact that their survey is compiled from the reviews of ordinary restaurant-goers, not by professional food critics. This year's introduction tells us that 29,300 foodies submitted their opinions. Each participant dined out an average of 3.4 times a week, together testing 5.2 million meals. I admit I use the guide frequently to overcome mind-blank when trying to pick somewhere to eat. Aside from rating and summarising the experience in each, the book offers handy little annexes. Want to eat something English? Well, there are only two possible choices according to Zagat's. Thirty-five spots make it on to this year's list of places described as "Power Scenes". …