By Stett Holbrook
MAYBE it was a coincidence, but Metro's "Best of" issue came out about the same time as the Zagat Survey released its 2008 guide to San Francisco Bay Area restaurants. Just as Metro polls readers to create its annual Best Of list, the immensely popular maroon-covered guidebook does the same thing. In the case of this year's Zagat Survey, the guidebook relied on more than 8,000 surveyors who dined at 1,153 restaurants throughout the Bay Area.
While the Zagat guide's restaurant blurbs have the "somewhat irritating" style of including "people's comments" in quotations, the survey approach is a useful way of aggregating user feedback. I don't rely on Zagat for my dining decisions, but it's a handy source for the phone numbers and addresses for top Bay Area restaurants.
The Zagat guide has a built-in but understandable bias toward San Francisco. Compared to Silicon Valley, San Francisco has a far great quantity of high-end, fine dining restaurants. But when it comes to delving into Silicon Valley's culinary riches, the Zagat guide gives the South Bay short shrift.
Well-known, high-profile restaurants like Manresa, Le Papillon, Dio Deka and Tanglewood make the list. Amber was named as the top Indian restaurant in the Bay Area and Alexander's ranked as the No. 1 steakhouse in the Bay Area. Menlo Park's extraordinary Kaygetsu restaurant was ranked No. 7 in the Bay Area for the quality of its food, just ahead of Michael Mina and Chez Panisse.
But the guidebook is weak on hole-in-the-wall, mom-and-pop restaurants that specialize in the cuisines of the world, which is to say what Silicon Valley does best. Anyone who relies on Zagat in the South Bay is gong to miss out on a lot of good food.
Do you love the Korean food on El Camino Real in Santa Clara? You won't read about it in Zagat. There are no entries for Korean food in the South Bay. None.
How about Vietnamese food? With a Vietnamese population of 85,000, San Jose has more Vietnamese than any other U.S. city and almost as many Vietnamese restaurants. How many does Zagat include? Just one: Tamarine, an upscale modern Vietnamese restaurant in Palo Alto.
Mexican food? The only two Mexican restaurants that made it into the book were La Victoria and Tlaquepaque. Those are places are good, but there are certainly more than two worth mentioning.
At the beginning of the book, Zagat lists Bay Area food trends like restaurants embracing green practices and how the small plates craze lives on. The book also mentions the rising popularity of izakaya, Japanese pubs that serve small plates of food that go beyond sushi and teriyaki. Silicon Valley is particularly strong in this category with restaurants like Gochi, Yume-Ya, Tanto and Saizo, yet Zagat does not include a single izakaya restaurant in Silicon Valley. That's a real omission.
Foodwise, Silicon Valley and San Francisco are very different places. Zagat does a good job of capturing many of San Francisco's great restaurants but falls short in Silicon Valley. If you're headed on a culinary exploration of the South Bay, make sure you're packing more than Zagat on your trip.
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