December 19, 2007 / 8:00 AM / 10 years ago

Tokyo food-lovers say barbecue's best: Zagat guide

TOKYO (Reuters) - If you want to eat the best food in Tokyo, cook it yourself. That’s the verdict of this year’s Zagat guide to Tokyo, based on a survey which voted Jambo, a Japanese “yakiniku” restaurant where customers barbecue their own meat, as the best in the food category.

<p>Zagat Survey co-founders Tim (L) and Nina Zagat pose with the latest version of their guide to Tokyo restaurants at a news conference in Tokyo December 19, 2007. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon</p>

“I don’t think we’re a restaurant that belongs here,” said Norimitsu Nanbara, who runs the modest eatery opened by his grandmother, as he accepted a plaque from the guidebook’s founders, Tim and Nina Zagat at a luxury hotel on Wednesday. “Perhaps there’s some mistake?”

The long-haired 30-year-old Nanbara was among a handful of restaurateurs honored by the Zagats, who launched their food guide in New York in 1979, and are now celebrating 10 years of publication in Japan.

They are also riding a new wave of interest in restaurant guides, after Tokyo was awarded more stars for culinary excellence than any other city in the world by France’s Michelin guide last month.

French restaurant L‘Osier, voted overall favorite by Zagat, was the only one of Michelin’s three-starred restaurants to be awarded a prize by Zagat.

Jambo, a 30-seat establishment in a working class neighborhood, appears nowhere in the French tire-maker’s guide. But the Zagats stand by the views of their 5,000 Tokyo reviewers, who rate a broader range of restaurants than Michelin inspectors, particularly in terms of price.

“To say that there is one person who has a Ph.D. in tastebuds and who knows more about food than anyone else, is ridiculous,” Tim Zagat said in an interview this week.

OUTSPOKEN EATERS

The publicity surrounding the Michelin guide will likely encourage more foreign tourists to visit Japan in search of gourmet experiences.

A survey published by the Japan National Tourist Organisation this month found that 71 percent of overseas visitors listed food as one of their main reasons for visiting Japan.

Tokyo diners eat out 3.7 times a week, more than their counterparts in Paris, London or New York, and will travel hours for a good meal, but they are also harsh critics of their local eateries, according to the Zagat.

“We originally thought that people here would be too polite,” Zagat said. “They are very outspoken, in some ways more outspoken than any group of people we’ve ever surveyed anywhere else in the world,” he added.

Though they often like what they find on their plates, complaints about service and smoking are common, with 80 percent calling for a ban on smoking in restaurants.

The Zagats are planning to pay their first visit to Jambo and other popular restaurants during their stay in Tokyo, but will not be adding their opinions to the survey.

“Nobody coming in from the United States or any other part of the world is particularly in a good position to tell local people who eat out every day of the year what’s good and what’s bad,” said Zagat. “I wouldn’t dare do that.”

The Zagat award for best newcomer went to Botanica, which serves modern European cuisine, while best service was found at French restaurant La Belle Epoque and best decor at Ogasawara Hakushakutei, a Spanish restaurant also awarded a Michelin star.

Best hotel was the Mandarin Oriental.

“We are going through a revolution in food and travel,” Zagat said. “Tokyo is in many ways typical of the revolution that’s occurring, it’s the internationalization, the globalization of people’s tastes.”

Editing by Sophie Hardach

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