Zagat Editor Discusses Grim Nightlife News

Every year, Zagat’s informal army of citizen reviewers reports to headquarters on their dining and drinking experiences, and the job falls to San Francisco editor Sharron Wood to compile those experiences, along with her own findings into a neat little black book. The 2009 edition of the Zagat Survey’s Guide to San Francisco Nightlife came out Wednesday, bringing with it some bleak tidings on the state of the local bar industry. According to the survey, 48 percent of respondents say that they are going out less often, 34 percent say they are more price sensitive, 30 percent are going to less expensive places and 27 percent are ordering fewer drinks. With those sobering numbers in mind, we got on the phone with Wood to ask about her predilections and predictions. Among the casualties of this economy: The piano player at the Four Seasons. Is this really a world we want to live in? Find out after the jump.

Your survey suggests people are going out less and ordering fewer and cheaper drinks. Where is this reflected in the industry? Are you seeing more business at dive bars than in cocktail lounges?
In the past year there have been a lot of big openings, like Infusion Lounge and Press Club. But looking down the pike at things that are going to open in the next year, I’m seeing less of that. A lot of projects are on hold, and the capital’s just not there.
Another way I’m seeing the economy reflected in the bar scene is a re-jiggering of concepts in bars. The Seasons bar at the Four Seasons laid off their piano player last month. Also Clock Bar, when they opened about a year ago, had lobster dogs and truffle dip and a very expensive cocktail menu, but a couple months ago they scaled it down. They still serve truffled popcorn, but they’re definitely reigning in the decadence.

What do you hear from the service side? Are people tipping less these days?
As far as people bitching about tips, it’s that cocktails have gotten so complicated and expensive that [bartenders] are saying, ‘why does everybody give me a $1 tip when this drink cost $14 and took 10 minutes to make?’

What can you predict in terms of a turnaround for the nightlife and restaurant industries? Have we reached the bottom?
I’m not seeing any evidence that we’re at the end of the downturn yet. I think once the economy starts picking back up, it’s going to take 12 months to two years after that to really start seeing it in the nightlife scene. Openings and liquor permits are somewhat notorious in taking years to get lined up, so I think it’s going to be a while before we see any bounce-back.

Based on what you’ve learned in the survey, what new bar trends do you think will take hold over the next year? What will fade out?
I think we are finally going to see a bit of a downturn in wine bars. For the last two or three years, we have had a crazy number of wine bars opening every year. That’s not going to go completely away because it’s a lot easier to get a beer and wine license… [but] I think people are less interested in paying $15 for a glass of wine, which is kind of required for a big wine list.
Eventually, I think the cocktail craze has to die down to some extent. It has been so wildly popular for the last few year, I’m going to give that one another six months before it jumps the shark.
Relatedly, I feel like at a lot of restaurants, a lot of action is being geared toward the bar. People are going out and they don’t necessarily want to drop a lot of money, so you’re seeing more business at the bar while the restaurant is taking a hit… It’s like, ‘I can’t afford to eat at Jardiniere, but I can go to the bar and have a glass of champagne.’

What’s your favorite bar in the city?
My favorite cocktails at the moment are actually at a restaurant — Beretta. For a straight-ahead cocktail bar, I’d probably go to Rye or Heaven’s Dog.

What bar has your favorite jukebox?
My personal favorite is the jukebox at Tosca because it has opera. My taste tends toward classical and world music, which doesn’t usually show up on a regular jukebox.

[Image: Courtesy of Zagat]


Zagat Editor Discusses Grim Nightlife News