Zagat: Prices, Spending Dipped in City Eateries During 1996 February 17, 1997 Share 1 -- Reed Travel Features NEW YORK -- Despite a dip in menu prices, people here ate out less and spent less money in restaurants last year than in 1995, according to "The 1997 Zagat New York City Restaurant Survey."In its 18th year, the Zagat Surveys use volunteers to review restaurants in 40 major cities.In New York, about 18,000 volunteers participated in last year's survey, a jump of 13% from 15,997 a year earlier.According to the survey, the average restaurant meal in the Big Apple cost $29.28 last year, a 1.8% drop from $29.81 in 1995.In fact, discounting 1995's 1.5% increase in meal prices, the cost of eating out in New York has fallen more than 13% since 1991, the survey said.One reason for the drop in prices is the opening of restaurants charging "moderate prices."In addition, the city's 20 most expensive eateries shaved 1.2% off their average tab, down to $65.08 from $65.86.Also, whereas in 1995 six restaurants charged $70 or more, only three -- Les Celebrites, Lespinasse and Nadaman Hakubai -- charged $70 or more last year.Nadaman Hakubai, the Kitano Hotel's Japanese restaurant, was the city's most expensive dining establishment, charging $150 for a private 10-course dinner.However, despite the rise in participants, the pace of eating out last year declined to 3.2 meals a week, a 16% drop from 3.8 meals a week in 1995.In fact, in contrast to the other major cities surveyed, New Yorkers fell to the bottom third in dining-out frequency.Surveyors in Houston, Chi-cago, Dallas and Los Angeles said they dined out more than four times per week, and volunteers in Washington, San Francisco, St. Louis and Kansas City, Mo., ate out more than their counterparts in New York.However, no other urbanites eat as much take-out food as New Yorkers, who confessed that in a week, 59% of their lunches and dinners are from take-out places.Not surprisingly, New Yorkers prepared fewer meals at home -- 4.7 per week -- than did the participants in 16 other cities.With the closing of Bouley, this city's most popular restaurant for the past six years, top honors for favorite restaurant went to the Union Square Cafe, the American-Italian eatery at 16th Street on the square."Union Square operates on all cylinders at the highest level, from a superbly trained service staff to a strong social conscience to delivering outstand-ing value to the customer," said survey copublisher Tim Zagat.Among the comments from Union Square Cafe's 4,500reviewers were "dazzling," "good value" and "unpretentious greatness."The second-most-popular restaurant was Aureole ("desserts to put in the Museum of Modern Art"), with third place going to the Gotham Bar and Grill ("perennial favorite").Rounding out the top 10 favorites were Gramercy Tavern, fourth; Cafe des Artistes, fifth; Four Seasons, sixth; Le Bernardin, seventh; Daniel, eighth; Peter Luger, ninth, and Chanterelle, 10th.A new category last year compared business and leisure dining.According to the survey, only 26% of dining in New York is for business, indicating that eating out remains a primary pastime in the Big Apple."The 1997 Zagat New York City Restaurant Survey" is available at bookstores and newsstands for $11.95.