I’ve been an economist for some 30 years, and a foodie for nearly as long. In this time, I’ve learned that by applying some basic economics to my food choices, I can make nearly every meal count. I’ve also realized that a lot of the best food is cheap. Herewith, a distillation of what I’ve learned about dining out, in six simple rules.
In the Fanciest Restaurants, Order What Sounds Least Appetizing
[….] The logic is simple. At a fancy restaurant, the menu is well thought-out. The kitchen’s time and attention are scarce. An item won’t be on the menu unless there is a good reason for its presence. If it sounds bad, it probably tastes especially good. [….]
Beware the Beautiful, Laughing Women
[….] Having fun is a fine ambition, but it’s not the same thing as eating good food. [….]
If you are going to visit such restaurants, go during their first few months of operation. The famous chef, or some competent delegate, will be on hand early in the history of the restaurant to make sure it gets good reviews from sophisticated food critics and smart food bloggers….
Get Out of the City and Into the Strip Mall
If a restaurant cannot cover its rent, it is not long for this world. [….]
Low-rent restaurants can experiment at relatively low risk. [….] As a result, a strip-mall restaurant is more likely to try daring ideas than is a restaurant in, say, a large shopping mall. The people with the best, most creative, most innovative cooking ideas are not always the people with the most money. Many of them end up in dumpier locales, where they gradually improve real-estate values.
Corollary: The food truck is your friend.
The ultimate low-rent venue is the food truck. [….]
The next food revolution in the United States is likely to be a mobile one ….
Side tip: When in Manhattan, choose restaurants on the streets over those on the avenues.
Manhattan’s avenues tend to have higher rents than its streets. [….]
Admit What You Don’t Know
[….] When you’re looking for a good meal, some knowledge of social science is often more useful than food knowledge. [….]
Look for someone who is prosperous or middle class but not necessarily very rich. Ask people who are geographically mobile in their professions and thus accustomed to eating out and collecting information about food. [….]
Exploit Restaurant Workers
Quality food is cheaper when cheap labor is available to cook it. [….] one obvious place to find cheap labor is in family-owned, family-run Asian restaurants. Family members will work in the kitchen or as waiters for relatively little pay, or sometimes no pay at all. Sometimes they’re expected to do the work as part of their contribution to the family. The upshot is that these restaurants tend to offer good food buys. [….]
Prefer Vietnamese to Thai
[…] One problem is that many Thai people have such a wonderful service ethic. [….]
As a result, Thai food has become cool. [….]
As Thai restaurants have become more popular, they have become unreliable. It is so easy to make the food too sweet, appealing to lowest-common-denominator tastes or masking deficiencies in the food’s preparation.[….]
Vietnamese food has probably been saved from the mass market because most people never master the sauces and condiments that must be added to the food, at the table, for its glories to become apparent. It’s too much trouble, and a lot of people don’t like asking for help, especially if the interaction involves some linguistic awkwardness. [….]
Exception: Eat at Thai restaurants attached to motels.
… if the restaurant is attached to the motel, its proprietors are likely not paying extra rent for the space. A Thai family may already own the motel, and may be operating this business on the side, in which case the owners won’t have to cover high rents by appealing to large numbers of customers or by cutting corners. Odds are you’ll get fairly authentic Thai food at low prices. [….]
Corollary: Prefer Pakistani to Indian.
[….] So why does the Pakistani food turn out better? I think it has to do with cultural associations. [….] Common images of Pakistan nudge away uncommitted customers. Many Pakistani restaurants also serve no alcohol, limiting their American audience and making them turn more to Pakistani customers. [….]
I doubt that Indian chefs are less talented than their Pakistani counterparts, but they are typically more constrained in what they can produce. The blandness of Indian restaurants, like that of Thai restaurants, is a direct result of their ability to market the food to a mass audience.
Six Rules for Dining Out | Tyler Cowen | May 2012 | The Atlantic at http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2012/05/six-rules-for-dining-out/308929/?single_page=true.