Six Rules for Dining Out

by on April 13, 2012 at 7:04 am in Books, Food and Drink, Uncategorized | Permalink

The Atlantic Monthly feature article from An Economist Gets Lunch is now on-line, excerpt:

When you enter a restaurant, you don’t want to see expressions of disgust on the diners’ faces, but you do want to see a certain seriousness of purpose. Pull out a mirror and try eating some really good food. How much are you smiling? Not as much as you might think. A small aside: in many restaurants, it is a propitious omen when the diners are screaming at each other. It’s a sign they are regular customers and feel at home. Many Chinese restaurants are full of screaming Chinese patrons. Don’t ask me if they’re fighting, I have no idea—but it is a sign that I want to be there too.

And:

If you’re asking Google, put a “smart” word into your search query. Best restaurants Washington will yield too much information, and will serve up a lot of bad restaurants, too. That’s a lowest-common-denominator search query. Google something more specific instead, like best Indian restaurants Washington, even if you don’t want Indian food. You’ll get to more reliable, more finely grained, and better-informed sources about food, and you can then peruse those sources for their non-Indian recommendations. Google Washington best cauliflower dish, even if you don’t want cauliflower. Get away from Google-for-the-masses.

Here is a good video bit of me exploring a new Vietnamese restaurant in Eden Center.

You can pre-order the book on Amazon here.  For Barnes & Noble here.  For Indiebound.org here.

Dhruv Sharma April 13, 2012 at 7:34 am

Awesome article, professor!

I loved the last point on Pakistani restaurants versus Indian ones. It makes economic sense that Pakistani cuisine would take a turn for the better to overturn those cultural connotations associated with the place.

However, Indian cuisine is very diverse from North to South, Rajasthani to Bengali; I would never go into just an ‘Indian’ restaurant, which clearly packs everything into one and caters to a ‘naive’ but mass audience; rather I would judge ad hoc by the name: Keralan Spices, or Jaipur hot oven; distinguishing the cultural awareness of the owners from the rabble of Indian takeaways.

NAME REDACTED April 13, 2012 at 8:02 am

“Many Chinese restaurants are full of screaming Chinese patrons.”

In mandarin, normal conversation sounds like a screaming argument.

hanmeng April 13, 2012 at 8:54 am

I once heard the (possibly apocryphal) story that Chinese tour groups were segregated from others while eating because they talked so loudly while dining. Or was it specifically Cantonese-speaking groups?

Martin April 13, 2012 at 11:02 am

No, it doesn’t.

NK April 13, 2012 at 1:41 pm

Yes it does. Tagalog is not far.
No offense meant to speakers of either.

Martin April 13, 2012 at 1:52 pm

How long have you lived in China?

Ilya April 13, 2012 at 7:13 pm

This is empirically and obviously false. Hurray for casual racism!

Popeye April 13, 2012 at 7:42 pm

This is a casually racist remark that I’ve heard uttered by a number of Chinese-Americans.

ionut April 13, 2012 at 8:02 am
Rahul April 13, 2012 at 8:12 am

“Get away from Google-for-the-masses. ”

Curse search-engine optimization companies and content farms, mostly responsible for the irritating results. A scourge on the web-world if there ever was one.

Urso April 13, 2012 at 10:34 am

The content farms are the worst. I know google and yahoo do their best to clear out all the SEO-induced clutter and provide actual useful results, but it’s like the battle between the gardener and the weed. You can pull them out, but more will eventually spring up.

Mo April 13, 2012 at 2:31 pm

Better than avoid Googling common words, go to a specialist site. I find that Chowhound has much better advice and reviews than Yelp and doesn’t have the SEO problem.

jk April 13, 2012 at 7:36 pm

urbanspoon?

Daniel Kuehn April 13, 2012 at 8:14 am

This was great. Unfortunately I break some of these rules when it comes to ethnic restaurants, just due to the fact that I’m a neophyte. But I have followed some of them for a while on American restaurants (particularly the idea of shunning the familiar).

I was surprise how many of these points or ways of thinking about it transfer over to wineries. We go to Virginia wineries as often as we can and many of the same rules apply. Here’s some thoughts on that: http://factsandotherstubbornthings.blogspot.com/2012/04/cowen-on-foodkuehn-on-wineries.html

tt31 April 13, 2012 at 8:32 am

I’m going to have to read the book. A couple of things from this interview raise questions:

1) I’m skeptical of the advice to assume trendiness/decor signal a lack of seriousness. I assume there is a very high level of correlation between perfectionism towards food and perfectionism towards the atmosphere of the restaurant.

2) Don’t regular customers feeling at home and screaming at each other raise the same concerns as attractive women? If you find a place where people come for the hominess, maybe they don’t need to focus on the food as much.

John Thacker April 13, 2012 at 9:16 am

Regarding 1), that can be true, but decor and trendiness tends to be something you pay for. As Tyler notes in the article, you can get fantastic food at very expensive places with great service and decor (CityZen in DC is one example.) However, you should be wary of places that seem to have fairly typical prices but really nice decor or are trendy.

Rahul April 14, 2012 at 2:47 am

Is the discussion about taste or taste-per-unit-dollar?

Ricardo April 13, 2012 at 12:06 pm

As for 1), it appears Tyler has explicitly tested that correlation and found it is not true in general. “Many restaurants, especially in downtown urban areas, fill seats—and charge high prices—by creating social scenes for drinking, dating, and carousing. They’re not using the food to draw in their customers.”

My experience matches this as well. Restaurants in big cities have nice decor to attract spontaneous patrons: people might walk by while going home from work or while visiting the city as a tourist and decide to go inside or someone might walk by, see it looks nice inside and make a mental note to bring a date there later. And, of course, many will go for the drinks menu and the social atmosphere rather than the food. There may also be a psychological effect where being in nice or fancy surroundings puts one more in the mood to spend money relative to quality.

Joel April 13, 2012 at 9:12 am

The reason Vietnamese restaurants aren’t more popular with *me* is that they poison just about every dish with cilantro.

Thor April 13, 2012 at 11:58 am

Ask them to substitute “Italian Parsley”!

John Thacker April 13, 2012 at 9:21 am

Regarding Thai food, I do find it interesting that one of the absolute best Thai places in the DC area, Nava Thai, both has an extensive bar and serves sushi. Not that that necessarily destroys the correlation.

Also, excessively sweet Thai food is not that unusual (though I agree it’s often mixed with other flavors) in Thailand, but the typical thing is to have sugar, along with many other condiments, at the table to mix in, somewhat like how you describe Vietnamese food. I know some native Thais who eat certain dishes (noodle soups, others) sickeningly sweet, but the it’s all seasoned according to taste.

For me, having the condiments at the table to add is one sign of a good Thai place.

Mitch April 13, 2012 at 9:22 am

Aren’t the purported advantages of motel-associated restaurants offset by 1) much of their clientele is comprised of food-indifferent motel guests who would prefer not to travel in order to eat, 2) little local competition and 3) little incentive to put effort into the restaurant since it is a secondary business to the motel.

db April 13, 2012 at 10:10 am

If you want ethnic food information that has not been filtered for an American audience Google translate is your friend. For example, Japanese Wikipedia is an amazing source of info on various regional styles of Japanese cooking. Not so great for recipies, but fantastic for for learning about different dishes and eating styles which can then educate you for a better restaurant meal or for more specefic follow up recipe searches.

Varun April 13, 2012 at 10:57 am

A thought Tyler -

What do you think is the best thought through review of your book, that is negative or not very positive about the book? My guess is actually that such a review will be hard to identify, but mostly due to the incentives of reviewers.

Mo April 13, 2012 at 3:27 pm

The suburbs advice is pretty DC-centric. The food in Suffolk and Westchester counties are far inferior to those in the city. The best Thai is in Queens and the best Italian is in the Bronx, but that’s still the city, not the suburbs.

Barkley Rosser April 13, 2012 at 4:50 pm

Mo,

In NYC, the outer boroughs are effectively suburbs. Keep in mind that NYC is the only city in the US that contains counties, which are what the boroughs legally are. Until nearly 1900, New York City was Manhattan, and Brooklyn was a separate city, bigger then in population as it is now than its neihbor. DC is smaller than three of its surrounding jurisdictions, with Fairfax County in which many of those suburbs Tyler is so enamored of, being nearly twice the size of DC in population, and both Montgomery County and Prince George’s well ahead of it (not to mention nearby Baltimore as well, which some include in the broadest view of the Washington metro area).

Ed April 14, 2012 at 2:13 pm

Not having read the book, by “suburbs” does Tyler mean a landscape characterized by houses-with-lawns, office parks, malls, and fast food strips? Or does he mean the area just outside the political jurisdiction of the central city?

I assumed the former. I agree with you, the correlation in the U.S. between municipal jurisdictions and the actual urban landscape is pretty loose. The District of Columbia encompasses just a part of the central city of Washington, with New York City its the opposite situation with some suburban areas located within the municipal boundaries.

But I also agree, anyone who tries to find the best restaurants in the New York City area by traveling beyond the range of the subway and PATH systems is nuts. With Washington, restaurants just outside the beltway may well be the best in the area. If this is true, the reasons why are probably interesting.

Marc April 13, 2012 at 6:01 pm

I wonder why Tyler hasn’t linked to the New York Times review of his book.

Oh, it is among the worst book reviews I’ve ever read.Maybe that is the reason.

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/11/books/an-economist-gets-lunch-by-tyler-cowen.html?_r=1

FXKLM April 13, 2012 at 6:13 pm

Marc: Did you just assume that he wouldn’t link to negative reviews? He posted a link to that one on Wednesday.

bartman April 13, 2012 at 7:29 pm

That review says a lot more about the reviewer than the book.

mkt April 14, 2012 at 1:54 am

“Many restaurants, especially in downtown urban areas, fill seats—and charge high prices—by creating social scenes … If you are going to visit such restaurants, go during their first few months of operation.”

A friend who had a lot of Chinese co-workers in Los Angeles got exactly that advice about Chinese restaurants: go during the first six months, when the proprietors work furiously to make the place successful, so that they can coast afterwards. I don’t know if that’s true only of LA (I don’t even know if it’s true in LA, but these were restaurant patrons who probably knew their stuff).

I conjecture that there is a slightly different dynamic at work compared to the hipster restaurants that Tyler warns about: I doubt that these Chinese restaurants are trying to create a social scene, but rather are trying to attract Chinese foodies (and those two words are almost redundant) who are constantly looking for the next great restaurant. When they find one they like, great — but they’re constantly looking for the next new hot restaurant, so it’s not worth the effort to maintain high quality those customers will slip away anyway.

anon April 14, 2012 at 12:08 pm

Fail

anon April 14, 2012 at 12:09 pm

The Fail was for @Marc

S. Thibeau April 15, 2012 at 8:44 pm

“Most people don’t think of Thai restaurants as attachments to motels. But you’ll find them, in locales as scattered as Santa Rosa, California, and Edmonton, Alberta. And when you do, you should eat at them.”

This made me chuckle. I’ll be on the lookout for motel Thai places!

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