The Matt Yglesias take on restaurant decline

by on April 17, 2012 at 2:17 pm in Books, Food and Drink | Permalink

Matt writes:

Imagine some diners are, by temperament, venturesome while others are regulars. Over the long term, the best business strategy is to appeal to regulars since they offer a stable client base. But when a restaurant is new, it by definition lacks regulars and needs to appeal to venturesome diners both to get an initial wave of customers and also to attract “buzz” and get the temperamental regulars in the door. Over time, a successful restaurant will attempt to switch and become more a place for regulars, which means that venturesome diners will come to like it less. At the same time, alienating venturesome foodies is very low cost because being venturesome they would perceive their own growing familiarity with the food as declining quality one way or the other.

This is not at all far from my basic theory, though Matt seems to imply it is.  In An Economist Gets Lunch I stress how the cycle of “ceasing to appeal to the informed diners” has very much accelerated with the internet.  Good reviews arrive rapidly, perhaps too rapidly.  If there is a new place you quite like — especially if it is trendy — go many times now, because it will decline in quality more rapidly than such places used to.  Once the place is established, it can get by more on momentum and on its value as a focal venue for socializing.  You can take the presence of a lot of beautiful women as one sign that a place has crossed into this territory.

Don’t think of the model as “what happens to a restaurant when there is an exogenous increase in the beauty of its women” (recall Scott Sumner — “don’t reason from a beautiful women [price] change!” ).  Think of the model as “what does lots of beautiful women predict about the place of a restaurant in its product life cycle?”

Restaurants with beautiful women are still better than average, relative to the population of restaurants as a whole, for obvious reasons related to wealth and demographics.  They’re just not likely to be the very best of the good restaurants, especially for the price.

Arguably it is a different case when a restaurant has beautiful women, but most mainstream male patrons would regard those women as “ineligible,” or “unapproachable,” perhaps for reason of a different religion or ethnicity.  At those restaurants you can enjoy both great food for the price and beautiful women, though perhaps your enjoyment of the latter will remain at some distance.

Jeff April 17, 2012 at 2:46 pm

The essence of an Yglesias post: I really like xyz’s take on abc issue, but I tend to look at this issue through more of efg lense. And we’re all sure he’s thought this issue through sufficiently to have an opinion worth reading. Afterall, Tyler you’ve likely only dined out longer than he’s been on the planet, and wrote a book about it, but he feels pretty good about his model.

josh April 18, 2012 at 8:48 am

Yglesias is qualified to opine on anything. He’s Slates economics and finance corespondent, which he is obviously qualified to be because I think he went to Harvard or something.

josh April 18, 2012 at 8:49 am

BTW,

This is about the most hilarious SWPL-status-battle-royal ever staged.

TheophileEscargot April 17, 2012 at 2:55 pm

Do guys really go to restaurants to hit on women? I don’t think I’ve seem much of it, and it seems like a pretty bad idea.

First, the key to a picking up women is to approach lots of women. In a bar or a club there’s a high density of people, fluid crowds where you can easily maneuver close to people, and you can easily hop from bar to bar. In a restaurant there are smaller numbers of people, at a lower density, in fairly rigid seating patterns, in distinct and defined social units. You’re also tied down to the same restaurant while you’re ordering, and you can’t exactly cruise through half a dozen restaurant meals like you would half a dozen bars with a drink in each.

I suspect the New York Times review had it right and it’s just an exercise in inverse snobbery to boast of the ugliness of the fellow patrons:

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

Peter H April 17, 2012 at 3:40 pm

Most restaurants that Tyler and Matt are describing have a bar section as well as a dining room. Even at very fancy NYC restaurants, the bar persists, although with gourmet bar snacks and incredibly expensive drinks. I’ve dined at Babbo a few times for example, and if you’re seated near the bar, you need to be careful to watch out that the bargoers don’t bump your drinks off your table, since it gets incredibly crowded and raucous.

Bill April 17, 2012 at 4:36 pm

Theo, My reaction as well concerning men going to restaurants based on beautiful women.

Moreover, the women would have to be single. Not much good hitting on my wife. There might be a fight.

There are much better places to go to find beautiful women: health clubs, bars, etc.

Otherwise, I would expect to hear more of the following conversation:

“Waiter, Waiter! I’m ready to order now.

I would like my steak medium rare,

and

I would like that beautiful woman over there in the corner.”

dan1111 April 18, 2012 at 5:47 am

I think the idea is that people are going to the place because it is stylish, trendy, the place to be seen. People who pay a lot of attention to their own appearance and the appearance of their companions are more likely to emphasize style over food in their restaurant selection.

Urso April 18, 2012 at 10:30 am

Exactly. People are getting hung up on the “woman” part of “beautiful women” and missing the point entirely. Prof. Cowen would’ve been better off if he had just said “stylish, trendy people,” even though it’s not as pithy.

Hasdrubal April 18, 2012 at 12:50 pm

I didn’t think it was for hitting on women so much as the fact that the women there are on dates and dressed up to look beautiful. Dates are a lot about signaling, and men take women to restaurants that are trendy and expensive to show their dates that they’re trendy and can afford expensive meals. The food has to be good enough, but, for most people, difference between “good enough” and “great” food isn’t noticeable on a date: You’re too busy staring meaningfully into your partner’s eyes and trying to appear that you’re trying not to get caught looking at her cleavage.

Compare that to a place where people are going in normal street clothes, not wearing makeup, and are relaxed and comfortable around each other. They’re not trying to impress each other with their sexiness or richness, so they’re there for something else. It could be the food, it could be the music, it could be the pierced wait staff, it could be something else. But it’s a lot more likely that people will be at that place for the food than when they’re dressed to the nines and focused on getting their date into bed.

Steve Sailer April 17, 2012 at 3:00 pm

“They’re just not likely to be the very best of the good restaurants, especially for the price.”

Depends how much value you place on decor.

Michael Stack April 17, 2012 at 3:39 pm

It’s similar to the reason I avoid restaurants that have lots of older people there – usually it means the restaurant was really good at one time, but is now coasting on the on reputation it established long ago.

Urso April 17, 2012 at 4:23 pm

An unusually large percentage of elderly diners is also positively correlated with it being five o’clock.

Rahul April 17, 2012 at 5:01 pm

I once had breakfast at the local pancake house super early and it felt like visiting an old age home.

Why do retirees want to get up and out so early?

The Original Frank April 17, 2012 at 7:03 pm

To avoid the rest of you! :-)

liberal arts April 17, 2012 at 8:29 pm

Deteriorating night vision. Early means no driving at night?

Ed April 17, 2012 at 10:35 pm

Good question, but I think people’s biological clocks get moved forward as they age.

In other words, you don’t find old people in bed at 11 PM because they hate the idea of being out at bars at that hour. They are not at bars at that hour because they can’t stay awake past 11 PM. They then rationalize this as their lifestyle changing because they are maturing. And it works in reverse for younger people.

But I’m basing this on my own experience and I have no idea if someone has tried to do a study of this scientifically.

Vivian Darkbloom April 17, 2012 at 3:41 pm

“Don’t think of the model as “what happens to a restaurant when there is an exogenous increase in the beauty of its women” ”

Actually, when I think of models, beautiful women usually come to mind.

Chuck Rudd April 17, 2012 at 3:51 pm

Tyler,

I’m trying to figure out how men enter that picture. You imply that because men are drawn in by the beautiful women that the food will suffer. But are the beautiful women there for the food too or just the ambiance? If so, then the fact that the restaurant is trendy is enough to determine that the food quality may be lacking.

It seems like there would be a very short window in which the attractive women would draw the men which would let the restaurant slack on its food quality. And even if this does happen, does anyone have any anecdotal or empirical evidence to back the model?

Seinfeld addressed it, but the show observed that quality of service (and perhaps food) would suffer with the employment of “busty” waitresses.

http://www.seinfeldscripts.com/ThePilot.html

Hasdrubal April 18, 2012 at 12:56 pm

The beautiful women aren’t there alone, they’re beautiful because they’re dressed up and on dates with men. The question is “why are men taking women to that restaurant on a date?” Dates are about signaling, and in my experience, signaling that I have good taste in food is much less likely to get me laid than signaling that I’m wealthy and trendy. Extrapolating from my anecdotal experience, trendiness and price-signalled quality will be axes along which men maximize when choosing date restaurants, not pure quality or value.

Guy in the Veal Cafe Kitchen April 17, 2012 at 4:16 pm

Around here, restaurants seem to improve with time, as they work out the kinks. (They open too early because overhead costs don’t wait for opening) The initial rush therefore generates negative buzz and if you wait a few months you can have a nice, uncluttered dining experience.

Rahul April 17, 2012 at 5:03 pm

The portion size definitely goes down with time. I have so often observed this.

The Original Frank April 17, 2012 at 7:15 pm

And that’s a good thing, too!

Bill April 17, 2012 at 4:48 pm

I am so inspired by the thought of beatiful women correlating with the quality of food,

That I am written the following poem:

“If Tylers food and its courses

Were of the right sources,

Then Hooters would ride.

Burma Shave”

The Original Frank April 17, 2012 at 7:16 pm

+1

Lord April 17, 2012 at 4:58 pm

I would call the venturesome temperamental and the regulars stodgy, slow to try something new but willing to stay with something they like. It suggests not lesser quality but lesser adaption and innovation having found what works and what doesn’t.

mkt April 18, 2012 at 3:39 am

Right, I think these are substantially different hypotheses. Tyler’s is about a restaurant coasting on its momentum, whereas Matt’s is about venturesome vs regular/stodgy customers. One is about the supply side and the other is about the demand side.

The venturesome customer model is similar to what I conjectured about Chinese restaurants (and their patrons, foodie Chinese) being good for their first six months. Other commenters have offered variations on the supply side models: the exhaustion of the proprietor after six months, or the landlord raising rent (which doesn’t seem that plausible to me but I confess to not knowing NY very well).

Most of these hypotheses can be valid simultaneously.

Rahul April 17, 2012 at 5:15 pm

Could a part of this be an averaging effect? The new ones are more likely to be both exceedingly good and exceedingly bad?

The Original Frank April 17, 2012 at 7:12 pm

Am appalled at US American food, given the high quality of inputs [disagree with Tyler on this] and the high per capita income here. I’ve started reading Tyler’s book, and find the children’s story quite cogent.

A major problem, as shown by this string of comments, is that food is being mixed up with other important items, namely women. Restaurants in the rest of the world are not pick-up places; They are places to enjoy good food. If people in US America actually valued fine food, US restaurants could become great sorting devices which allowed you to find a mate who also valued good tasting food!

Cliff April 17, 2012 at 8:58 pm

Restaurants in the U.S. are not pick-up places, either, except to the extent that they are bars.

dan1111 April 18, 2012 at 5:56 am

Are you saying that good food is unavailable in America, or that the average quality is low?

Rahul April 18, 2012 at 6:58 am

When you say American food is bad what nations do you consider to be “good food”?

To me variety itself is a high value item and by this metric US seemed a very good place. What other nation has an equivalent easy availability of multiple cuisines?

Peter A April 18, 2012 at 8:53 am

America (as we Americans call it) is a very large country. Making sweeping generalizations about American food is like declaring that “European food is awful” because you had some bad meals in Oxford, UK, a Rome McDonald’s and the Frankfurt airport.

dead serious April 18, 2012 at 10:09 am

+1

Christine April 17, 2012 at 7:17 pm

I am so tired of this “beautiful women” theory, as if women were separate from the clientele, and were some kind of decorative thing restaurants strew about like placemats. Women ARE half the clientele! Why are the beautiful women going to these lousy places? How come nobody asks that? How come the only thing anyone thinks to ask is what MEN’s motivation is for going to a place “with a lot of beautiful women”?

somaguy April 17, 2012 at 7:26 pm

I think the only reason people talk about it is because it is amusing. And because men have a tendency to follow attractive women like puppy dogs – hence the asymmetry in cover charge pricing at clubs, for example.

Frankly, I can’t remember the last time I thought about the clientele at a restaurant before going there. Also I hardly ever look around at the other patrons long enough to judge their beauty, mostly I stare at my guest(s) or my food. Maybe it’s an east coast thing.

dirk April 17, 2012 at 8:10 pm

Christine, you sound like a beautiful woman. Well, so much for the quality of this blog.

Running Empty April 18, 2012 at 12:35 am

Beautiful women are there because there are other beautiful women-plus they are usually getting to eat for free, with that whole man-pays-for-a-date thing.

GiT April 18, 2012 at 4:43 am

Because casual sexism is a frequent occurrence among libertarians and their fellow travelers.

msgkings April 18, 2012 at 1:15 pm

Boom goes the dynamite

Rahul April 18, 2012 at 7:02 am

Women might be half the population but from a restaurant’s perspective are they really half the clientele? I’m curious to know the “official” statistics but anecdotaly it seems maybe a 70-30 Male-Female split. Do single men eat out more often? Do men travel more on business and hence eat out more?

Maybe someone in the industry can shed light?

Urso April 18, 2012 at 10:42 am

Another hypothesis is that beautiful women are more price-insensitive than the average diner, especially if they are young and single. They’re more likely to be used to being treated well, and more likely not to be paying.

Remember, Cowen isn’t arguing that restaurants full of beautiful women are *bad*, just that they’re likely to be poor values in terms of food quality over dollars spent (which is all he professes to care about).

Urso April 18, 2012 at 11:02 am

Don’t know why this comment ended up here.

Miley Cyrax April 18, 2012 at 11:49 am

I am so tired of people being willfully in denial and shrieking at the notion that beautiful women get treated and behave differently than unattractive women or both attractive and unattractive men. The sexes’ sexualities are different, crazy huh?

Cowen’s theory is much more critical of men, who pay for the privilege of being near pretty womem via overpriced food for themselves and the aforementioned women.

Hasdrubal April 18, 2012 at 1:06 pm

Is a woman on a date more likely to be wearing a sweatshirt, jeggings and no makeup or a little black dress and meticulously applied makeup? Which is more likely to appear beautiful? What do you think people who spend a lot of time making themselves look amazing are looking for in a date restaurant, ambiance or food quality? Are they more likely to be willing to sacrifice some quality for better ambiance or some ambiance for better quality? Are men likely to be more or less price sensitive when taking someone dressed beautifully out on a date?

Beautiful women = Date restaurants. Date restaurants = Form over function. How is this hard to figure out?

msgkings April 18, 2012 at 1:17 pm

+1

Miley Cyrax April 18, 2012 at 1:35 pm

Make-up can’t rectify a ghastly face nor can heels and a dress disguise corpulence. It’s not just women dressing up for dates; attractive women get more date offers (duh).

The Original Frank April 17, 2012 at 7:23 pm

+1

The posters are male. :-)

The Original Frank April 17, 2012 at 7:34 pm

This comment was to Christine, but Somaguy’s comment is OK.

Bill April 17, 2012 at 7:48 pm

In the age of the internet, you should be able to prove or disprove Tyler’s hypotheses.

First, google: places where men go to meet beautiful women; then google places women go to meet men
I am sure there are articles on this. Tips on how to meet men; where to meet womenetc.
Then, see how many mention restaurants with good food.

The other way to test the hypothesis is to take restaurant rankings and then take pictures (serrepticisously) of the women in the restaurants, and have their pictures graded by graduate students.

Bill April 17, 2012 at 9:17 pm

In the interest of graduate student research, I think Tyler should pay for his graduate students to visit and survey his best restaurants, eat there, and report back on the beauty of the women in the restaurant and the quality of the food.

The research, meals included, would be funded by the Koch Foundation or Mercatus Center.

Bon Apetit.

Mea April 17, 2012 at 7:51 pm

Thank you Christine, because you said what I – and LOTS of other women, no doubt -are thinking. If an economist wants to spin a theory of beautiful PEOPLE, then by all means lets discuss. But assuming (as many of the commenters explicitly do) that women are decorative and the normative restaurant-chooser and blog- reader is a cis straight male is just being a privileged blinkered blighter.

Claudia April 17, 2012 at 8:56 pm

Mea and Christine, I am writing this hypothesis off to a catchy (for some) re-packaging of a well-known principle: “you get what you pay for.” I would guess that most people who frequent trendy restaurants understand that they are paying for more than the food. But who would buy a book to tell you what you already know? Not beautiful women for sure.

Rahul April 18, 2012 at 7:06 am

I don’t know about restaurant-choosers but looking at MR’s comments, at least, would convince me that blog-readers are overwhelmingly male.

Brandon Berg April 18, 2012 at 7:12 am

Feminists are just adorable!

Rowz April 18, 2012 at 10:19 am

Is it possible that a) the best theory about beautiful men is substantially different from the best theory about beautiful women and b) the relevant bloggers are interested in the latter for reasons of personal preference? You’re welcome to construct your own explanations.

Also, I don’t know what trigonometric abbreviation “cis” is meant to be.

Miley Cyrax April 18, 2012 at 12:00 pm

You go girl! Please inform the pornography industry that they’ve been wrong this whole time about heterosexual male sexual desire being primarily driven by female physical attractiveness. I’m sure they’ll be grateful for your enlightened perspective!

Rahul April 18, 2012 at 4:03 pm

And the pornography industry is representative of the whole heterosexual male ethos? Did you date the local star stripper? Why not? If you could would you?

Tom April 17, 2012 at 8:51 pm

I interpreted the beautiful women differently than some commenters. They aren’t there as a social function, and then the men came to pick them up. Either through a date or their social circle, some man is trying to impress them by taking them to a well known expensive restaurant that is often coasting on its reputation.
Average Annie eats at the new ethnic place with good reviews on yelp. Beautiful Beulah eats at well known trendy expensive restaurant, with Barry, whom she met at her fathers charity gala. She might see some of her friends there, coincidentally. If Tyler’s right, avoid Beulah if you want the restaurants that are still trying to impress you.

Miley Cyrax April 18, 2012 at 11:53 am

It’s both hitting on new girls and impressing current prospects on dates.

Tom April 18, 2012 at 3:59 pm

I’ll admit to being a bit socially naive, but going to a restaurant specifically to hit on women seems like strange behavior. Maybe if the bar was particularly active, you’d have a shot.

Chris April 17, 2012 at 9:56 pm

The difference between great and blah can be pretty slim. In LA there is this place called Rubio’s Fish Taco’s. In the late 90’s it was the bomb. It was fast foodish but awesome. Ten years later there were a bunch more franchises and the food sucked. Why? Well probably because most people don’t care enough about food quality. If you can lower costs and not lose customers then that’s what you do.

David Wright April 17, 2012 at 10:05 pm

Restaurants with beautiful women are still better than average, relative to the population of restaurants as a whole, for obvious reasons related to wealth and demographics. They’re just not likely to be the very best of the good restaurants, especially for the price.

I don’t get this. The statement seems to be that, after you control for other readily observable variables (price, decor, location, ethnicity), the density of beautiful women gives you additional information about the (not readily observable) quality of the food. The proposed mechanism seems to be that, if a restaurant happened to have an unusually large population of beautiful women, it can get away with delivering lower quality food (or raising its prices or employing cheaper decor, etc.) and still turn the same profit that an otherwise identical restaurant without the beautiful women could. I can believe that, but doesn’t it beg the question (yes, I am aware, gammar Nazis) of how the restaurant got an maintained its unusually beautiful female population? Beautiful women aren’t placed on permanent assignment to a given restaurant, after all. Wouldn’t they tend to not return after obtaining lower quality food than expected, just like other customers? Is there some network effect, whereby beautiful women tend to want eat around other beautiful women, so that unusually large densities of beautiful women are magnified and maintained? That seems implausible, but without some such mechanism a unusually large density of beautiful women is probably just a random fluctuation that hapened on that particular night, and the restaurant can’t expect it to be maintained long enough for them to build a business model around it.

Ed April 17, 2012 at 10:41 pm

Trying to take Yglesias’ argument at face value, it doesn’t make much sense to me because in New York its pretty well known why good restaurants decline quickly. Most restaurants rent their spaces, and the landlords raise the rent as soon as they see the restaurant taking in more cash. The restaurant then cuts back on expenses (eg ingredients and other stuff that makes the restaurant good) or jacks up the prices in order to make rent.

In New York, beautiful women have nothing to do with this; that lady clients are not an expense that restaurants that have to come back on, so are somewhat independent of this cycle. But maybe things are different in DC.

dkite April 17, 2012 at 10:59 pm

I suggest there is a more prosaic explaination.

Simply put, successful restauranteurs are those willing to work 18 hours a day. It is a complicated business; procuring high quality inputs, having them prepared and presented in a way that is appealing. Training of staff, keeping the premises clean, then managing the cash flow to be able to do the same tomorrow. The restauranteur will have to either do or see that everything is done, hence the 18 hour days.

The place goes downhill as the restauranteur loses the insane drive to prrfection from sheer exhaustion.

The plsce goes downhill as thecrestsuranteur

figleaf April 17, 2012 at 11:07 pm

Going one step further I’m curious about what constitutes “beautiful women” in your and Alex’s taxonomy. Based on some of your posts from 2006 and 2009, you’ve implied in the past that socioeconomics can accurately predict the number of “beautiful women” in a country or even city. Without going into what “beautiful women” might mean you’re now extending that implication to individual restaurants!

Peculiarly, from my perspective, your consistent messages are that beautiful women correlate with worse overall socioeconomic conditions. Thus Lebanon, Cuba, and Latvia will presumably have more “beautiful women” than, for instance, Israel, the Bahamas, or Estonia, because despite historical demographic similarities the former set has worse economic conditions than the latter set.

I’m guessing that by “beautiful women” you’re actually referring to the subset of women who, lacking opportunities for autonomous socioeconomic advancement, invest their time, effort, and resources into seeking financial stability from men who aren’t similarly constrained — preferring, say, to invest in a boob job rather than a business license, consultants in clothes and makeup rather than sales and marketing, and gym memberships instead of technical certifications.

In the case of restaurants you’re also at least implicitly saying that the kind of men who are attracted to women who channel their ambition into improving their commodity attractiveness rather than their productivity lack discernment and (literal!) taste in other areas such as cuisine. You also imply that, fulfilling the axiom that for every Jack there’s a Jill, men who want to impress these “beautiful women” prize the wealth-signalling value of location or decor over any conceivable enjoyment value of the actual food.

Meanwhile, however, by choosing to label this socioeconomic pattern “beautiful women” you’re creating confusion about a) attractive women who don’t contrive to be “beautiful” and b) women who may be “beautiful” but nevertheless are able to pay for and eat food they actually like rather than letting potential bidders squire them to smarmy venues that serve mainly Heineken, steak or lobster, and tiny dinner salads with dressing on the side no matter what else is on the menu.

I mean, if you’re not going to make it clear that when you say “beautiful women” you don’t necessarily mean women who are actually lower-case “b” beautiful don’t be surprised that a lot of women (and men) find your use of the technical term both confusing and insulting.

figleaf

Bill April 18, 2012 at 10:24 am

+1

It’s sometimes fun to play with an hypothisis, such as the beautiful women=good restaurant, by transposing a few terms to see if the model works. In this case, it is particularly appealing because you have a two person game: the beautiful woman, but don’t forget also, the man. Are the women being attracted to good food, are the men being attracted to women, or are women going where the men are? To have a game where you have a high percentage of attractive women, you need to find a place that will attract men for those attractive women who want to meet men. In fact, if you were an attractive woman, you would want be in a place where there were fewer attractive women, or fewer women in general.

So, approaching this from the other side, if restaurants are places that attract “types”, what is the restaurant that attracts men and that would be focal in attracting women looking for men.

Taco Bell.

Women: if you want to increase your chances and reduce your competition, have a burrito and skip the fancy smanshy place.

Seth April 18, 2012 at 12:59 am

Perhaps your preferences simply differ from large swaths of the population.

Ryan April 18, 2012 at 8:39 am

TC, if your book is anything like this post, I should have already bought it.

Peter April 18, 2012 at 9:51 pm

Research of this sort is difficult to evaluate because different people define “beauty” in different ways.

You all know how I define it :)

Richard April 19, 2012 at 7:34 am

Tyler,

Hold on. You say i should skip restaurants with loths of beautiful women ‘because the food may be over the top’?

I think you got a few things backwards. Maybe part from the food, other things are actually improving?

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