An economist’s palate

The Washington Post covers my economic principles for finding good food.  Excerpt:

I’m sweating and furiously frustrated when I finally arrive, 30 minutes late, at the Hong Kong
Palace, an utterly nondescript Chinese restaurant in a Seven Corners
strip mall. Tyler Cowen is patiently reading when I arrive, unsurprised
that it took me so long to find it. He almost always likes the
hard-to-find joints best. The fact that Hong Kong Palace has an
unlisted phone number is, in Cowen’s eyes, another big plus.

An economist at George Mason University,
Cowen has rather unusual criteria for restaurant selection. He doesn’t
first look at the menu, the ambiance or the reviews.  Being an
economist, he thinks about the rental market, property taxes,
competition and clientele.  "All of us already act like economists," he
said, digging into a plate of Chengdu dumplings in a black vinegar sauce.  "We just have to think about what we already know about the world and apply it to dining."

I liked this article very much.  Elsewhere here is an interview with me in MacLean’s, the Canadian magazine.  What is it they say about them spelling your name right?

Addendum: Arnold Kling reports on my Bloomberg podcast, which I can’t find on the web either; maybe try here.


...speaking of macleans, i'd be interested to know what you (and that's a plural 'you'...y'all where I'm from) think of Andrew Potter (regular writer there). It was his 'rebel sell/nation of rebels' book which initially got me interested in economics (though I ended up away from his left-side). That book was really intriguing.

I wonder whether the restaurant selection rules would be different for people who dine out less frequently. Would Alchian and Allen Theorem apply when the self-shipping cost also includes the number of days or weeks between two restaurant meals?

I'm hoping you convert more leftie foodies to understanding economics!

I have to admit that I eat most often in chain restaurants, such as Outback Steakhouse which was featured in the Harvard Business Review:

"Specifically, the founders believe that the most effective way to make customers happy is first to take care of the people who cook for them, serve them, and supervise operations at the restaurants. Outback servers have fewer tables to worry about than those at other restaurant chains; the cooks have bigger, cooler, better-equipped kitchens; and the supervisors work their way up the ranks toward an equity stake in the restaurant or region they run."

I also like Taco Bell (the corporate ran ones, the franchises are often very bad) and Pizzaria Uno's.

Something that is interesting is the Community Supported Agriculture (CSA). My original thought was that CSA was like "Fair Trade Coffee," but people who use it really think it provides fresher produce, so maybe there is something of value there:

"Community members sign up and purchase their shares, either in one lump sum before the seeds are sown in early spring, or in several installments through-out the growing season. Production expenses are thereby guaranteed and the farmer or grower starts receiving income as soon as work begins.

In return for their investment, CSA members receive a bag of fresh, locally-grown, typically organic produce once a week from late spring through early fall, and occasionally throughout the winter in northern climates and year-round in milder zones. Members prefer a wide variety of vegetables and herbs, which encourages integrated cropping and companion planting. These practices help reduce risk factors and give multiple benefits to the soil. Crops are planted in succession in order to provide a continuous weekly supply of mixed vegetables. As crops rotate throughout the season, weekly shares vary by size and types of produce, reflecting local growing seasons and conditions."


I'm surprised that you did not mention the principal-agent aspect in your analysis. In my experience, the quality of a restaurant's food is usually in direct proportion to the equity ownership of the cook.

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