A simple rule for making every restaurant meal better

This one is so simple it is stupid, yet you hardly ever hear it.  If anything it is mocked, but I will go on record:

Eat at 5 p.m. or 5:30.

The quality of the food coming out of the kitchen will be higher.  Only the very top restaurants (and even then not always) can maintain the same quality at say 8 p.m. on a Saturday night.  It is also the easiest time for getting a reservation.

The best time to eat at @ElephantJumps is 4:20 p.m.  They’re all just sitting around, waiting to cook for you.

Oyamel is a good example of a D.C. restaurant which can be quite iffy, but is tasty and consistent first thing in the evening.

There is a beauty to having a restaurant all to yourself.  And if you don’t like the timing, have no more than an apple for lunch.

This is also a better system for getting work done, if the nature of your workplace allows it.  Few people who do the 7:30 dinner work through to 11 p.m.  If you have  dinner 5-6:30, you are ideally suited to get back into the saddle by 7:15.

But please, I hope not too many of you follow this advice.  The funny thing is, you won’t.  You will leave the low-hanging fruit behind, you strange creatures you.


It's mostly because I'm not hungry at 5.30pm (well OK you said I can restrict my lunch to an apple - but I want more than that at lunch), and I want to finish my work before I eat, not after. Or, if I'm really loaded with work, it won't end at 11pm anyway.

The social benefits here, including fitting with the schedule of others, far outweigh the food benefit for most of us. There is a reason why 5 / 5:30 is not a busy time.

"If you have dinner 5-6:30": Christ, who wants to sip a Benedictine at 6:30?

Also, 5:00 to 5:30 is when I dine out with my young children, if that bothers you.

That's a good time for families, because restaurants don't mind the low-profit seats during a dead period and other diners aren't bothered.

One caveat, the chances of food poisoning will be higher as one is fed yesterday's leftovers.

I'd love to have someone who knows weigh in on this - I assume the food is FIFO. Maybe it doesn't matter much if (1) they don't shop every day anyway and (2) most food keeps fresh longer than it actually stays in their inventory. (How just in time are they). So for example, I would guess that for a steak restaurant (especially aged) it makes absolutely no difference. Seems like it's a very fact dependent but important issue, about which most people know little.

I have no idea if it's true, but it's like the saying don't eat Sushi on (I think it's Monday?) because they buy on Tuesday (?)

On that sushi anecdote, I've never heard that, and it's baffling.

Any sushi joint you should consider eating at should have so much turnover that they're buying constantly (and since raw-consumption fish must be frozen to be sold in the US, last I checked, to control parasites, there should not be any freshness issues anyway; it should be thawed day-of-service).

I've heard the sushi thing as a corollary to general seafood ordering advice as fish markets usually close over the weekend; not something I'd worry about at a decent restaurant, and even less so for non-seafood (I've never had any groceries go bad in the fridge over a mere weekend!)

Actually, I've heard that rice is one of the most likely sources of food poisoning in cheaper restaurants due to holding temperatures, etc.

For most restaurants, FIFO v LIFO doesn't matter. We're either a) making food to order (grilled items) or it doesn't matter (mashed potatoes, lots of Indian dishes). If you're eating at a buffet, sure it may have been there awhile. But at a menu order, full service restaurant, we're not going to risk a health scare and the ensuing publicity challenges to save a buck or two; it's just not worth it. Remember, if it's pre-prepared and bad, and we serve it to you, we're serving it to the whole room.

Uh huh. That's real likely, isn't it?

Tyler posted this article at 1:33 am and I read it around 1:35 am (adjusted for assumed time zone differences). There are zero comments so far, which may make my comment the first.

So.... if Tyler dined around 5-6:30, and he got back in the saddle by 7:15 and it is now early morning then he is...

1. A workaholic.
2. An insomniac.
3. That low hanging fruit has done messed up his alimentary canal but good.

4. The blog has an automated posting system.

5. Tyler continues to be in Bolivia.

Bolivia and Washington are both GMT-4:00

6. The blog has an automated authorship system, TINGS, AIO, TiAICN. (the iPhones are in charge now).

In a similar fashion, I've found the best time to eat lunch is 11am. Everything is fresh, you miss the crowds so the service is better and faster, it's easy to get a good parking spot, both at the restaurant and back at work after lunch because there are all those spots just vacated by people who leave later to eat at the time you're returning.

I often eat at a grocery store that has a self-serve style lunch setup, and this is unquestionably true. Everything is fresh, warm, and you have no risk of anything having run out. It's the way to go.

It works in other contexts too. I tend not to go to the food festivals named "A Bite of XYZ" or "A Taste of ABC" but I got free admission to one a few weeks ago, as part of another event which meant we arrived at the food festival around 10:30 or 11am. Turned out to be a very good time to be there; short lines and sparser crowds. As noon approached, the crowds and lines got larger, but I was full by then so I left around noon, having sampled all the food that I wished.

Cheap talk, but I've surmised as much myself and make a habit of this when possible.

Funny that Tyler mentions Oyamel. My wife and I made it our "big night out" on a D.C. vacation a couple years ago. We got there probably 4 or 5 and ordered the menu (lengua, etc.). The food was bland and disappointing. A random taco truck in CA serves better. We were totally mystified until the cocktail crowd came rolling in and then it all clicked.

"A random taco truck in CA..."

If you're colloquially including push-carts and tow-carts (e.g., around the Fashion District), that is a fairly high standard to apply to the big Northeastern and mid-Atlantic cities.

When you're traveling to other countries you may have to adjust the time. In Italy most restaurants are not open at 5pm. Go in at 7 and you will have a very pleasant experience.

It works great in Europe, because you can take advantage of the benefits Tyler mentions at what is a normal meal time for an American.

I was just about to point out that in Spain, the odds of a good restaurant actually being open at 8pm are pretty poor.

Not a problem because I don't plan to fly to Spain just for a dinner. Maybe they could eat earlier if everyone wasn't flying in for dinner.

This SUCKS when you're working crazy hour days onsite for a client, are still jet-lagged, and ready to pass out at 7...

You must not have small children. That's when we go out with them because other diners won't be bothered and the kids go to sleep by 8.

And if you don't have small children, you need to eat late to avoid the people who bring their small children to the restaurant.

We almost never do, and when we do we ask to be put where the new people in our charge (small children) won't bother the people who don't understand that we have to deal with these rude people (aka small children) 17 hours a day. The restaurant never does.

I hope kids aren't a bifurcated equilibrium like smoking.

HFS, your kids go to bed at 8?!? You, sir, can barely claim to have small kids! :)

In my experience, this means it's time to curtail daytime napping.

Not in my case, but I get that YMMV.

Isn't eating by 5:30 the punchline of endless jokes about the habits of elderly people?

The 'Early Bird Special'!

JERRY: (bewildered) Four-thirty? Who eats dinner at four-thirty?
MORTY: By the time we sit down, it'll be quarter to five.
JERRY: I don't understand why we have to eat now.
HELEN: We gotta catch the early-bird. It's only between four-thirty and six.
MORTY: Yeah. They give you a tenderloin, a salad and a baked potato, for four-ninety-five. You know what that cost you after six?
JERRY: Can't we eat at a decent hour? I'll treat, okay?
HELEN: You're not buying us dinner.
JERRY: (emphatic) I'm not force-feeding myself a steak at four-thirty to save a couple of bucks, I'll tell you that!
HELEN: All right (sitting on the couch), we'll wait. (pointedly) But it's unheard of.


yeah - came here to make a Del Boca Vista crack

but really, there's nothing wrong with eating at 5:30 as long as you pretend it's a late lunch ...

Eating when the restaurant is empty -- a late lunch or early dinner -- is also a good strategy for avoiding smoke-filled restaurants in those places that still allow it. Use to be more necessary in Europe, but recent law changes have now banned smoking in most places.

I bet smoking is a bifurcated equilibrium.

Speaking of bifurcated equilibria, while this suggestion is uncomplicated, I suspect most peoples' (Americans anyway) restaurant experiences are so low (or standardized) it isn't worth any effort to improve them. Food in general is entering the homeostatic realm. Only parents and college kids and that one guy at the office reliably ponder food.

I agree with your assessment of how most Americans eat, but I think the same can be said in many other parts of the world, too. Fortunately, I spent 30 years n the foodie bubble of the SF Bay Area, where food is a kind of fetish, and where you can find some of the best restaurants in the world.

"You will leave the low-hanging fruit behind, you strange creatures you. " - Tyler Cowen

Well, when it comes to eating dinner at 5:00 pm:

"I don't want to be a product of my environment. I want my environment to be a product of me" - Frank Costello

I practice this for lunch at work most days because you beat the crowds and I eat breakfast very early, so by like 11 I am very hungry.

Lunch. When I'm visiting a city with fine restaurants, I do lunch. It's easier to get a reservation, the staff is rested, the food is fresh, and the prices are lower.

Not particularly useful advice for the vast majority of people, who work 9-5 with slop at both ends. But good advice for those who can take it.

However -- and, I find Professor Cowen's food advice generally superb, I hang on every word, and my wife and I keep a list of his faves in the car in case we're near DC or northern Virginia -- much of Professor Cowen's advice is already known to people who have or who have recently had small children, and this piece is an exemplar. (The best example is -- cheap, noisy places in strip malls full of ethnic locals, many of whome will come out from the kitchen to happily swaddle your upset infant? Seriously, are there parents who ditch _that_ for McD's?)

I am beginning to suspect economists have an incomplete understanding of what makes life worth living.

This post suggests the answer is "the absence of other people"

'Hell is other people' - some French dude who was not an economist.

("L'enfer, c'est les autres" - Jean Paul Sartre)

However, Prof. Cowen has indicated a preference for like minded individuals to be served up in his Twitter stream, so quite possibly, he would have no problem with a number of people who share his tastes/professional interests/food choices/opinions dining in the same place as himself at the same time.

For some, apparently, life isn't worth living if it isn't an echo chamber.

This isnt even remotely what Tyler said or implied. He's suggesting finding the balance between freshness and other factors affecting choice of dining hours. My criticism, though, is that people already implicitly strike this balance. To the extent that this informs heuristic decision making, it is a valid point.

Sartre was correct. Population density is one of the strongest regressors of every social ill. Low population density, though, is also associated with personal ills. You can have a suicide by yourself, but you can't have a murder by yourself.

'Population density is one of the strongest regressors of every social ill.'

And one of the strongest correlations to fine dining experiences. The Tastee 29 diner has been pretty much unchanged since back when Fairfax County, now the most populous jurisdiction in Virginia and the most populous part of the DC metro region, had a population of maybe 100,000, compared to today's est. 1.1 million. Other shining lights from decades ago include the Amphora and Vienna Inn (both of which are latecomers, one from 1977, the other from 1960). Prof. Cowen, understandably enough, does not seem to favor such places to dine.

Though to be honest, the Tastee 29 is pretty much directly on the route between GMU's Fairfax and Arlington campuses - and it serves breakfast around the clock. And who doesn't like chicken fried steak with gravy and lima beans from a can?

If I could "like" that comment, I would.

Eating at an uncivilized hour because the staff isn't busy? Does that tactic work in other transactions? People I know shop for groceries at 5 am so perhaps it makes sense in some sort of twisted time valuation theory. But it's not right to get children into bad habits like eating the final meal of the day at the ridiculous hour of 5 when they'll probably be awake for another 4 or 5 hours and eat again before bed time. No wonder obesity is a problem.

The logical extension of this kind of thinking:

I'm not sure about this horror over eating at 5 pm. I did it for years while working ships. Dinner was over by 5:30 and the mess room closed for cleaning. Only way to get the stewards a decent chunk of time off.

And you are suppose to have a nice long overnight fast if you are sleeping. I know many who had successful diets by simply not eating after 6 pm. Put the fast back in breakfast.

No one is horrified the are just having the normal human response to a somewhat weird person telling them they are suckers because they don't adopt his weird habits.

There is a huge problem with the "show up at off peak hours when the staff is less busy" strategy. And that is that businesses and offices add capacity during peak times! My own experience in showing up at off peak times in restaurants is that the restaurant is often closed "to prepare the dinner setting", even if its after their stated opening hours, and then if they are open the staff is somewhat flustered to have to deal with an actual customer that early. I've experienced problems at the other end with being turned away or rushed at restaurants that are techically still open, but apparently not really.

I like going to lunch at 11 AM or 1:30 PM too, but you would be surprised how many places serve lunch essentially only a couple hours per day.

This seems to be more of an issue with American culture; when I travel with my Brazilian wife she is constantly surprised how difficult it is to go to restaurants at what she thinks are perfectly normal times for lunch and dinner.

But when I can manage my schedule and work around other people's expectations, I've had good results in skipping breakfast and going to lunch at 11 AM, or skipping lunch (say after a late breakfast), and eating a meal at 5:30 PM. But my non-work hourse meals tend to be at home these days anyway. I agree with one of the earlier commentators that if you want to try a restaurant, lunch is almost always a much better value then dinner.

Off-peak strategies work best when the capacity is fixed or quasi-fixed, namely for travelling. They work worst when capacity surges, which is mainly entertainment. There are no bargains in going to attend a sports game at off peak hours. I do suspect that holding a job that forces you to go to work and otherwise use services at peak hours is often not worth the compensation.

Isn't the theme here that Tyler's food advice works great for autistic-spectrum individuals who: (a) don't mind eating alone in a restaurant, (b) place no premium on being around young, attractive people, (c) don't value good service, and (d) don't mind being embroiled in a shouting match at the local ethnic place?

Hey, who doesn't like eating at a gas station? 'R&R Tacqueria, 7894 Washington Blvd. (Rt.1); 410-799-0001, Elkridge, Maryland, 13 minutes north of the 495/95 intersection, look for the Shell sign.

This tacqueria is in a gas station, with two small counters and three chairs to sit on. It is the best huarache I have eaten, ever, including in Mexico. It is the best chile relleno I've had in the United States, ever. They serve among the best Mexican soups I have had, ever, and I have been to Mexico almost twenty times. I recommend the tacos al pastor as well.' http://marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2011/03/gas-station-tacos.html

But 'm sure that if you followed this as a life philosophy you would at least get more good restaurant meals than normal.

Actually, there was some really quite respectable BBQ I used to eat at an Amoco station off of 64 a couple of decades ago, near the weigh station, a couple of exits before 64 joined 95. But then, eating BBQ when wearing a wet rainsuit or with rime frost on my jacket after getting off a motorcycle probably doesn't fit into most people's idea of a fine dining experience.

(Or a fine driving experience, considering how east and west on 64 work - from wikipedia - 'At its eastern terminus, East I-64 is actually running westbound (and West I-64 eastbound), as the route forms a fishhook around Norfolk.')

as someone who works in the industry, I'd like to disagree. eating exceptionally early means that the kitchen staff are probably still hungover, the line will not have found any kind of rhythm, and your food will be indifferently tossed off because 'only the elderly and the uncultured eat early'. unless you're planning a cowenesque invasion of the kitchen to prove that you 'want the good stuff' (please don't do this unless youare holding a bottle of decent bourbon), eat late but not too late. don't be the guy holding up the line getting broken down, but go after the end of the dinner rush. the cooks will have hit their stride and your food will taste better. I promise.

Tyler storming the kitchen pulling on a bottle of decent bourbon and demanding the good stuff at 5:30 PM - that's some solid imagery right there.

actually at a fair number of my friends' restaurants, that strategy would pay dividends - as long as you poured most of the bourbon into delis for the boys.

Until somebody on the kitchen staff whips out their mace ....

Maybe TYLER gets better results at 5:30 pm precisely because he always does the abovementioned Cowenesque storming of the kitchen. That behavior won't fly once the restaurant gets busy, but the staff will put up with him while the joint is still dead.

Absence makes the heart grow fonder, out of sight, out of mind. There's more than one way of looking at everything.

The other benefit of eating late: less road traffic. Eating early is only a decent idea at the poorly run but busy restaurants where delays are common.

if I ate an apple for lunch I'd be too hungry to work in the hours approaching dinner

I think Tyler needs to educate himself on what 4:20 means on the Internet, so that he doesn't make accidental implications about his favorite restaurants.

Only an economist could think that the solution to the problem of getting a good meal in a restaurant is to eat at 5.30. Of course you can get a better deal in a buyer's market. But unless you normally eat alone (maybe economists do?) it rather misses the point of dining out.

He is not talking to mere mortals. Note the part about getting back to the office. My advisor would go home to take a nap at 3:00 and then head back around 6:00 and work until 3 a.m. EVERY night.

Alternatively, finishing dinner by 7 leaves the rest of the night free for drinking. Yes, most restaurants serve drinks and many bars serve food, but it's hard to optimize both at once.

I recall that Tyler does not drink. This is the real flaw for this approach. If you drink wine at dinner and then have finished dinner before 7, what do you do then? Anything intellectual is obviously out the question, so its either slob on the couch, or go to bed or continue drinking.

I HATE eating in empty restaurants! They creep me out. The food & service are no better. So no, this is NOT a rule for "making every restaurant meal better."

However, sometimes I do eat an early dinner, especially if the restaurant has a happy hour or early-bird menu (discounted food & drink at certain hours) and there are other customers there even at odd hours. That can be a very enjoyable, and money-saving, experience; also useful when one is attending an evening event (such as a play) and needs to dine on the early side to avoid feeling rushed.

Followed by a Robin Hanson post:

Dining Isn't About Eating.

My chef friend agrees with Tyler. And, you are sitting down at 5:00-5:30, not being served your main course.

There's also better drink specials then too!

Comments for this post are closed