If you could know only one thing about a city’s food scene…

No, it is not knowledge of the city’s best dish, nor is it access to all the Yelp reviews, or even an understanding of how the spices in that cuisine work together.

I have a simple nomination.  If you could only know one thing about a city, you would like to know what time the best and most popular restaurants fill up.

If you know that time, you can walk around a restaurant-rich area.  Wait for the best places to start filling up, and then make your move and muscle your way through the door.  Voila, the wisdom of crowds!

If you come too early, you cannot glean information from watching the customer flow because there isn’t any.  If you come too late, the best places are already full, or they have lines which are too long.  But if you are there at just the right time, and attentive to the movement of the crowds, what really can go wrong?

In Singapore the best time to start stalking the hawker centres is about 10:30 a.m., certainly no later than 11.  Otherwise the lines at the best stalls are simply too long.  Just show up at the right time, and assume the Singaporeans know what they are doing.  It works.  In Paris you must be looking for a good lunch restaurant before 12:30.

It is a common theme in food economics that knowledge of people, or knowledge of social mechanisms, is often more valuable than knowledge of food.  Knowing whom to ask and also how to ask is also often more valuable than a detailed knowledge of a cuisine per se.

Comments

Wouldn't this also require knowledge of the general location of a restaurant-rich area (and an area that locals, not tourists, frequent)?

Also, wouldn't this concept only work in cities where restaurant seating (or the queue for a seat) is visible to casual observers (i.e. at street level, with windows/non-private seating)?

That's a good one, but personally, if I'm in a new city, I'd like to know where "the cluster" is. Most cities have a cluster of restaurants serving a similar type of food. And they are usually all pretty good. Even my hometown of Detroit has a cluster of places serving Coney dogs.

Interesting point - it undermines the usual insight that you get the best gains in trade by having the weirdest tech and consumption functions. In this case, you do best by having the most average consumption function.

I'm surprised. I thought we were supposed to avoid places with large crowds altogether, especially if the crowds consisted of a lot of beautiful women. I thought he was going to say that once you know the times that the restaurants fill up, you turn around and go in the other direction; or, at least, come the next day an hour before, for better service. Waah, Tyler be contradictory and confusing.

It works in a place that is food informed and food obsessed. It works less well at an American mall.

Here's my modified restaurant hack: Go to any shopping center in the US that has an ethnic supermarket and bordering restaurants, wait for those early crowds to form.

It works in the stock market, so just imagine what it can do in the restaurant market!

Was it you or another blogger that recommended we weigh the old-timers more than the youngsters as far as restaurant choice? Theory being consistent stability before the en vogueness of a restaurant (scene). The old-timers eat so early though as one of their main motives is to avoid the crowds. So, I guess, there's a few more pieces to your theory -- which restaurants have more old people coming and going, and which have less beautiful women.

Why is it that the masses on Yelp are unhelpful but the masses of people physically walking into stores is so persuasive?

And if I'm an out of touch American who doesn't like historically massive quantities of salt, sugar, and fat in my food - should I still be following the crowds in the U.S.? Especially if you are in Mississippi or WV rather than Colorado or Hawaii?

In Boston's Chinatown a few months ago, face down in my smartphone, when my girlfriend nudged me and said "That one." With all the other open restaurants empty, people were streaming into this nondescript one. It was great. I've put her on the case ever since. I still have trouble looking away from my smartphone.

It works in Chinatown, or at least I'm sufficiently ignorant of the relevant parameters that I can't tell that it isn't working.

That sounds like Gourmet Dumpling House, which is the third-best Taiwanese restaurant in Chinatown, and also a counterexample to Tyler's post.

I can't walk past a fine jar of strong southern shine

PS. Fred, you are a snob.

I find Yelp to have a lot of bad reviews that are based on service.

Yelp should have separate reviews for service and food.

Too many times its a one star review because of some perceived slight and not a food issue.

I did Tyler's method once at Phillies ballbark in trying to decide which cheesesteak to get. Long line, you had to order correctly (cheesesteak nazi!), but very disappointing. N of 1, but is my parable for trying to understand the wisdom of crowds. I think in general I get more info from Yelp reviews, where I first judge by numbers of reviews, and get curated info as to what's on offer.

This is weird. I would definitely rather have knowledge of the city's best dish, and where to get it. Then I could go there... and get the best dish.

It literally does not get any better than that.

This would tend to preclude serenditous experiences like the one I had a couple of months ago. We were walking through Brooklyn Bridge Park in New York, and on the way back decided to stop for some pizza. Happened to walk past Juliana's pizza at around 9:00 PM when the crowds were thinning. The chef was outside having a smoke or something and ushered us right in to a table. Couple months later this place was voted the best pizza in America.
We ordered something that I think was from the specials because it's not on the current menu, something involving smoked mozzarella and proscuttio.
It was excellent pizza, I can't say if it's the best in America, but at least I can brag about having eaten top-notch Brooklyn New York pizza.

serendipitous, I mean.

"muscle your way through the door": why are you recommending violence?

Yes, such micro-aggressions are bound to break a few brittle minds - cf http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2015/09/the-coddling-of-the-american-mind/399356/#disqus_thread.

Bad Tyler.

Brittle be damned. He's recommending either violence or filthy manners. The question is why.

If you could only know one thing about a city, you would like to know what time the best and most popular restaurants fill up.

Uh, no. I would like a map which showed my location and the homicide and robbery rates of the various neighborhoods in the city. Gang territories might be helpful as well, if they had a habit of beating up late-middle aged men as well as their own contemporaries.

If your first thought when you hear "great food" is that "I might get beat up," you might be a Trump supporter.

If I visit a place, the first thing I think of is not 'great food'. Satisfactory food will do. I'll think about restaurants when I know I'm not going to be traipsing through a viperous slum.

I will say two "pollo asados" for you, and one "para llevar"

how many times have you been mugged? Sounds like a frequent occurrence.
Also, what excellent dining district is also located in a viperous slum?

"Excellent dining districts" may be adjacent to slums and the slums may intervene between you and the district. I've lived in Baltimore, which can have jarring changes in housing quality from block to block and I lived in one downtown district in a smaller city which was quite a mosaic, places to avoid and places of elegance separated by a block or two.

I've been out of the inner city for a while, and did not live in slum zones. I've been mugged twice, once in 1985 and once in 1993, both within a block of my front door. A young man was murdered within eyeshot of my apartment in 1993.

a young woman shotgunned her boyfriend in my condominium complex - should I avoid women or condominiums? confused.

For those interested, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hasty_generalization

Just avoid people with shotguns.

So, Art, does this mean you do not accept the idea that if a mafia gang boss was just assassinated in an Italian restaurant, it is a very good place to eat?

Your question is too incoherent for me to answer.

Wow, you cannot even take a joke. And you lived in Balmer? Or maybe you are unaware of the phenomenon, mostly happening in Little Italy in NYC, where indeed after such restaurant assassinations have happened, the restaurant in question has had a surge of people going to it. But, I must admit, that has not been happening as much lately, although you are apparently old enough to have been around when it was.

These small steps toward a much better world are a lot smaller than I thought

And indicative of the concerns of a suburban haut bourgeois who's a good deal more psychologically insular than were my parents' contemporaries.

Why should he share the insularity of your parents' generation? Tyler's younger than you are.

He does not 'share' the insularity of my parents' contemporaries because they were not insular. More precisely, such insularity was atypical with the women and almost unknown among the men. He might have learned from them, but evidently did not from his own social circle.

He actually is not younger than I am.

Someone with their head located where yours is, "Art Deco," should not be talking about "insularity."

In my area of the Midwestern city I live in, there are a lot of restaurants. For Mexican food, there are a couple sit-down restaurants claiming to be very authentic, Chipotle, and a small Mexican grocery store that also has a dining area and a kitchen where you can order food. For really excellent Mexican food, this grocery store restaurant has proven to be the best choice. It's comparable, pricewise, to Chipotle, but flavorwise it's in its own universe. But the grocery store restaurant is usually mostly empty, while the other inferior places are often packed. So, minus one for wisdom of crowds.

I call bullshit on this one Tyler. You need a lot more info than just fill up time. Otherwise you would actually be hanging out at a lot of fast-food joints and Apple-bees or their national equivalents.After all that is where most people go for food at least in developed (and I hate to use that term in this context) countries. Your call only works with a lot of prior knowledge, and then it is quite useful.

Under this metric, the best place to eat in any city is a sandwich truck outside a construction site at 12:01 pm.

Most countries don't have an equivalent of Applebee's.

So completely wrong unless you are stuck on Applebees athestics as opposed to its product category.

"If you could only know one thing about a city, you would like to know what time the best and most popular restaurants fill up.

If you know that time, you can walk around a restaurant-rich area. Wait for the best places to start filling up, and then make your move and muscle your way through the door. Voila, the wisdom of crowds!"

Must be a Straussian post.

Like any arbitrage opportunity, that only works until everyone figures out the system.

if you could only know one thing about the [stock market], you would like to know what time the best and most popular [stocks] fill up. If you know that time, you can [post on the internet]. Wait for the best [stocks] to start filling up, and then make your move and muscle your way through the door. Voila, the wisdom of crowds.

Tyler is trolling us with this one. Another piece of 'Straussian' esoteric blogging—one correct inference to make here is to stay away from those places and the people who frequent them.

@Ethan nailed it.

Yes, but Tyler, according to you, if the crowds are beautiful, we shouldn't follow them right? Then the restaurant is selling the scene and not the food. This is where the wisdom of the crowds breaks down in restaurants. Unless of course you are going to a restaurant, even at least in part, for the scene--not just the food. Which is I think, why many people do choose places. Because in the end, if you're choosing a place, or opening one, for most people it simply is not all about the food. The food is just one thing it is selling, or at least pricing.

Here is another law of dining well in the United States: there is an inverse correlation between the number of (especially older) white people in a "non-European ethnic" restaurant and the quality of the food.

If you walk into a Chinese restaurant and see a white grandma enjoying her food, it's time to turn around and choose a different spot.

One white grandma is not a problem, especially if at the next table there is a grandma of the ethnicity of the restaurant.

Just out of curiosity, Barkley, why is it not an issue to you that this cretin posts anonymously?

Art,

The first paragraph is correct. It is only the second one that is not. Basically OK post.

My problem with anonymous posters is when they start engaging in personal attacks, especially when they get on pompous high horses while doing so. Now, you are one step up from the purely anonymous, which i grant, we can follow your personality and views, even if who you reallly are is in fact anonmyous, unlke me, so that someone like you with his head stuck very far up somewhere can make all kinds of personalistic assaults that others cannot make directly about you, and you have done so repeatedly about me. So, somebody like me who does not particularly cotton to taking bs from stinking jerks like you lying down have to resort to silly ripostes like my repetitously bad taste bit about the location of your head.

As it is, I am perfectly willing to interact more straightforwardly or even humourously with you. But, as can be seen above, you cannot even take a joke as you clutter up this blog with your incessant drivel.

You know, Barkley, we often do not see ourselves as others do.

Tell you what, Art, I am willing to stop being puerile head thing. I have already made my point, and it is silly to do it again. So, I offer a deal. You avoid making nasty personalistic attacks on me, I shall not refer to the head thing. I prefer to debate issues and ideas and not this sort of thing. But, I certainly retain the right to use it if you get out of line, and, frankly, your behavior is generally not anything to write home about, although maybe you are a great guy, and if we met we would have a grand old time. I get along well personally very well with lots of people I disagree with.

I think Tyler's law works well if you trust that the tastes of the median person in the area are better than your own. This rule works well in unfamiliar cities, as long you avoid locations that attract tourists, as the restaurants will be catering to the average tourist's tastes.

There is also the "economist's fallacy" that they other people are maximizing the same thing you want to maximize.

on a Wednesday night, go late to a 'cool' white people restaurant and buy drinks for the kitchen. ingratiate yourself with them and then ask where they go on their nights off. then, the subsequent nights, work through that list. you'll get one 'cool' meal and a bunch of verified good cheap places.

There are clearly several caveats to this, with them implicit in Tyler's example of Singapore hawker centers being the extreme case where his advice will work best. So, you need to have the food sources close to each other with you able to go back and forth to see what is happening, so he did not even have his example have actual restaurants but a bunch of adjacent stands in the same location with everything highly visible. Dealing with restaurants in particular cities, this is most likely to be doable for particular ethnicities that may have clusters in particular locations next to each other, Chinatowns, or 9th Street in DC for Ethiopian or Eden's Center in NoVa for Vietnamese.

Otherwise, the problem is that plenty of good restaurants are not all that adjacent to other good restaurants. For those, one should check the usual sources, many of them available online, including ones from experts such as, well, Tyler for the DC area, with not all his fave joints sitting next to lots of other similar restaurants or even near any others at all.

OK, clearly Tyler covers part of my point by stating clearly that one must walk around a "restaurant-rich" area. But that could be an area of somewhat mediocre restaurants.

I would suggest as an alternative for the single most important piece of information you need is to know what is the largest ethnic group in the metro area, particularly the one that has the most people recently moving into the area. That group is most likely to have the most authentic restaurants of their cuisine available (and, of course, this might not be an ethnic cuisine that one likes much). If that group has a neighborhood with a cluster of restaurants (and in larger cities there are usually multiple "restaurant-rich" areas), then that might be the place to go and use Tyler's method. But one needs to know where to go to do this first before doing it. That is the most important piece of information, what is the best ethinic cuisine in town and where are its main outlets concentrated?

BTW, of course his example of Singapore hawkers also overcomes this matter of looking for the best ethnic cuisine and its location because, those hawkers have representatives of all the major ethnic cuisines of Singapore, which are diverse and excellent. So, of course, any city that does have something like that, well, Tyler's plan will work best, but I think most metro areas do not have have such places. In those places, figure out what the best ethnic cuisine is and go to where the biggest clusters of that kind of restaurants is (assuming you like that ethnic cuisine).

With all these mounting complications, McDonald's franchises look better all the time...

I've never seen any corelation between the amount of people in a restaurant and the quality of the food.

Efficient Customer Theory (ECT) says that everyone else is already doing this, and you won't be able to systematically anticipate or detect any such surges, and therefore there is no useful signal here.

Meh. Tyler moved away from southern California before Old Pasadena became a major restaurant area. If one followed his rule, one would get there a bit before 7pm ... and follow the crowd into The Cheesecake Factory. It would have 45 minute waits while restaurants which were just as good or better, and within a one block radius, would have little or no wait.

I have to wonder...did Tyler eat any Rujak in Singapore?

I very much impressed my Taiwanese business partners when eating street food in Singapore when I brought back Rujak to the table. They'd never had that and its a tiny stall within the street vendor area.

There is nothing so awful then being with a group of people drinking beer and having a good time and knowing that if you have one it will put you to sleep, make you cry, or drink yourself to oblivion. What is one thing no one wants in this world?

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