Do land use restrictions increase restaurant quality and diversity?

Daniel Shoag and Stan Veuger say yes, but I am not so convinced.

It turns out that metrics of land use restrictions are correlated with restaurant quality, across cities.  To cut to the chase, Los Angeles ranks number one on this index, and I can agree with that assessment in terms of food quality and also diversity.  (Other good food cities, such as Miami, also rank high on the index.)  Yet for the metropolitan area near L.A., food is generally best where the land use restrictions are least binding.  Beverly Hills and Santa Monica have some decent fancy restaurants, but the real gems are to be found elsewhere, in fringes such as northeast Hollywood, Silverlake (gentrifying a bit too much these days, however), north Orange County, Monterey Park, and so on.  Pasadena has hardly anywhere excellent to eat.

I would suggest an alternative channel of influence: urban areas with high inequality have both better food (see An Economist Gets Lunch, but basically imagine the wealthier people generating demand and the poorer people supplying cheap labor) and more building restrictions.  The wealthier people decide to do something to keep the poorer people out of their neighborhoods.

I hate to say “correlation does not prove causation,” but…correlation does not prove causation.

Via the excellent Kevin Lewis.


Correlation does not often prove causation, but sometimes it does.

I hate to be simplistic, but in a world where there are, say, only 2 or 3 hundred variables, the science of statistics is not only trivial, it is unimportant.

And yes, we live in a universe in which there do, actually, exist worlds with only 2 or 3 hundred variables.

And no, there is no such thing as an expert on probability. Just like there is no expert on the science of drinking water or the science of not failing to observe that time progresses, except in those situations where it does not.

Good comments!!!

Second time I agreed with you in how-many years.

That's one of the reasons central planners fail.

Witless crank.

That's a violation, gotta write you up.

So, how does it work out with strip malls? That would not seem to be a case of urban areas with high inequality, but instead a case where an economist with an Internet presence gets lunch.

And don’t forget, all food is ethnic food. - Prof. Cowen (apparently unaware that infants have been breast fed for basically all human history).

Why does one bother?

Let's say 500 people read what I just said with a non-insignificant level of attempted understanding.

I know that 400 will assume that I am just bullshitting, They are all wrong but that is ok, I am happy that they are so sure of themselves. The beginning of wisdom is humility of course but you have to be fairly bright to learn humility, and as such , you usually have to be fairly arrogant, before you understand that humility is the beginning of wisdom. So .....

Of the other 100, 80 or so will vaguely remember that they once heard that statistics is difficult, and will assume , without reading what i said with any real level of respect, that I do not understand the difficulty of statistics, and that I am a poseur. They will feel a frisson of mockery and pass along.

Of the other 20, maybe 5 or so will vaguely recognize the actual argument I was making, and of those 5 maybe 2 or 3 will not immediately stop thinking about what they read a few microseconds after they read all the way to the end.

Out of the one or two who are left, those one or two of the 500 might have, reading what I said, a nostalgic feeling, undefined, and might with a vague feeling of intellectual pride remember specific philosophical developments that existed, in a rudimentary form, in the middle ages, and which were developed - not to perfection, but which were developed - over the centuries, and which were most popular, and expressed with the most accuracy, somewhere around 1874.

There are experts on probability, but you do not know their name.
It is no small thing to love a creature that never had a friend in this world.

and when I said I hate to be simplistic, I meant it.

For example, I thought I was doing fine, explaining things simplistically, and then I said:

There are experts on probability, but you do not know their name.

Which is wrong, I should have said,

but maybe you do not know their name.

All of us are tempted to speak simplistically but the problem is, when you get in that habit, you are easily fooled into saying things that are not just simplistic but that are wrong.

That being said, it is no small thing to be kind to a creature that never had a friend in this world.

That statement will never be wrong.

I made it to the end. I hear u brother

Brevity is the soul of wit.

How come Kansas never seems to do well with anything? Tax cuts. Disaster. Ease of Land Use. Disaster. If they put in a few Ethiopian restaurants to boost their rankings, I'm afraid that might turn into a disaster too.

KC is too small to matter. I've seen this phenomena all over the world. Cleveland the same way (never visited, but flew over it once).

I tried one of the famous KC BBQ joints. Bloody awful, soggy mess of goo and gristle slathered in tangy jar of bullseye.

FWIW. From what I could tell, the zoning stringency was zero.

"[W]e develop measures of restaurant quality based on organically generated data that, while strongly correlated with expert assessments, are more easily calculated at high frequencies and levels of geographic granularity." What? Charleston is known for its high-quality restaurants located in the historic section (locals just call it "downtown"). Anyone familiar with the area knows that historically it has been racially and economically mixed, with the region south of Broad mostly wealthy whites and the area north of Calhoun mostly not wealthy blacks and students (the College of Charleston is located in this region as is the Emmanuel AME Church). The restaurants have been concentrated between these two regions, which was convenient for both the patrons and the workers. Gentrification has upset the balance, with Calhoun no longer the dividing line; indeed, the newer restaurants and expensive new housing are being developed north of Calhoun (now referred to as North King even though King runs north and south). It's too far to walk from south of Broad to North King (one is no longer in Kansas when one reaches North King). WWTNWD (What Will The Not Wealthy Do)? For that matter, what will the restaurants do for workers? When I was a boy the workers, including waiters, in Charleston restaurants were black. These were professional waiters. Today, not so much; they are mostly white college students. A problem with gentrification is sameness, including sameness in restaurants. Will that fate befall Charleston? For now, all those new restaurants provide lots of variety, but I fear the future. White folks have the habit of turning the place they went into the place they left.

".. Monterey Park, and so on. Pasadena has hardly anywhere excellent to eat."

When a place is known to have good restaurants (in this case MP) I think it is hard for a place a short distance away (in this case P) to develop them. A pattern is already established.

(6 or 7 miles, 20 minutes in light traffic)

So to generalize, path dependency matters, again, and might explain why zoning restrictions and nice restaurants develop together. They both happen in the cool places.

Useful illustrative example; I wouldn't be surprised if you even found land use restrictions happened *before* increases in "quality".

That is, demonstrates that even trying to show causality with time priority of the supposed cause can go wrong, and ultimately causality can only really be established by actually *thinking* about a causal mechanism, proposing and demonstrating one.

There are hard limits to mechanism-blind thinking which attempts to leverage causality purely from patterns in Big Data.

(And "quality" in scare quotes because we're really talking "some positive ranking on lists that are oriented to getting rich, early middle aged, mostly White+Asian folk who probably think of restaurants as a hobby to spend their money", not some objective measure of flavour profiles and food qualia computed by some AI trained on some neutral criteria).

The best ethnic restaurants, serving local ethnics, are in poor neighborhoods. It's a signal of quality if there are no white middle class patrons in the restaurant.

On the other hand, if you are trying to show off your wealth, you will find expensive restaurants in expensive neighborhoods.

It's a signal of quality if there are no white middle class patrons in the restaurant.

Aren't you Special?

Totally subjective assessments of quality, and therefore worthless.

been in the restaurant biz at mgt/corporate level for a decade now in various non-chain groups so heres my take for whatever its worth:

availability of sub 3k sf pieces of ‘older’ and relatively affordable real estate where cities have resisted the urge to demolish old buildings


strong local economy (with an assist from the existence of any ‘creative’ hubs such as music, film, design, fashion, etc to provide young and talented labor)

equals the conditions to provide a spark for talented chef/restauranteur(s) to spark a good local dining scene.

econosplain away, folks...

@perry - So if you're right, the hidden factor to analyze is not location, is not zoning restrictions, but the mobility of the chef? When the chef leaves, the restaurant dies?

ray - its cheap, interesting and (crucially) small pieces of real estate, people with money and a creative talent pool. those are the kindling, talented chefs and restauranteurs are the spark. many mid level cities with an interesting dining scene have but a few talent ‘trees’ that feed off of an original group or chef that seeds most good restaurants in that town.

but in regards to your seperate point, when the talented chefs or reatauranteurs leave town or
close up shop it does certainly inpact that entire town’s dining quality.

Just like most gentrification cycles, the cluster of upstart dining ventures seek out locations with affordable rent and cheap labor.

Once the area gets a strong reputation, the rents go up, and the regulations are enhanced to protect the values.

CNTRL + F + "food truck" yields no hits.

How does this model account for the rise and fall (?) in popularity of food trucks during lunch time? And if "good restaurants" are largely fad driven, you'd probably not see much change due to any one or more factors, since popularity is driven not by objective factors like "good taste" but subjective factors like "it's cool" which is by definition independent of any one factor.

Food trucks got regulated out of existence by brick and mortar restaurants. It's hard to get a permit and much of the best sidewalk space is off limits.

Beverly Hills, Santa Monica and Pasadena have many excellent restaurants, but academics can’t afford to eat at them. Suggest you peruse Jonathan Gold’s “101 Best Restaurants” list.

There's at least two kinds of best.

(1) Top-shelf fancy expensive and popular. I am willing to bet the vast majority of these are located in heavily zoned, covenanted, etc. areas with high rents. And as we all know, high rents are almost always correlated with zoning and covenant restrictions.

(2) Out of the way gems. In which the un-zoned nature tends to lend to the authentic" character. These are almost always funky in some way, almost always non-chain, and almost never in strip malls (with certainly some notable exceptions).

Apologizes, but as a long time Los Angeles resident, I have a bone to pick with the assessment of food quality per neighborhood in this post. Santa Monica and Beverly Hills should not be grouped together. Santa Monica actually is underrated in food quality/diversity/price point. Yes, the fine dining is there and there's no good Asian food, but try Tacos Por Favor, Bay Cities, Huckleberry, Cora's Coffee Shop, Ye Old Kings Head (best British breakfast in town), or the original Father's Office. All great for cheap or mid-range price point.

Next, I'm not sure what Tyler means by Northeast Hollywood. Does he mean Thai Town? Los Feliz? Highland? Ought to include K-Town as well -- some of the best food in the city and not even all Korean...

Silverlake does not have good food, save a few spots. Nearby Glendale is superior for the Persian, Armenian, and stretch near the Americana.

Pasadena has at least two good restaurants - Union (for pasta) and Bone Kettle. Tyler not being generous enough there.

Sorry to be persnickety. I don't know about the land use restrictions, but to me, the biggest issue for getting quality restaurants is the wages/rent plus customer base and going out to eat culture (whether wealthy or not). This is why Alhambra and Monterey Park have so much good food, it's not like most of the clientele is super wealthy or features the most inequality in the city. With quality restaurants/food, I would guess there is some type of virtuous cycle that emerges when people go out to eat a lot, the restaurants improve/innovate/compete, and people go out to eat more because of it.

I love ethnic food. I enjoy the best Scottish food at my local McDonald's, not mention the best Mexican at Taco Bell. Also the Italian is exquisite at the Olive Garden, the bread sticks are to die for.

Wow!! How about coastal cities tend to have more variety of ethnic food and land use restrictions have more impact here versus cities that are surrounded by land. it seems little weird to comparing local cities to each other as it is easy for someone in North Orange County (Lots of Immigrants the last 50 years btw) to drive to LA county.

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