Six Rules for Dining Out
Economist proposes some rules of choosing restaurants; useful tips for our Industry
Having just published a books on an economist dining out, George Mason University professor Tyler Cowen now distills this further for Atlantic Magazine. He notes early on his reasons for putting these views together
I’ve been an economist for some 30 years, and a foodie for nearly as long. In this time, I’ve learned that by applying some basic economics to my food choices, I can make nearly every meal count. I’ve also realized that a lot of the best food is cheap. Herewith, a distillation of what I’ve learned about dining out, in six simple rules.
Now these rules have been created for diners looking for genuinely great food created by dedicated chefs wanting to provide a memorable experience to diners. This isn't for fast-foodies wanting a cheap and quick fix. A number of his suggestions are counter-intuitive, but one common thread is that they all steer clear of popular and expensive pitfalls. So if you have ambitions to be great and attract an interesting loyal following of appreciative diners and a great name, maybe seek guidance from this economicst.
1. In the Fanciest Restaurants, Order What Sounds Least Appetizing
Look at the menu and ask yourself: Which of these items do I least want to order? Or: Which one sounds the least appetizing? Then order that item. The logic is simple. At a fancy restaurant, the menu is well thought-out. The kitchen’s time and attention are scarce. An item won’t be on the menu unless there is a good reason for its presence. If it sounds bad, it probably tastes especially good.
Finally a person that appreciates all the time and effort we put into some interesting choices of cuts. And I agree with Prof. Cowen, restauranteurs are forced to put a chicken or a fish dish on the menu to ensure that bland diners are catered for, but no one forces an offal dish or a rabbit dish onto the menu and so it must be there because the chef believes its divine. So take these two suggestions to your menu- have a couple of boring suggestions for the unadventurous, but also show a little flair too.
2. Beware the Beautiful, Laughing Women
When I’m out looking for food, and I come across a restaurant where the patrons are laughing and smiling and appear very sociable, I become wary. Many restaurants, especially in downtown urban areas, fill seats—and charge high prices—by creating social scenes for drinking, dating, and carousing. They’re not using the food to draw in their customers. The food in most of these places is “not bad,” because the restaurant needs to maintain a trendy image. If you are going to visit such restaurants, go during their first few months of operation. The famous chef, or some competent delegate, will be on hand early in the history of the restaurant to make sure it gets good reviews from sophisticated food critics and smart food bloggers; because the chef is famous, these reviews will appear quickly. Then everyone will want to go there, and the place will become a major social scene. The laughing and the smiling will set in. Beware! That’s when you need to stop going.
I was surprized by this rule, but after re-reading it I can quite agree, that for the most part great food comes from a great chef, and too many chain restaurants have competent staff creating competent dishes but they rarely attract great chefs other than the name over the door who is rarely there, and who rarely has the ability to ensure the quality of the dining experience. But creating a happening environment thats probably easier. And really if there's so much niose then there isn't that much serious enjoyment of the food (unless is a local Chinese dim-sum on a weekend lunchtime).Avoiding the hype is a rule that applies to both the cuisine as much as it does to locations.
3. Get Out of the City and Into the Strip Mall
If a restaurant cannot cover its rent, it is not long for this world. You can lay off kitchen staff when times get tough, or substitute the cheaper tilapia for the fancier and scarcer Chilean sea bass. But rent is a fixed cost, meaning that you have to pay it every month no matter how many customers walk through the door. Low-rent restaurants can experiment at relatively low risk. If a food idea does not work out, the proprietor is not left with an expensive lease. And if youre dining in the city choose t din on the small side roads not the main ones.
I'm glad of this rule as there is a tendency for this to be true, central city locations are not the areas to experiment, you have to have a cuisine and a menu that can guarantee success, and so if you are wanting to experiment then take up a suburban venue, seek lower rent enabling you to experiment in ingredients and with staff knowing you have a lower rent to make.
4. Admit What You Don’t Know
Recognize when other people know better, and do not be afraid to ask which course of action is best. But ask in a smart way. When you’re looking for a good meal, some knowledge of social science is often more useful than food knowledge.
This was not an easy rule to understand, but interesting to note the implications for restauranteurs. Prof. Cown suggests that if you are searching for a restaurant then ask those likley to know good food, and who get to dine out quite often- so middle aged diners, those who travel and who have the time or inclination to try new and different places. All to often food blogs and reviews are done by younger diners who have little experience and who can't afford to go to too many places, and so their reviews are likley to be gushing or overly critical without the balance experience brings to reveiws. It also provides great advice for otimizing word search. No use optimizing your google search on great restaurants, too many names willcoemup and few are bound to be good. He suggest narrowing donw the search to great indian restaurants in a city, but even better great cauliflower dishes, by selecting soemthing specific a smaller number of restaurants appear and all likley to be renown for something great.
5. Exploit Restaurant Workers
This rule is less useful for our Sout East asian focus, but in the SU go to where the labour is cheap, where there are migrant workers who work for lower wages to support new good chefs, but who also demand low cost good food as well. His alternate case is also true- where you see lots of expensive labour, a greeter, lots of bar staff and wait staff- worry about what you are paying for it probably isn't great ingredients or a fantastic chef. So as a F&B professional to attract savvy diners put your cash where the diners gets the benefit- great ingredients, a well thought out menu, sufficient well trained staff to provide a guide to diners.
6 Prefer Vietnamese to Thai
Thai food in the United States is becoming bad. It’s getting sweeter—with excessive use of refined sugar—and the other flavors are growing weaker and less reliable. In absolute numbers, more excellent Thai restaurants exist than ever before, but I wouldn’t want to vouch for the average quality of Thai food in America these days. As Thai restaurants have become more popular, they have become unreliable.
The rule here is avoid popular cuisines, as the tendency is for popular cuisine to bcome popular and bland. To tell diners you are expert, don't go for the expected. Do soemthing different. Don't advertise yourself as a Thai Restaurant- become an expert in Chang Mai specialities. Don't be Indian- become Goan, or Bangaladeshi. Be more specific about your niche to attract interested diners who appreciate great food, and sure have an occasional entry level dish for the less experience. But if you stay in the mainstream you will have to serve mainstream consumers looking for relatively bland experiences.
After this good advice here's Cowen's last word to diners.
THESE ARE JUST a few rules, and of course they aren’t comprehensive, but they illustrate a way of thinking. Food is a product of supply and demand. Whenever you’re searching for restaurants, try to figure out where the supplies are fresh, the suppliers are creative, and the demanders are informed. That’s the precept underlying all these rules. Follow it, and I guarantee you’ll find better food and better value when you eat out.