How a frugal economist finds the perfect lunch
A bad or mediocre meal is more than just an unpleasant taste, it is an unnecessary negation of one of life’s pleasures—a wasted chance to refine our palates, learn about the world, and share a rewarding experience. Virtually every locale offers some good meals at a good price. But too often, amidst the clutter of our days, we don’t find them—at least not consistently.
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.
Video: The author discovers an exceptional Vietnamese restaurant in a suburban strip mall near Washington, D.C.
At fancy and expensive restaurants (say, $50 and up for a dinner), you can follow a simple procedure to choose the best meal. 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.
Many popular-sounding items, on the other hand, can be slightly below the menu’s average quality. For instance, you should be careful not to get too enthusiastic about roast chicken, especially if you are in a restaurant that, like virtually all restaurants, does not specialize in roast chicken. Roast chicken is an exceedingly familiar dish, and many people will order it to experience the familiar. Consider the incentive this provides the chef. And consider that a few items may be on the menu specifically because they are generally in demand, not because the chef cooks them with special brilliance.
So order the ugly and order the unknown. You’ll probably get a better and more interesting meal.
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. Don’t get me wrong. Having fun is a fine ambition, but it’s not the same thing as eating good food. 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. The menu will feature some kind of overpriced fusion cuisine, sponsored by a famous or semi-famous chef who is usually absent. There are worse places to eat, but if I’m spending my own money, I’ll usually give these a pass.
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 also start to worry if many women in a restaurant are beautiful in a trendy or stylish way. The point is not that beautiful women have bad taste in food. Instead, the problem is that they will attract a lot of men to the restaurant, whether or not the place serves excellent food. And that allows the restaurant to cut back on the quality of the food.
When Richard Sandoval’s Zengo opened in Washington, D.C., in 2005, it was a special place. It offered excellent Latin-Asian fusion food, including sashimi, crisp empanadas, and charred-tuna wonton tacos. The decor was cool and the place had a cosmopolitan vibe. It was in a newly revitalized part of the city, right next to a major sports arena. I said to my wife: “If you like this place, we need to go often, starting now. Soon it will be ruined.” Circa 2012, Zengo is still around, and it is okay. But the food’s quality no longer matches its price tag, and the most innovative dishes no longer taste so fresh. The proprietor, Sandoval, spends his time at other ventures, and the place can coast on its bar scene, replete with beautiful and stylish people. This review on Zagat.com says it all:
One of my favorite places in DC—awesome lounge, great decor, and food is delicious.
At least they got the order straight and put the food last.
When you enter a restaurant, you don’t want to see expressions of disgust on the diners’ faces, but you do want to see a certain seriousness of purpose. Pull out a mirror and try eating some really good food. How much are you smiling? Not as much as you might think. A small aside: in many restaurants, it is a propitious omen when the diners are screaming at each other. It’s a sign they are regular customers and feel at home. Many Chinese restaurants are full of screaming Chinese patrons. Don’t ask me if they’re fighting, I have no idea—but it is a sign that I want to be there too.
If a restaurant cannot cover its rent, it is not long for this world. According to a 2005 study, more than half of all restaurants close in the first three years of operation, so this is not a small problem. 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 and no matter what ingredients you are serving.
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. As a result, a strip-mall restaurant is more likely to try daring ideas than is a restaurant in, say, a large shopping mall. The people with the best, most creative, most innovative cooking ideas are not always the people with the most money. Many of them end up in dumpier locales, where they gradually improve real-estate values.
A lot of awesome food can be found, of course, in high-rent districts, but it tends to come at awesomely high prices as well. Urban rents (on average) have been rising over the past few decades. Even the financial crisis has not overturned this longer-term trend. Growing tourism, falling rates of violent crime, and the general growth of commercial activity have all contributed to this phenomenon: the expensive places are costing more and more. As a result, the ethnic restaurants found in the middle of high-rent cities are becoming more upscale. The cheap, experimental ethnic restaurants are moving to the peripheries of major cities. (Just as high rents push out quirky food, so do they push out quirky culture, including clubbing scenes and offbeat art galleries.) Whether or not you like that development, it’s one you have to understand and, to some extent, work around.
I love exploring the suburbs for first-rate ethnic food. Many people consider suburbs a cultural wasteland, but I am very happy searching for food in Orange County, California; the area near San Jose; Northern Virginia, near D.C.; Somerville, Massachusetts; and so on. I don’t always pre-Google to find the best place, and I don’t keep tapping on my iPhone. I drive around and keep my eyes open for dining establishments likely to follow the economic rules for good, innovative, and affordable food.
The larger the number of restaurants serving the same ethnic cuisine in a given area, the more likely the food they serve will be good. Why? Restaurants that are competing most directly against each other can’t rest on their laurels. They are also typically appealing to an informed customer base. And finally, they can participate in a well-developed supply chain for key ingredients. In other words, a town that has only a single Indian restaurant probably does not have a very good Indian restaurant. In Houston, looking for clusters of similar restaurants will lead you to Mexican and Vietnamese food; in parts of Michigan, it will lead you to Arabic cuisine. Competition works.
It is especially common to see good ethnic restaurants grouped with mid-level or junky retail outlets. When it comes to a restaurant run by immigrants, look around at the street scene. Do you see something ugly? Poor construction? Broken plastic signage? A five-and-dime store? Maybe an abandoned car? If so, crack a quiet smile, walk through the door, and order. Welcome to the glamorous world of good food.
Corollary: The food truck is your friend.
The ultimate low-rent venue is the food truck. The wide presence of food trucks in New York City, Austin, and Portland, Oregon, has greatly improved the food in those cities. No longer is street food a bad pretzel or fatty hot dog; food trucks offer diners authentic Mexican tacos, homemade sausages, dim sum, Vietnamese bánh mi (sandwiches), and hundreds of other delicacies. One of the most famous food trucks, Kogi, in Los Angeles (@kogibbq on Twitter, if you want to track it), specializes in Korean-Latin fusion food, such as its Kogi Kimchi Quesadilla, which mixes spicy, garlicky Korean cabbage with cheese in a flour tortilla.
If we want to improve American food, and make it much cheaper, we should deregulate the food trucks and the other street vendors, provided they meet certain sanitation standards. Many cities have already moved down this path, and people are not keeling over with salmonella. The next food revolution in the United States is likely to be a mobile one, and it will be advertised on Google and Twitter, not through more traditional (and expensive) ads or commercials. That’s how the low-rent food of the future is going to work.
Side tip: When in Manhattan, choose restaurants on the streets over those on the avenues.
Manhattan’s avenues tend to have higher rents than its streets. Given the long, thin shape of the island, the north-south avenues carry more vehicular and foot traffic. A Fifth Avenue spot will be seen by most city residents and many visitors at some point or another. A storefront on 39th Street will be seen more exclusively by neighborhood locals and people who work in the area. If you are stuck in Midtown, and you want good, cheap ethnic food, try the streets before the avenues. Opt for narrow passageways rather than broad ones. That neat Korean place can make ends meet on 35th, but it would not survive on Fifth Avenue. No matter where you are, turning just a bit off the main drag can yield a better meal for your money.
Even if you’ve memorized all the restaurant guides and recipe books you own, much about food remains a mystery. 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.
If you need to ask where to eat, start by finding people who themselves love good food and take pride in it. Ask people between 35 and 55 years old for a tip, because they are especially likely to be eating out frequently at good places, and to have a lot of experience with good food. Look for someone who is prosperous or middle class but not necessarily very rich. Ask people who are geographically mobile in their professions and thus accustomed to eating out and collecting information about food. Ask a firefighter for a good, cheap local place; drive to the fire station if you have to. Ask a cabdriver. I have found that regional textbook salespeople—who are traveling and dining out all the time—are a good source of food information. If you ask people for a food tip, and their eyes don’t light up with excitement, ignore them.
If you’re asking Google, put a “smart” word into your search query. Best restaurants Washington will yield too much information, and will serve up a lot of bad restaurants, too. That’s a lowest-common-denominator search query. Google something more specific instead, like best Indian restaurants Washington, even if you don’t want Indian food. You’ll get to more reliable, more finely grained, and better-informed sources about food, and you can then peruse those sources for their non-Indian recommendations. Google Washington best cauliflower dish, even if you don’t want cauliflower. Get away from Google-for-the-masses.
Quality food is cheaper when cheap labor is available to cook it. In a relatively wealthy country like the United States, cheap labor can be hard to find. We have a high level of labor productivity and a minimum wage; in some cases even illegal immigrants earn more than the legal minimum. But one obvious place to find cheap labor is in family-owned, family-run Asian restaurants. Family members will work in the kitchen or as waiters for relatively little pay, or sometimes no pay at all. Sometimes they’re expected to do the work as part of their contribution to the family. The upshot is that these restaurants tend to offer good food buys.
The polar-opposite case is when you see a restaurant replete with expensive labor. There’s a valet-parking attendant, a host to greet you, a person to take your coat, a sommelier, a floor manager, a team of waiters, and so on. If you go, for instance, to the Palm, a fancy steak-house chain, you’ll see a lot of people at work. Everyone is scurrying around, and you have the feeling that management puts a lot of time and effort into coordinating the large staff. The restaurant attracts a lot of celebrities and politicians. I’ve enjoyed the three meals I’ve had at the Palm, but I worry about what I’m paying for. I like quality service, but only when I am steered toward better items on the menu or when I reap some other concrete benefit rather than just feeling fancy. I’m not sure what I am getting from the service at the Palm. I already understand the menu (steak, lobster, and so on); it seems to me that the staff members are there mostly to make the customers feel important. When I visit the Palm, I immediately think of cigars, not dinner.
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.
One problem is that many Thai people have such a wonderful service ethic. I don’t think I have ever once been treated poorly in a Thai restaurant. That has made courting wide audiences relatively easy. Thai food also looks healthy and has beautiful colors—all those greens, reds, yellows, and oranges.
As a result, Thai food has become cool. I first saw this trend in California, in the 1980s, when young people in black started turning up in large numbers at Thai restaurants in Hollywood. It spread. Americans eating in a Thai restaurant are likely more hip than those eating in a Chinese restaurant. Yet hip people do not always have superb taste in food.
As Thai restaurants have become more popular, they have become unreliable. It is so easy to make the food too sweet, appealing to lowest-common-denominator tastes or masking deficiencies in the food’s preparation. The best sweet Thai dishes mix sweet with tart, but there’s been too much abuse on the sweet side and not enough use of fish sauce or fermented shrimp paste or ground white pepper. The most-reliable indicators of bad Thai restaurants are a large bar and sushi on the menu. Those are both signs that the restaurant isn’t that serious about food. Stay away.
Unlike Thai food, Vietnamese food hasn’t become extremely popular in the United States. A large number of Vietnamese restaurants operate in this country, but these are patronized mostly by Vietnamese. The cuisine’s failure to take off is interesting, because Vietnamese food rarely offends the American palate. It even has a notable French influence. You would think it could do better commercially, even if that might mean quality declines.
Vietnamese food has probably been saved from the mass market because most people never master the sauces and condiments that must be added to the food, at the table, for its glories to become apparent. It’s too much trouble, and a lot of people don’t like asking for help, especially if the interaction involves some linguistic awkwardness. (In my experience, it’s not uncommon for Vietnamese servers to speak poor English, so they may come across as confused or indifferent.) To outsiders, Vietnamese restaurants can feel like exclusive clubs for Vietnamese people, and that can be off-putting.
To everyday foodies in America, I say: eat more Vietnamese food! It’s rarely too weird, never expensive, and usually pretty healthy, because it relies less on oils and deep-frying than does a lot of Chinese food. Again, the key is to use the sauces and condiments placed on the table in front of you. You don’t have to know what they are; a lot of them are difficult to tell apart without close scrutiny. Just ask for directions. If the wait staff can’t speak English well, they will show you. Simply pull the table’s sauces and condiments in front of you, point to them, and look puzzled. It’s okay.
Exception: Eat at Thai restaurants attached to motels.
Most people don’t think of Thai restaurants as attachments to motels. But you’ll find them, in locales as scattered as Santa Rosa, California, and Edmonton, Alberta. And when you do, you should eat at them. For one thing, if the restaurant is attached to the motel, its proprietors are likely not paying extra rent for the space. A Thai family may already own the motel, and may be operating this business on the side, in which case the owners won’t have to cover high rents by appealing to large numbers of customers or by cutting corners. Odds are you’ll get fairly authentic Thai food at low prices.
What’s more, by most normal standards, it doesn’t actually make a lot of sense to combine a Thai restaurant and a motel. But that’s the whole point. It’s not like combining a gas station and a car wash, or a coffee bar and a bookstore. People who stay in motels, as far as I know, are not especially likely to eat Thai food. The common element between the Thai-owned motel and the Thai restaurant is most likely a hard-working, ambitious Thai family, with one or two wonderful cooks.
Corollary: Prefer Pakistani to Indian.
On average, Pakistani food in the United States is better than Indian food in the United States, and yet a lot of the core dishes do not greatly differ. Northwestern-Indian cuisine is predominant in the U.S., so you find substantial overlap on most Indian and Pakistani menus.
So why does the Pakistani food turn out better? I think it has to do with cultural associations. When Americans hear Pakistan, many of them think of bin Laden, drone attacks, terrorism, Daniel Pearl, and the sale of nuclear secrets. When Americans hear India, they likely think of Gandhi, or brightly colored Bollywood movies with lots of happy dancing. Whether or not these portraits are fair or representative doesn’t matter. Common images of Pakistan nudge away uncommitted customers. Many Pakistani restaurants also serve no alcohol, limiting their American audience and making them turn more to Pakistani customers. That’s another plus.
So you should go more to Pakistani restaurants than to Indian restaurants. Often, as you search out a good meal, the quality of the customers matters more than the quality of the chef. I doubt that Indian chefs are less talented than their Pakistani counterparts, but they are typically more constrained in what they can produce. The blandness of Indian restaurants, like that of Thai restaurants, is a direct result of their ability to market the food to a mass audience.
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.