Cheap Eats: Surprising Advice on Dining Out — From An Economist

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Tyler Cowen is an economist who teaches at George Mason University. He has written economics columns for the New York Times, published what the Economist called “the most talked-about economics book of the year” in 2011, and was praised recently by Foreign Policy as one of the world’s “Top 100 Global Thinkers.” The man is obviously quite knowledgeable—when it comes to economics. So what’s he doing giving recommendations for what to eat in the local strip mall?
Food, Cowen would argue, is, in fact, always a matter of economics. We all need food. We make food decisions every day, and every one of these decisions has a monetary connotation, so there’s an economic angle to everything and everywhere we eat.

Cowen’s new book, An Economist Gets Lunch: New Rules for Everyday Foodies, is filled with advice on food, and if there’s one overarching theme, it’s that “foodie” should not equate to “snobby.”

Part of the book is excerpted in the May issue of Atlantic Monthly, in a story called “Six Rules for Dining Out.” One of the most curious rules is that when it comes to getting the best value for the dining dollar, foodies should pass on nearly every restaurant located in hip urban neighborhoods. Instead, Cowen recommends heading to restaurants that share parking lots with dollar stores, supermarkets, and liquor stores. What we’re talking about is the scintillating dining destination known as the suburban strip mall.

Cue: record scratch sound.

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Cowen’s reasoning is that, compared to restaurants in high-rent districts, strip mall eateries have low overhead, so they can keep menu prices down and experiment with foods and ingredients without constantly having to worry it won’t be able to pay the bills:

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.

Hip, high-rent urban neighborhoods tend to attract well-established, upscale restaurants, because only these restaurants can afford the rent. The suburbs and peripheries of cities are where immigrants tend to live—and, not so coincidentally, also where they work and eat. Cowen looks especially for areas where a particular ethnic cuisine dominates the scene. When an area is loaded with a huge selection of, say, Indian or Korean restaurants, the odds are pretty good that any individual restaurant’s food is above average, if not excellent. After all, there is plenty of local competition, and their immigrant clientele is informed and unlikely to be swayed by gimmicks or silly trends. If a restaurant was poor or mediocre, it’d quickly be run out of business.

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When hunting for restaurants, Cowen targets ethnic areas with just the right “atmosphere.” When the goal is a magic combination of terrific food at the right price, the signs he looks for are abandoned cars, cheap plastic signs, and five-and-dime stores in the neighborhood. Hey, he’s not saying this is the right atmosphere for a first date, just for good food.

On the other hand, Cowen tends to stay away from restaurants that boast of what most diners would categorize as a good, friendly and fun atmosphere. Specifically, he advises foodies to avoid spots filled with “beautiful, laughing women.” Why? He’s playing the odds that because the place is popular and trendy, the focus is on “the scene” rather than the food, which is all but guaranteed to be overpriced:

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.

Another of Cowen’s unexpected, contrarian insights is highlighted in a USA Today review of his book:

Agribusiness, Cowen says, has made good food ingredients available, along with the drawbacks it has spawned. He uses this analogy: “The printing press brought us both good and bad novels, but was a cultural boon nonetheless.”

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Contrary to what some foodies assume, Cowen’s take is that businesses that mass-produce food are not necessarily evil, nor is the food they produce necessarily unhealthy. “There’s nothing especially virtuous about the local farmer,” writes Cowen, and by contrast, “technology and business are a big part of what makes the world gentle and fun.” Overall, he explains, advances in agribusiness have been good for everyone, bringing food prices down and feeding more people than ever in human history.

Brad Tuttle is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @bradrtuttle. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.