Marginal Revolution is one of my favorite blogs. Together Tyler Cowen and Alex Taborrak provide a good mix of relevant information, insightful commentary and enjoyable yet somehow relevant nonsense. I also really like learning about how to eat better food. So when An Economist Gets Lunch by Tyler Cowen was announced I immediately pre-ordered it. Leading up to the publication, I read most of the reviews of the book that Tyler Cowen linked from his blog. He also linked to many articles and interviews he did in order to promote the book and I excitedly read them. This led to an interesting situation, as by the time I got the book I had already read over half of the material in it. The idea that you should eat where the scene is not specializing in attracting beautiful women who attract other patrons regardless of the quality of the food or that Pakistani (Vietnamese) food will be better than Indian (Thai) food because the typical Indian (Chinese/Thai) restaurant caters to the less demanding average American was something I'd read a few times before I finally got to that chapter in the book.
It was helpful to read the material within the framework that Tyler Cowen decided to present it, and it is certainly one of the few books which isn't just bread slices of a theory around meat of interesting but generally useless anecdotes
. If anything, Tyler Cowen's book would be one of the few books where the bread slices are the less interesting part, since it basically says "economic institutions and incentives matter when it comes to finding good food" and the interesting part is learning how they have mattered throughout history and how that can be applied to finding really good food today.
Other than having read the interesting parts of the book before the book came out, there was another problem, Tyler was basically ignoring how most people who care about food find good places: Yelp or other online review sites. He did address using guidebooks in foreign countries, and how the places near the restaurant recommended by the guidebook will be better than the restaurant specifically recommended or how asking a middle aged cab driver who gets excited at the mention of food will lead to better results than going with the place everyone "knows" is good. Maybe he doesn't use a smart phone to check the reviews of places on yelp before he goes inside because he enjoys being able to apply his unique heuristics to find a good food place almost as much as he enjoys the good food.
But for fans of good food with disposable income living in a major metropolitan area, here is some advice on how to use Yelp (though the advice is generalizable to other sites). It isn't as simple as using the score. The score is a good starting point, but it frequently needs to be modified.
4.5 to 5 Star places
These places will have three potential problems. They are too crowded, too cheap or too expensive.
1. Being too crowded could mean that the place is more of a scene that people like than a good food place, but generally the main downside is the trouble it takes to get into the restaurant when it is too popular. If it has been too popular for long then the food quality may have also started to degrade faster than the place's score.
2. The problem of being too cheap doesn't sound like a problem, but sometimes people will rate a place highly if it provides a lot of food even if the quality isn't high.
3. When restaurants get to be quite expensive then the food is going to be good, but ratings such as Zagat will give more nuanced reviews. Many of the people writing the reviews were not the ones paying the bill and do not visit restaurants of this expected caliber often enough to be a good judge of whether or not it is really worth the money compared to other places in its class.
3.5 to 4 stars places
For this group, we need to find evidence that the lower score is not about the food. A high skew in scores with lots of 4's and 5's and a few 1's and 2's is better than the scores being clustered around 3 and 4 stars. This is especially true if the low scores complain about service, price or portions. A good sign is when the main complaint is that reviewers think that the place is too expensive for its type of food. This means that the place would be a crowded 4.5 to 5 star place but decided to raise prices in response to demand.
3.0 stars and below
Good luck! You might want to read the section in an Economist Gets Lunch where Tyler talks about how he can often convince chefs to make him something special. Or you can google around and find it in a review somewhere. (Hint for those unwilling to take either of those steps: It involves signaling that you are a knowledgeable and discerning customer)
The alternative way to use reviews is to find a few critics, amateur or professional, whose taste you've confirmed that you agree with and follow the advice of their reviews. But the above method works well when a trusted reviewer has not looked at the restaurant being considered or has not updated their view for some time.
My only other quibble was with the heuristics Tyler used for finding good sushi. The advice was mostly "You'll get what you pay for." And while at the really high end this might be true, there is a lot to negotiate in the middle range. Places that offer sake bombs will have bad sushi and high prices (this relates to his "don't look for good food at places with lots of beautiful women and people having fun" thesis). Places with more creative rolls on offer generally have lower quality fish and are trying to mask the low quality with lots of sauces and often by frying the fish. And unlike his advice to head for the suburbs for good ethnic food, good sushi is more often found in cities with both more competition and more demanding customers (Customers will become more demanding if they've had good sushi at other places in the city). He also leaves out the best way to get affordable pretty high quality sushi which is to buy fresh sashimi at a Japanese supermarket then take it home and cut it yourself.
Overall the book was very interesting. Over the past few years I applied his advice on food from an early book to order the least attractive sounding thing on the menu at a good restaurant because it is there for a reason and have benefited enormously from it. Going forward I'm sure that what I've learned from this book (or the reviews and interviews promoting this book) will lead to a lot of improved meals. I've already switched the marginal Thai meal to a Vietnamese one and have been better off for it.