I think a lot about food. I haven't yet put my food related thoughts down on paper and sometimes the only way to progress in understanding is to lay everything out on paper. This technically isn't on paper either, unless someone decides to print out this page, but it's close enough. I'll start by covering a book that has helped me develop a large part of my framework for how I think about picking out and eating at restaurants. One more caveat before I start. This is not a competent book review. Competent book reviews engage with a book within five years of having actually read the book. This is more of a reflection on a book that I did at one point read and whose concepts have continued to shape my thinking about food over the years.
That book is Tyler Cowen's An Economist Gets Lunch: New Rules for Everyday Foodies. It's one of the few books that I've bought a couple times, as I always end up giving it to a friend or acquaintance (I prefer not to engage in the myth that I'm letting someone borrow a book, that's just a set up for minor friction and disappointment if they forget, damage or lose it). It is a combination of an overview of the economic and social forces that made good food in the United States almost disappear and a framework and advice for finding the best tasting food in general.
The economic history portion is interesting, it delves into the dynamics behind how prohibition killed off the best restaurants & provides an interesting hypothesis as to how the child-centric culture in the era of Baby Boomers oriented our food culture towards fatty, sweet foods and away from more interesting flavorful options.
The history is fun, but more relevant is Tyler's advice for finding good food (Those in the DC area have the option to skip much of the work of applying his framework and access his recommendations directly). He uses a combination of economic and cultural understanding to determine when he is paying for good food and when he might be paying more for the other goods or services bundled with food. Some tips in his own words can be found here.
I will paraphrase the six points from that article:
1. Order what sounds the least appetizing, it is on the menu for a reason. Avoid what sounds safe if it is not the restaurant's specialty, that's just there to mollify people who prefer the familiar.
2. Be suspicious of restaurants that are social scenes, especially if it is not a new restaurant that has an extra incentive to create a reputation for its food quality.
3. Low rent places in suburban strip malls will have more interesting varieties of food. Places with higher overhead will be less able to take risks, and when they do provide good food it will generally have a matching high price. Food trucks share relevant qualities with suburban strip malls.
4. Ask other people for advice, particularly people between the age of 35 and 55 who become excited by the topic of giving advice on where to eat. Searching online for the best particular dish will give better outcomes than searching for general cuisine.
5. Cheap labor leads to good food at low prices, expensive labor & superfluous employees means that the customer is going to be paying for the experience.
6. Food cuisines that Americans are comfortable with will often be biased towards American taste-buds. A Pakistani restaurant will generally be more authentic than your average Indian restaurant. Americans feel more comfortable wandering into an Indian restaurant and the restaurateurs have learned that Boomer-type customers are happier with dishes that are blander and slightly sweeter than is traditional. Thai food is another category that is often targeted at Americans, while Vietnamese food has yet to catch on and is less likely to be overly fried and sweet in an attempt to lure Americans who do not have a preference for interesting food.
Besides these tips the book also explains many of the forces driving where good food is made. It is the demand for high quality food that creates a good supply. The only Chinese restaurant in a very white town might be have a highly capable chef, but if his customers prefer bland, sweet food he will learn to give them what they want. Place this same chef in the middle of a metropolitan Chinatown and it could be well worth a visit to his restaurant. Therefore, if you talk to the chef and express interest in non-Americanized fair, you might be able to convince him to make you a good meal at the mediocre place. And when we hear the common rule of thumb to make sure that people of the same ethnicity as the food are eating in a restaurant we are trying to avoid a dynamic where food is made both more bland and sweeter in an attempt to attract a Boomer-ish type of clientele.
Consumer demand driving restaurant behavior is also the reason why areas with significant tourist traffic will have more questionable restaurants, as the main skill required of restaurants in those areas is to convincing people to drop by just once. This is why it is easier to accidentally find a good restaurant in San Francisco's Sunset and Richmond district than in its more tourist filled Chinatown.
Most of Tyler's advice on food and the parts of his framework that I have internalized, probably including insights which I might not directly remember as coming from said framework, have served me well. But most rules do not work all of the time and his suggestions are suggestions and not laws for a reason. I remember right after reading the particular piece of advice about trying things on the menu that sound disgusting I tried pig blood curd congee in a restaurant attached to a 99 Ranch (essentially a suburban strip mall with a large flow of Asian customers). I was rather disappointed. Although now that I think of it, even that dish was generally pretty good once I took out the pig blood curd. But every so often things that sound disgusting actually are.
One area that was touched on but incomplete is how to find good food using online sources. He recommended avoiding generalizations and using specific searches even if that isn't what we are interested in. His approach does work, searching for "pig blood" in San Francisco on Yelp actually highlights a few restaurants I know to be quite decent. But when we look at the Yelp or Google for reviews and scores the process of interpreting them is not very direct. Most of the US review systems ask users to give only one all encompassing score, so many other factors outside of the food quality are being measured.
For people who are trying to find the good food at reasonable values using these services, there are some basic heuristics outside of looking at the number of stars that will help interpret the results.
Sometimes an almost cheap ethnic restaurant gets dinged for its relative price, not the quality of its feed. If the biggest problem is that it is slightly more expensive than its category suggests it should be, remember your opportunity cost. The $16 ramen, where half the customers are raving about it and the other half are complaining about it for costing too much for ramen, will still be much cheaper than other dinner options. (If this seems particularly high, it should be noted that I live in the San Francisco Bay Area).
By that same token, the places with glowing reviews from people who are amazed at large portion sizes should be treated with a grain of salt.
When a restaurant has a bad score due to people complaining about service and the goal is to find good food, not to impress someone with a flawless evening out, then that restaurant deserves significantly more consideration.
Relatively expensive places, those which fall under the $$$ and $$$$ categories, often have ratings that are biased upwards. Many of the people reviewing them did not have to pay for the restaurant, and even those who did often forget that the baseline experience for these restaurants should be good food and great service. They do not adjust their baseline expectations higher. Many of these places actually have great food worth trying out, but don't trust the average score. Some of the most mediocre meals out have occured because I was being hosted by someone who fully relied on the heuristic of "If I spend enough money and go to a place that is popular I won't get a bad result."
Ratings are also biased upwards when the owner replies to every or almost every review, positive or negative. Real negative reviews are scared away by the prospect of having a real person react to public criticism. Be wary of these places, not only are they skewing what might otherwise be a useful indicator, they may be more concerned with perception than reality.
And just to make sure that the absolute basics are covered, learning about the specialty of the place is important. There are many places with large menus where it is a mistake to pick anything but a couple items. Also in the obvious column is looking at the most recent reviews for signs of deterioration in food ratings or ownership changes. And if you know the cuisine well then the pictures might be the most helpful content.
There are other concepts beyond analyzing reviews that are quite helpful.
Many times the health inspection score will be easily available when looking up options online. For those who like to travel, remember that a mediocre health inspection score in the United States would be a great health inspection score in a developing country. Unless you know of people getting sick at the restaurant don't be as put off by a mediocre health inspection score as your instincts tell you to be.
While traveling, it is useful to understand which countries do another's cuisine well and which ones don't. Getting Kebab is Germany is a no-brainer, but in Korea it may be mediocre. Thai food in Vietnam is much better than sushi or Korean. (My perception of bad Korean might be due to trauma, one restaurant put ketchup in a bottle that was supposed to contain chili paste for the bibimbap.) US style Mexican food doesn't seem to travel well past the states that are touching Mexico's border. In Japan, some cuisines can be reproduced even better than in their home country, at other places there will inexplicably be mayonnaise on everything. But the general rules still apply, a local population with high standards which will eat at whatever restaurant makes the highest quality version of the food they want is needed for quality food. The more metropolitan an area, there more likely there will be a significant population of people with standards for the cuisine you want. So it's more likely you will be able to find a good meal of most cuisines in major metropolitan areas. But if you took a multi-hour bus or train ride to get your location then sticking with the local cuisine will be your best bet.
Another important concept is time arbitrage, doing things when others aren't. The basic time arbitrage related to eating out is going out for lunch rather than dinner. If you are able to visit a good place during lunch hours the time arbitrage allows for obtaining good food at much cheaper prices. Some Korean places have such a significant price difference that even though they slightly increase the portion size it feels like a ripoff to visit them for dinner. The exception to this rule of thumb would be the places that are designed to make most of their revenue from lunch, like the nicer sitdown lunch places in a downtown area which might not even be open for dinner.
Time arbitrage extends beyond just getting lunch, some places impose higher costs on customers by making them wait in lines. These lines act as advertisements to the restaurant, and if people are willing to wait for a restaurant that isn't a social scene of one sort or another then that is generally a good sign (Remember that urban brunch places are all social scenes). If you have the flexibility, going out for early or late dinner on a weekday, as long as you are also avoiding traffic, would be the best way to experience these restaurants.
By this same token, the place that is open 24 hours or until 4am when other places close earlier will often be serving worse food at a higher price. I have found this to be very true with most Korean places within San Francisco. But there are also definite exceptions to this rule, there are a few 24 hour burrito places in San Diego that you should visit regardless of the time.
The only place where it seems that Tyler's take was wrong, at least as I remember it, was on sushi. In Tyler's estimation, the only way to be certain of getting a better meal was to spend more money, as this would be more directly correlated with high quality fresh fish and perhaps the skill of the chef. Part of the reason this is wrong is that some expensive places have built up brand names as the place to go for business dinners and these have dropped in quality significantly. And sometimes there are restaurants which are far less expensive than the ultra-expensive places who are ordering similar quality fish from the same wholesalers. Figuring out which sushi places are ordering from these wholesalers and which ones are ordering from the same places providing the selection at your local Japanese supermarket can help a discerning eater determine where to find really good sushi at reasonable prices (Note: The prices may still be unreasonable compared to other cuisines).
The restaurant scene is an inefficient marketplace. If you want good food there are plenty of ways to get better food at a better price than what most others are getting. But if what you want is close to a completely normal social dining experience then the inefficiencies get smaller. You will be choosing to also pay for the atmosphere, the service, the view, etc. The best you can do is use these techniques to make sure the food is also good. When it comes to finding good food at reasonable costs, it helps to be a little weird.
That's it for Part 1. Eventually there will be a Part 2, where I will introduce a framework focusing on addressing the tradeoffs that often occur between matters of taste and matters of health.