The market for your palate

Image:Moneybillscoins3.jpgTyler Cowan, author of Discover Your Inner Economist and a professor of economics at George Mason University, came to DC a little while ago.

The fun thing about Cowan, according to my friend Alok who became riveted by the guy’s speech, is that he applies his normally snored-at field to everyday life, giving an economist’s perspective on falling in love, job searches, and—yes, you knew this was coming!—food.

Cowan’s talk was on part of his book dealing with food and how economics can help you determine the best restaurants. In the Washington environment, where the buzz and the scene at a dining establishment can mean even more than what it serves, I was interested in what Alok had heard.

Here are some of Cowan’s DC-specific observations, as explained by my intrepid imbedded foodie.

Competition:

Competition is good. DC is great for Ethiopian food because there are 40 restaurants or so. Whereas you don’t see any German restaurants and if you do find one, the food is not good.

Celebrity chefs:

Zengo is an example in Chinatown – when it first opened, Cowan went there a few times in the first 6 months and food was great. Problem: the chef owns 6 other restaurants so he moved on to another one and the food quality suffered but Zengo has already established its presence there – people go there now more for drinking than eating. By this standard, Rasika, Indian restaurant in Chinatown is good now but will decline later on so better grab opportunity to eat there.

Scalability:

Cowan says if the restaurant can grow – become bigger then food quality will go down i.e. chain restaurants, etc. He said best places he ate at: Hong Kong Palace in Seven Corners but you cannot find it – you have to look for it even though it’s been there for 40 years and Chinese people go there all the time. I can say the same about Woodlands (Indian) with 3 locations in MD/VA. Thai X-ing on U St and 6th – only one table and one cook. You have to call ahead and make a reservation and tell them what you want. It takes the chef 2 hours to make your dish because he would make Thai paste from scratch rather than use mass-produced goods.” [Editor’s note: inspired by this notion, I went to Thai X-ing and wrote an essay about it. The food is good but the pastes are not made from scratch. Taw uses the same 79-cent cans you can get at most international food stores. I do recommend the cozy atmosphere and report (happily) that it takes much less than 2 hours to get your order].

Consumer demand:

I asked about NYC and DC and [about how] NYC is more risk taking than DC. He agreed and said that it’s the customer base. NYC folks demand the best, thus competition is harder thus food is better. DC has lawyers in one area, interns in another area, etc – no high expectations. Lauriol Plaza is a case of where food is ok but the drinking atmosphere is great – hip young crowd, etc. [Editor’s note: I knew there had to be some explanation for the popularity of this place with mediocre food and few veggie options. But I’m not sure if I call a bunch of people drinking unimaginative margaritas and waiting for little disks to light up so they can go to their tables a great atmosphere]. According to him: Dupont is dying, Adams Morgan is overrated and Georgetown is GT and Capitol Hill has negative food trends. He said great food spots are U St and 5th. Uncorrupted, etc – with no gentrification influence. The best food is in the suburbs because they pay low rent, don’t scale to a larger place and market via word of mouth.

Also:

Pizza is good in NYC not because of the water but because of access to ingredients and customers’ expectations.

The international market:

Best international cities for food: Singapore. He also says Paris, near the Champs-Élysées – food is not good. You have to go to off-the-path places. The same principle applies to NYC where the best food is on the streets, not… on Broadway or 5th Avenue.

More on your new favorite economist:

He has an economics blog ranked #1 (I read him frequently) but also a restaurant review blog where it’s unabashed criticism. He said the Post and Times and City Paper cannot outright condemn restaurants because they depend on ads. If you have to read reviews in a major magazine, go to Washingtonian.

(Alok Doshi works in healthcare consulting.  He has an MBA from the University of Maryland and a BS from the Rochester Institute of Technology.  His passion for understanding economics began when he was in graduate school and saw how information and data could result in best practices.  He has always been a connoisseur of food from his travels of the world so to him, the combination of food and economics was too irresistible to resist.)

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