Alberto Mingardi  

Eating out. The wisdom of Tyler Cowen

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The way in which we think and the way we write is greatly influenced by the authors we read. This applies especially to those we read daily: journalists, and now bloggers. When their style is distinctive and vivid, we often pick up uses and words, sometimes inadvertently, and we make them ours.

I was however a bit surprised, the other day, when I did realise that there is an author that influenced the way I dine out. I'm referring to Tyler Cowen, for his wonderful little book "An Economist Gets Lunch." Published a few years ago, I found it a tremendously enjoyable read. It also gives you plenty of tips. In particular, I treasure two of them, and I realised that, perhaps casually, ever since I've read the book my behaviour changed because of those tips.

For one, when you go out "at fancy and expensive restaurants", Tyler suggests you try the oddities. Ask yourself "which of the dishes on the menu sounds the least appetising".

The logic is simple. At a fancy restaurant the menu is well thought out. The time and attention of the kitchen are scarce. An item won't be on the menu unless there is a good reason for its presence. If it sounds bad, it probables rates especially good. (...) In plain language: order the ugly and order the unknown.

This served me well, on a number of occasions, and also stimulated me to be a bit more adventurous at the dinner table.
Another is Tyler's suggestion to ask the waiter "What is best?" before ordering.
I get more nervous when the waiter responds: "All of our menu items are good". Another problem is when you hear: 'Best? That depends on what you like. It's hard for me to say". These responses are signs of cowardly or under-informed waiters, not used to dealing with demanding foodies. The bottom line is that these waiters have never been given firm instructions by a quality boss or chef, or those instructions have been summarily forgotten. It's a bad sign for the whole restaurant.

This served me well too but I noticed that some waiters are rather shy, or indeed do not want to make a commitment. Others will simply point you to the most pricey item on the list. In some very good restaurants (including two of my favourite restaurants, one very posh, the other quite unpretentious), some waiters really idolise the chef--who happens to be the owner of the place, too. So, I've developed my own version: I single out a couple of dishes that I'm looking forward to trying, and ask them which one of them I should have, according to their own preferences (ok, I ask them "What's best between A and B?"). When they're confronted with two options, this is at least my experience so far, waiters who believe in their restaurants tend to become more talkative, and since what they are asked to do is taking side between two options, and not picking up just one out of all what gets out of the kitchen, tend to strongly recommend the one or the other. This too has served me well.


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COMMENTS (5 to date)
Philo writes:

When the waiter recommends A over B, and you order A, then, even if it turns out that you like A, how do you know B wouldn't have been even better? Thus, how do you know your method of questioning has "served you well"?

Michael Stack writes:

@Philo:

Of course you cannot know based on a single experience. But, if after numerous restaurant meals the average meal quality has increased, it is likely due to your new strategy.

jody writes:

On the last question, I prefer to instead ask the waiter what their favorite item on the menu is.

DougT writes:

This is also a good strategy with investments. Rather than pick 30 stocks out of 10,000 listed, it's far better to ask, "Which is better, XOM or CVX?" Binomial choices are far simpler.

Shane L writes:

Only marginally related, but you remind me of the British comedy sketch show Goodness Gracious Me, in which a South Asian family are visiting an "English" restaurant. The sketch is a spoof on the stereotype of white English yobs visiting an Indian restaurant. Where the English may be intimidated by the spicy Indian curry, the Indians in this sketch were nervous about the bland English food! The most macho of them calls for "the blandest thing on the menu!"

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