When it comes to finding, ordering, and eating at ethnic restaurants there’s only one place to look for advice: economist Tyler Cowen’s Ethnic Dining Guide. I’ve mentioned Cowen’s guide before (if only in passing), but it’s time I dedicated a post to this treasure trove of dining advice and, especially, the tips from Cowen’s General Remarks.
From an article in The Washington Post, four strategies for finding good restaurants and ordering well (click through for details):
- For good value, avoid high-rent areas (those will be expensive or chains).
- Look for competition (possibly a sign of a large immigrant population, providing expertise).
- Know how to order ‘strategically’Â from waiters.
- Be aware of the restaurant cycle (from opening, to accolades, to mass production).
Four rules-of-thumb for choosing from the menu (be aware of the exceptions):
- Avoid “ingredients-intensive” dishes, opt for “composition-intensive” instead (i.e. contains sauces or complex ingredient mixes).
- Appetizers are superior to main courses in some cuisines; be willing to have a ‘side-dishes-only’ meal.
- Avoid desserts, especially Asian ones.
- Order for variety, not quantity (order more than you think necessary).
And finally, from a recent article by Cowen in The Atlantic, six rules for dining out:
- In the fanciest restaurants, order what sounds least appetising.
- Beware the beautiful, laughing women (you’re there for food, not the scene/drinks).
- Get out of the city.
- Admit what you don’t know, and search/ask intelligently.
- Exploit restaurant workers (if you see expensive labour, think about what your return isâ€¦ family-run restaurants may offer the best return).
- Prefer Vietnamese to Thai, Pakistani to Indian.
Cowen can be a bit outspoken on the topic of food, so bear in mind this comment:
It all makes perfect sense if you like what Cowen likes, which is interesting food for a reasonable price without much ambiance. Which is not what everyone likes.
Whether that’s what you like or not, you’ll still definitely like Cowen’s book on the subject, An Economist Gets Lunch.
Does bribing your way into a busy restaurant work as well as it seems to in movies? Is it even possible?Â Bruce FeilerÂ decided to find out by visiting some of New York’s most overbooked restaurants with nothing more than a pocketful of money (i.e. no reservations). His results were not quite as expected, finding thatÂ bribing hosts in order to get seated at upscale restaurants is absolutely possible and works more often than you may think.
Feiler’s adventures, detailed in an article forÂ Gourmet, act as a more exhaustive guide than the Chow article on restaurant bribing, but the conclusion is the same: $15–30 per person, passedÂ to the right person, can to get you into most restaurants without a reservation (or help you skip a long waiting list) – but be prepared to get turned away and even occasionally get burned.
What else did Feiler learn from his experiment? Here are his “ten tips on tipping” (read: bribing):
- Go.You’d be surprised what you can get just by showing up.
- Dress appropriately.Â Your chances improve considerably if you look like you belong.
- Don’t feel ashamed.Â They don’t. You shouldn’t.
- Have the money ready.Â Prefolded, in thirds or fourths, with the amount showing.
- Identify the person who’s in charge, even if you have to ask.
- Isolate the person in charge.Â Ask to speak with that person, if necessary.
- Look the person in the eye when you slip him the money.Â Don’t look at the money.
- Be specific about what you want.Â “Do you have a better table?” “Can you speed up my wait?” A good fallback: “This is a really important night for me.”
- Tip the maÃ®tre d’ on the way outÂ if he turned down the money but still gave you a table.
- Ask for the maÃ®tre d’s card as youâ€™re leaving.Â You are now one of his best customers.
Bruce Buschel–author, co-creator of a musical, director and producer–isÂ opening a seafood restaurant in New York. In his Small Business column forÂ The New York Times he offers 100 tips to ‘restaurant staffers’ (waiting staff) on how to behave front of house (that’s the first 50 tips;Â here are the second 50).
I (unexpectedly) found myself agreeing with every item on this list. If only all restaurants were like this.
The series ends with a fitting quote that we can all learn from:
Your most unhappy customers are your greatest source of learning.
Tipping: that most contentious of issues that–depending on your location–can be illegal, required, or the most heinous of etiquette crimes. It’s a complicated business (as the Wikipedia entry indicates by the size of the Tipping by region section), and an odd and occasionally uncomfortable tradition.
As a self-proclaimed ‘socially awkward Briton’ David Mitchell laments the removal of the automatic, fixed service charge at D&D London’s group of restaurants primarily because, as The Browser summarised it, “they minimise embarrassment, and you sometimes get a bargain”.
Mitchell goes one further, of course, wondering why is it only the service we commend and reprimand through tipping?
Tips are embarrassing and stupid â€“ they’re vestigial haggling in a society that has otherwise moved on. If you’re going to a restaurant to be served and eat a meal, why is the price of the delivery open to negotiation but not that of the food itself, the ambience, music, heating or use of the furniture? All of these things can disappoint or delight. It’s illogical to fix the price of one element but not the others.
Ben Casnocha compiles a list of grievances and observations on “restaurants, tips, and bread baskets”. For example:
If I were a restaurant manager I would spend 30 minutes with each of my waiters explaining the research around how to maximize tips from patrons. For example, leaving a mint with the bill or drawing a smiley face on the bill have been shown to increase tip. Research also suggests that the tip amount is only marginally connected with the actual quality of wait service. Bottom line is that many waiters miss out on easy psychological hacks that would increase their tips.
And this; one of the four rules-of-thumb from Tyler Cowen’s recently updated Ethnic Dining Guide (via Kottke):
Avoid dishes that are “ingredients-intensive.” Raw ingredients in America [and likely the UK, too] – vegetables, butter, bread, meats, etc. – are below world standards. Even most underdeveloped countries have better raw ingredients than we do, at least if you have a U.S. income to spend there, and often even if one doesn’t. Ordering the plain steak in Latin America may be a great idea, but it is usually a mistake in Northern Virginia. Opt for dishes with sauces and complex mixes of ingredients. Go for dishes that are “composition-intensive.”