Wednesday, 13 June 2018

Being Smart When Dining Out

I’ve been reading Tyler Cowen’s book on food - dubbed ‘New Rules for Everyday Foodies’ - which contains a few pearls of wisdom on dining out that I thought worth sharing.

1) At fancy and expensive restaurants (say, $50 and up for a dinner), you can follow a simple procedure to choose the best meal. Look at the menu and ask yourself: Which of these items do I least want to order? Or: Which one sounds the least appetizing? Then order that item. The logic is simple. At a fancy restaurant, the menu is well thought-out. The kitchen’s time and attention are scarce. An item won’t be on the menu unless there is a good reason for its presence. If it sounds bad, it probably tastes especially good. So order the ugly and order the unknown. You’ll probably get a better and more interesting meal.

While it’s not a watertight system, I like the idea of keeping it in mind as a possibility, as it has proved fruitful for me in the past. On the other hand, be wary of something Tyler Cowen neglects to mention. Some of the more attractive sounding dishes on the menu will be included for perceived consumer popularity - not for their high quality but for their high demand from less discerning customers. Chicken dishes often tend to be contained in this set.

2) When you enter a restaurant, you don’t want to see expressions of disgust on the diners’ faces, but you do want to see a certain seriousness of purpose. Pull out a mirror and try eating some really good food. How much are you smiling? Not as much as you might think.

Yes, indeed. Restaurants where there is lots of fun and laughter can be great places for a night out. But don’t necessarily be put off by a restaurant in which the patrons are eating quietly and not communicating much - it can often be a sign that the food is glorious. The average person, when devouring a gorgeous meal, probably focuses quite prominently on the food, and is less loquacious because of it.  

3) The larger the number of restaurants serving the same ethnic cuisine in a given area, the more likely the food they serve will be good. Why? Restaurants that are competing most directly against each other can’t rest on their laurels. They are also typically appealing to an informed customer base. And finally, they can participate in a well-developed supply chain for key ingredients.

True, restaurants in highly competitive areas are much more likely to keep up the high standards of cuisine that will keep the customers coming in. And as a corollary, sometimes you need to be wary of small towns with only one Chinese or Indian or French restaurant. If competition is sparse, sometimes standards will slip.

In addition
Now, as Tyler’s book is a heavily centred on American dining, it probably won’t surprise you lovely readers to learn that I’ve gathered a few of my own pearls of wisdom throughout my own dining experiences in the UK and in Europe:

Don’t necessarily have a main course
In decent restaurants, you are going to find some nice mains, but some lovely starters too, and a few decent side dishes. Given that you’re likely to experience diminishing marginal utility with a main (it is usually less enjoyable after consuming the first 50% on the plate), consider skipping the main course and instead order two or three starters and a side (or sometimes even better, if you’re a couple dining, two mains or six or seven starters and sides that you can share).

Restaurants will pretty much give you any combo you want if it's on the menu - just ask
If it's on the menu, it's in the kitchen - so as long as you don't commit the faux pas of offending the chef by asking him to compromise on a dish he or she has taken pride in creating, feel free to ask for any combination of things you’d like. If, for instance, you see halloumi as a part of a main, but you want another main, and halloumi as a side, and a sauce that’s in a dish you don’t want but you’d like it in one you do, tell the waiter, and you’ll usually find you get the exact dish you desire. You may even give the chef some new ideas! 

Specialising brings rewards
Try to avoid ordering a food that is not part of the restaurant’s speciality. Why is food sold at a bowling alley generally likely to be worse than food sold in a restaurant? The reason is - it's about speciality. A restaurant specialises in selling food; a bowling alley specialises in selling a good time bowling. Food is an additional extra in the bowling alley, but the main selling point of a restaurant, so you'd expect it to be less good in a bowling alley. Try to eat your lasagnes in Italian restaurants, your paellas in Spanish restaurants, and your curries in Indian restaurants, and so forth.

Pasta dishes are generally a bad thing to order
Why? Two reasons. Firstly, pasta dishes are one of the easiest and cheapest dishes to cook yourself (see my next one below). Secondly, pasta dishes are generally bad value for money in terms of the ratio of pasta to other ingredients: the dish has far more pasta than anything else, and consuming it is therefore a sub-optimal use of your taste buds and digestive system. If you’re in a restaurant with pasta on the menu, there will be plenty of superior choices instead.

Eat what you wouldn’t cook for yourself
It’s a good idea to regularly order dishes in restaurants that you are unlikely to eat at home or have cooked for you elsewhere.

Go to restaurants where rent is likely to be high but the owner not filthy rich
A restaurant in a high rent area has expensive overheads - and this in a highly competitive industry where over 50% of all restaurants close within three years of starting up. A restaurant in a high rent area needs to a have a continual standard of top notch food, or else face closure. And in highly competitive areas of the city too, this brings a high probability that the food will be very good.

Finally, here’s one for staff restaurant frequenters - be on the lookout for the kitchen’s incentives
If haddock was on the menu the day before, you might want to think twice about ordering fish pie if it’s on the menu a couple of days after.

Further reading --