The American economist Tyler Cowen is a man after my own heart. His latest book, An Economist Gets Lunch (Dutton, £17.23) is based on the principle that “a bad or mediocre meal is not just an unpleasant taste, it is an unnecessary negation of life’s pleasures”. As someone still reeling from a microwaved croque monsieur served with bad grace in an overpriced tourist trap in Bruges, I couldn’t agree more.
Although anyone who keeps an eye on the cost of their shopping basket will appreciate the relevance of economics to the food we eat, Cowen is keen to show that a basic understanding of its influence can reap rich rewards on the plate. “Food is a product of economic supply and demand,” he explains, “so try to figure out where the supplies are fresh, the suppliers are creative and the demanders are informed.” It may sound obvious – but the success of bland, overpriced chain restaurants suggests otherwise.
Many of us, however much we spend on food, assume that you get what you pay for when eating out. Cowen argues this is not necessarily the case: an informed assessment of the market and the locale within which it operates can yield bargains. Take Asian restaurants: Vietnamese or Korean establishments tend to be better value than their Chinese or Thai counterparts, because their cuisine has never really taken off in this country. A small number of restaurants cater for a clientele of expats and adventurous foodies, both of whom will tend to be more discriminating diners – and, in the case of the former, often more price-sensitive.
In the same way, he says, the more “aggressively religious” the decor in a curry house, the better the food is likely to be – the spartanly furnished, unlicensed Bangladeshi cafés of London’s Tower Hamlets turn out far more interesting and cheaper fare than you’ll find in boozy Brick Lane. (By contrast, Cowen warns, there is no such thing as bargain Japanese food, so steer clear.)
The book is also keen on the notion of cross-subsidies – whether circumstances have a positive or negative effect on business. For example, because film studios take a major chunk of their ticket revenue, most cinema chains use snacks to subsidise the films they show. To eat well at the movies, Cowen advises choosing an independent cinema, which keeps a higher proportion of ticket revenue and so is likely to offer better-value food. (Art-house cinemas attract a more mature audience and so cater accordingly – my local doesn’t offer hot dogs but it does a mean samosa.)
Equally, it should come as no surprise that a dining room with fabulous views doesn’t have much incentive for culinary innovation. He suggests seeking out shabbier places in cheaper areas, which won’t have such large overheads. Or look for the new wave of mobile food vans – free of any significant outlay on rent, they can afford to take a few creative risks with their cooking.
That said, the wise punter avoids fashionable places full of laughing customers probably there for the atmosphere rather than the food. Cowen claims, “in lots of restaurants it is a propitious omen if the diners are screaming at each other and appear to be fighting and pursuing blood feuds. It’s a sign they go there a lot.”
Although the book covers how economics can tackle everything from obesity to world hunger, a good piece of advice is far more quotidian: to eat well at expensive restaurants, order the least appetising thing on the menu. Cowen’s rationale: that at such places, everything’s on there for a reason, and “if it sounds bad, it probably tastes especially good”. In other words, never order the cheese and ham toastie.
Next week: Nina Caplan on drink