I'm sure all of you have heard about his new book. I've been prety irresponsible in usually glossing over his food posts on Marginal Revolution, which is a shame since I live near him so he's often talking about restaurants that I've heard of or could find easily. I am trying to get the gist of this book, though - this is a good short article summarizing some of its points. I especially like this:
"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.
Many popular-sounding items, on the other hand, can be slightly below the menu’s average quality. For instance, you should be careful not to get too enthusiastic about roast chicken, especially if you are in a restaurant that, like virtually all restaurants, does not specialize in roast chicken. Roast chicken is an exceedingly familiar dish, and many people will order it to experience the familiar. Consider the incentive this provides the chef. And consider that a few items may be on the menu specifically because they are generally in demand, not because the chef cooks them with special brilliance.
So order the ugly and order the unknown. You’ll probably get a better and more interesting meal."
We go out to "fancy" restaurants less than we did a couple years ago because our financial constraints and aspirations have change, but I've long followed a rule somewhat similar to this. I've always hated the idea of ordering (saltwater) seafood more than about an hour or two from the coast or in our case the bay. There's a sign for a crab shack on Rt. 29 that we pass way out near the mountains and it always sends chills down my spine. It's not even really a freshness point. You can get fresh seafood out there. It's largely a culture thing (do they really know how to cook this?) and as Tyler says - a familiarity thing (are they just putting this on the menu because htey know people like crab cakes?). Crab cakes are actually one of those things - like the chicken he mentions - that I rarely order at restaurants anyway, even though I love them. And it's for exactly the same reason - everyone likes them and orders them for their familiarity and so they're not always made well. We make them at home a lot too, so we have a pretty good idea of what we like in a crab cake. There are a few places I like to get it: The Backfin in Williamsburg and Phillips always has good crab cakes. But usually I don't order it when we're out. When we are near the coast, I usually order the seafood. When we are futher west, I usually order a pork dish.
He says order Vietnamese instead of Thai... that's interesting. I haven't made that transition yet, but I do know what he means about the diluted quality of Thai food. We only have it from one or two places. He also says have Pakistani instead of Indian. Whereas I've had some Vietnamese food I've never had Pakistani food. But again - I know what he means. We've had so many Indian duds that while we get it fairly often we only get it from one places (and - not surprisingly - it's a hole in the wall that isn't downtown).
One thing I need to get over with food is that when I'm less familiar with a cuisine I don't experiment. At American restaurants (sandwich places, burger places, BBQ, seafood places), which unfortunately Cowen doesn't talk about nearly as much as ethnic restaurants, I'll order lots of different things even if I'm attached to a particular item at a particular place. I think a part of this is because I know the distribution of American food, I know what it's supposed to taste like and I know what I like in a particular American food, so I'm interested in seeing where they fall on that spectrum and how they experiment. At an ethnic place - particularly one I'm not familiar with - I stick with what works too often. Indian is by far the worst for me. I get pretty much the same thing every time (to be fair, we've gone to some pretty bad Indian places, so I feel like it's just self-preservation).