Monday, April 20, 2009

Competition in cities: supply or demand 

One of my rules in traveling is a food variation of the "when in Rome..." aphorism: While in Albuquerque, I did not try to eat anything other than New Mexican cuisine. I had three great meals (those are links to the three restaurants) and a couple of darn good ones. Sometimes you get lucky -- there was a little bistro run by a French couple that made an omelet the way I remember Parisian omelets. OTOH, I went to a more American upscale restaurant and found the food mediocre (I'll quickly add that the service was the best of any of the places I went to.) The bread at the French bistro was apparently popular, given the traffic I saw buying it, but what I had was only OK. So where the competition was greatest -- the market for the local cuisine -- the food was best.

Tyler Cowen writing from Portugal says the rest of the restaurant market steers away from anything un-Portuguese. "The biggest mistake here is to try to replicate the kind of seafood meal you might enjoy in the U.S." Works for me, not least of which because I don't like seafood. When I decide to eat American overseas, it's usually because I hanker for something from home. When that happens, I'd rather find a Pizza Hut than Jose's Cafe Americaine.

So I wonder if it's really demand as Joseph Epstein writes in the WSJ today.

Demand has a lot to do with it. By this I don't mean demand as in the old economists' formula of supply and demand. What I mean is that New Yorkers are, and always have been, more demanding than any other Americans when it comes to what they eat. Years ago, when I worked in New York, I used occasionally to grab a quick lunch at a luncheonette, as they were then called, on the corner of Fifth Avenue and 15th Street. The place had no tables, only a long counter, so that one could hear other people's orders. I recall vividly the extraordinary specificity of customers' requests.

"I want a sardine sandwich, on rye, lightly toasted, with a very thin slice of onion -- last time the slice was a little too thick -- with a gentle rinse of lemon between the onion and the sardines. Pickle on a separate plate."

New Yorkers tend to order food as if they are spoiled children dining in their mothers' kitchens. They demand excellent service, which includes accommodation for their idiosyncrasies (that pickle on the separate plate). If they do not get what they want, they howl, return food, do not return to the restaurant, and verbally torch the place. If you open a restaurant in New York, you had better be good, or you will soon be gone.

There is something to demanding customers, certainly -- this reminds me of comments about the Chicago Cubs or the Golden State Warriors sucking because their fans are easily pleased -- but New York food is good because you have options, and a way to keep the other options nearby. Unlike the other cities Epstein names, New York restaurants are near each other; you can easily go from one to the next if a restaurant disappoints you. In Albuquerque, we were at the mercy of hosts and hostesses who fortunately showed us a good time, but there are several options in Old Town that you could pick from. In Santa Fe, that nearness of restaurants is similar to New York's.

I have sometimes violated the rule (a famous weekend in Yerevan, Armenia, where I went to a Russian and an Indian restaurant on consecutive nights and missed Barbeque Street) but usually feel the choice was a bad one. When in Rome, eat Italian!

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