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"An Economist Gets Lunch", by Tyler Cowen - Reviewed in the NY Times by Dwight Garner

Tyler Cowen NY Times Books

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#1 Drive-by Critic

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Posted 11 April 2012 - 07:08 AM

NYT review of Tyler Cowen's new book, "An Economist Gets Lunch."

The review is fun to read, but apparently, the book is not.

#2 Fishinnards

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Posted 11 April 2012 - 08:41 AM

Here is a link. Funny review.

#3 goldenticket

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Posted 11 April 2012 - 10:01 AM

Money quote from the review:
"Deep down there’s nothing foodies loathe more than other foodies."

:lol:

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#4 DonRocks

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Posted 11 April 2012 - 10:26 AM

Here is a link. Funny review.


Reading this review hurt me because it's such a well-written review.

I haven't read the book, but Tyler has been walking the walk longer than yours truly has. I remember writing Tom Sietsema close to 10 years ago, and saying, 'have you seen Tyler Cowen's Ethnic Food Guide? It's the best I've ever seen.'

Total Respect for Tyler's Ethnic Dining Guide, and I should add that he's been very friendly to donrockwell.com, but I respected him before I ever found that out (and I've never met him). I definitely don't look to him for farmer-organic stuff (in fact, now that I think about it, I don't know that I can recall him ever mentioning it), but he knows what tastes good. In a lot of ways, he's like Todd Kliman (I trust Todd to ferret out the gnarly joints, despite me criticizing him even bothering to touch upscale restaurants - I'm not sure I'd turn to Tyler for a 20th anniversary dinner either).

That said, maybe (like me) Tyler's just not a great long-form writer about food. I could write a brilliant book, but it would take me five years and be 200 pages long - great long-form writers (like Todd) can crank 'em out.

Forward, Tyler.
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#5 dcs

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Posted 11 April 2012 - 12:53 PM

The very same newspaper a day earlier published a decidely more balanced article regarding Tyler Cowen and many of the same views he apparently expressed in the book (which I have not read). Of course, nothing in this earlier article had me laughing out loud like this sentence from the review did: "Reading Mr. Cowen . . . is like watching a middle-aged man in a blue blazer play Hacky Sack at a My Morning Jacket concert." I am not even sure what it means, but it is such a great image.

#6 darkstar965

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Posted 11 April 2012 - 11:51 PM

Money quote from the review:
"Deep down there’s nothing foodies loathe more than other foodies."

:lol:


And, money quote from NPR's interview with Cowen this afternoon:
"The best food in our [the DC] area is Korean or Ethiopian"

I was only able to listen to 10 minutes of it without knowing who the interviewee was. As I drove, I was thinking "who is this guy? :blink: "

#7 Drive-by Critic

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Posted 12 April 2012 - 06:06 AM

Rocks wrote:
Reading this review hurt me because it's such a well-written review.

I felt the same way. I've always enjoyed his food writing and his food picks, and even though it pains me to say it, because I virtually never agree with a word of it, his occasional columns for the NYT. I call it Krauthammer Syndrome.

Look at it this way - it must be one hell of a book to inspire such a creative review. My favorite line (yes, I noticed you changed the title of the thread) was this: "Reading Mr. Cowen is like pushing a shopping cart through Whole Foods with Rush Limbaugh."

I think for the purposes of deciding if you want to read the book, the most important thing to note is the comparison to Trillin. Not always favorably, but to be in the same class is still pretty good.

When I read a review of a restaurant, I don't want to know that the food is yummy. I want it to be interesting. Sounds like this book is interesting and I will probably read it.

#8 Drive-by Critic

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Posted 13 April 2012 - 07:51 AM

So the book is sitting in my Kindle but for those who would like a preview, there is an article in this month's Atlantic Monthly (May 2012).

It lists Tyler Cowen's six rules for dining out. The first:

"In the fanciest restaurants, order what sounds least appetizing" has me baffled.

What is least appetizing is a very individual thing. For instance, I hate prime rib. It is going to be the least appetizing thing on a menu for me, but most people love it.

His logic is also contorted. He says that at a fancy restaurant, the menu is well thought-out and so an item won't be there unless there is a good reason for it. He offers roast chicken as an example - with the apparent reason being that it is a familiar item that they know people will order. But then the chef won't have much incentive to do much other than offer the tried-and-true. He implies that the chef is more likely to lavish creativity on less popular items.

I am eager to hear from the chefs on this board to know if this is true.

If the item is unpopular, wouldn't it disappear from a well-thought out menu?

Rule 2: Beware the beautiful, laughing women.

This one makes sense to me. Is the place about food or is it just a see-and-be-seen place frequented by women who don't actually eat. DC seems to have few of these; I suspect it is a big problem in NY and LA. In fact, NY reviews often note the presence of D-list women and their presence seems to correlate strongly with meh restaurants (which is auto-correlated with restaurants opened by Sam Talbot).

Rule 3: Get out of the city and into the strip mall.

A Cowen standard. The ethnic variant of "crummy but good."

Rule 4: Admit what you don't know.

How to get good food gen from other people. Interestingly enough, he talks about how to google, but not about how to find local food boards. Or even Chowhound.

Rule 5: Exploit restaurant workers.

Find places run by family members. They receive relatively little pay and so the restaurant can offer good food buys.

Rule 6: Prefer Vietnamese to Thai.

He says that Thai has become too sweet, due to the Thai owners wanting to please American customers. Whereas Vietnamese is not as popular and requires the eater to assemble a dish by adding a lot of unfamiliar sauces and condiments at the table, so the food quality remains high.

My husband spent some time in Thailand, eating with the local guide and his friends. He loves hot food, but they had to give him toned-down versions of what they were eating and it still singed his taste buds. So I am guessing that Thai food had to be Americanized by reduction of heat. I can't speak to the sweetness issue.

In the DC area, I think people get most of the sauces and condiments. Cilantro, mung bean sprouts, lime, onion, rooster sauce, hoisin, and the like - hardly exotic around here. Outside major urban areas - probably a bit less familiar. He is writing for a national audience, so this seems like a fair observation.

Exception - chose Thai restaurants attached to motels, because they are likely run by the Thai owners of the hotels.

Corollary - choose Pakistani over Indian.

** We had the best Thai meal of our lives at a tiny little storefront in Kearney, Nebraska. The place is called Wild Rice and it is just a few blocks from the highway interchange. They rated the heat 1-5 and 3 was painful. We ate there three nights in a row.

#9 goodeats

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Posted 13 April 2012 - 08:47 AM

Sometimes I think of offering a tried-and-true item at a fancy restaurant like a Bud Light: some diners want to go to the fancy restaurant because of its popularity, name, etc., but is scared or don't want to go out of their comfort zone, so they order the "tried-and-true." It's a win-win for the restaurant and diner, I think (I hope). But that's my theory.

I've seen food items rotated off, tweaked and the repackaged if it was a "best seller" but the chef wants to be creative/work with it to try to get the diners to try something new. I may be wrong on all this, but it's a thought.
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#10 dgreen

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Posted 13 April 2012 - 08:54 AM

So the book is sitting in my Kindle but for those who would like a preview, there is an article in this month's Atlantic Monthly (May 2012).

It lists Tyler Cowen's six rules for dining out. The first:

"In the fanciest restaurants, order what sounds least appetizing" has me baffled.

What is least appetizing is a very individual thing. For instance, I hate prime rib. It is going to be the least appetizing thing on a menu for me, but most people love it.

It's not really about "what sounds least appetizing to you as an individual." It's about "what sounds least appetizing to people in general." This advice isn't necessarily for the average DR forum poster.

His logic is also contorted. He says that at a fancy restaurant, the menu is well thought-out and so an item won't be there unless there is a good reason for it. He offers roast chicken as an example - with the apparent reason being that it is a familiar item that they know people will order. But then the chef won't have much incentive to do much other than offer the tried-and-true. He implies that the chef is more likely to lavish creativity on less popular items.

His comment about an item being on a menu for a good reason is in regards to the "least appetizing" dishes. They are on the menu because they are likely a chef specialty and should be good even if it's something the typical diner doesn't think will be good. Roast chicken is on the menu because many people are scared off by the "least appetizing" dishes. They are there because that's what many people will order and not necessarily because the kitchen makes a really good roast chicken.

#11 qwertyy

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Posted 13 April 2012 - 01:23 PM

Rule 2: Beware the beautiful, laughing women.

This one makes sense to me. Is the place about food or is it just a see-and-be-seen place frequented by women who don't actually eat. DC seems to have few of these; I suspect it is a big problem in NY and LA. In fact, NY reviews often note the presence of D-list women and their presence seems to correlate strongly with meh restaurants (which is auto-correlated with restaurants opened by Sam Talbot).


With the caveat that I haven't read the Atlantic article or the book:

Uh, seriously? Only fat, dour women go to good restaurants?

#12 dgreen

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Posted 13 April 2012 - 01:44 PM

With the caveat that I haven't read the Atlantic article or the book:

Uh, seriously? Only fat, dour women go to good restaurants?

Read the article. That's not what he's saying. That's just a "headline" for the basic idea that restaurants that have the hip, good-looking following are likely more interested in offering a great scene rather than great food. They probably aren't raking in the customers because of the food. The food is solid and good enough to keep people coming back, but it's more about the "look at me" scene.

#13 DonRocks

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Posted 13 April 2012 - 02:43 PM

Sometimes I think of offering a tried-and-true item at a fancy restaurant like a Bud Light: some diners want to go to the fancy restaurant because of its popularity, name, etc., but is scared or don't want to go out of their comfort zone, so they order the "tried-and-true."


I have a friend who thinks the world of Palena and Frank Ruta. Yet, not once have I *ever* heard of an order other than chicken and/or a cheeseburger.

Three of us once went to Palena Cafe (back when it was smaller, and had a limited menu), and ordered "one of everything." Apparently, the kitchen broke into cheers when the order was announced (I cannot verify the truth of this, or for that matter whether they were cheers or jeers, but that's what I heard).

It's not really about "what sounds least appetizing to you as an individual." It's about "what sounds least appetizing to people in general." This advice isn't necessarily for the average DR forum poster.


Agree. If you're at The Prime Rib, and *know* you don't like prime rib, then of course you don't order it. As an example of what I think he's trying to say, the only great dish I can ever remember having at Nora was the "Tofu Hot Pot." Vegan, and wonderful.

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#14 zoramargolis

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Posted 13 April 2012 - 03:21 PM

Once I was at a Chowhound off-line meal with a dozen people and Tyler Cowen, the only time I have ever met him. I found him to be arrogant, opinionated and domineering. This was an early gathering at China Star. Cowen arrived late, after everyone else was already there discussing what to order, and attempted to hijack the ordering process because he had eaten there before. He assumed that no one there knew as much as he did about Szechuan food, although among the group was a much more humble and self-effacing person who both spoke and read Chinese and had also been there before, extensively exploring the Chinese menu. Cowen continued to opine, throughout the meal, about which dishes were as good, or not as good as they had been on his previous visits.

I was already familiar with Cowen's blog at that point, but it wasn't until later that I learned that he was a neo-con idealogue, professor of economics at George Mason. It all made sense then. Like shopping at Whole Foods with Rush Limbaugh, indeed.

#15 qwertyy

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Posted 13 April 2012 - 09:09 PM

Read the article. That's not what he's saying. That's just a "headline" for the basic idea that restaurants that have the hip, good-looking following are likely more interested in offering a great scene rather than great food. They probably aren't raking in the customers because of the food. The food is solid and good enough to keep people coming back, but it's more about the "look at me" scene.


Sorry, like I said, I hadn't read the article--I don't have an Atlantic at hand. Did the rule actually say, "Beware beautiful laughing women [and men]"?

#16 Pat

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Posted 14 April 2012 - 10:50 AM

Sorry, like I said, I hadn't read the article--I don't have an Atlantic at hand. Did the rule actually say, "Beware beautiful laughing women [and men]"?

I haven't seen The Atlantic either, but the other NY TImes article (linked to the review) includes a summation of that rule that seems to give more context: "Avoid restaurants with beautiful women, hipsters and smiling and laughing people." [The quotation marks are to indicate the words are from the NYT, not Cowen.]

#17 saf

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Posted 14 April 2012 - 02:20 PM

I found him to be arrogant, opinionated and domineering


I find his blog to be that way too. And I admit, I am still annoyed at him for insisting that Ray's the Steaks East River is in Anacostia, then insisting that it didn't really matter where it was, because everyone knows that everything east of the river is Anacostia, and I must be trying to lie about where I lived to make myself feel better. (Note that I live in Petworth.)

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#18 Mrs. B

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Posted 14 April 2012 - 03:21 PM

Okay, I will pile on just because I'm in a bad mood. I listened to his interview with Kojo last Wednesday and thought he came off sounding very much like Zora described him. I generally agree with a lot off his restaurant reviews but was really put off by hearing him live..

#19 Ilaine

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Posted 14 April 2012 - 04:24 PM

Tyler Cowen is the real deal. I've been reading him for years and years -- my impression is that his guide to ethnic cuisine in DC was, is, and shall remain oriented towards grad students at George Mason. It's a mitzva (benevolent gift).

I share his bemusement with how to explain why good food in the DC metro area is more likely than not to be found in strip malls.

I am not, unlike him, a world traveller. My food world is small -- I grew up in South Louisiana, eating what seems to me to be the world's best food, often to be found in strip malls and gas stations and convenience stores. I guess low overhead and low complication is the name of the game. Just food, forget the frills.

I don't share his enthusiasm for Korean chow in Asiandale -- but that's just me. He lives in Annandale, I work in (almost) Annandale, I feel like it's a food desert, although there are Korean restaurants everywhere, I don't really care for bulgogi. But if he says try the tofu soup, or the seafood pancake, whatever, I will try it.

Any place that Tyler Cowen raves about, I will try at least once. Never, ever felt like he steered me wrong.

Haven't read the book yet, but my own theory on ethnic food in DC is to look for food from a country currently undergoing a bad civil war and a lot of refugees -- who come to DC and cook their own food as a way of making do. Anybody who cooks for their native Embassy's special events is golden. Trust me on this.

I'm just here for the chow.


#20 DonRocks

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Posted 14 April 2012 - 04:31 PM

Oh Tyler, you broke my heart at 20:00.

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#21 qwertyy

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Posted 15 April 2012 - 08:11 PM

I haven't seen The Atlantic either, but the other NY TImes article (linked to the review) includes a summation of that rule that seems to give more context: "Avoid restaurants with beautiful women, hipsters and smiling and laughing people." [The quotation marks are to indicate the words are from the NYT, not Cowen.]


In Cowen's words in The Atlantic:

I also start to worry if many women in a restaurant are beautiful in a trendy or stylish way. The point is not that beautiful women have bad taste in food. Instead, the problem is that they will attract a lot of men to the restaurant, whether or not the place serves excellent food. And that allows the restaurant to cut back on the quality of the food.


So beautiful women don't necessarily have bad taste in food, but they might as well because they will by their very existence attract men and thus cause the quality of the food to plummet.

Listen, I get what he's going for here (or at least what I hope he's going for here): the more stylish a restaurant, the more likely it is to rest on popularity and not keep up the quality of the food. But I'm really put off by him singling out women (why not "beautiful people"? Or beautiful men attracting beautiful women?) and then literally blaming them for putting in motion the nefarious forces that ruin a restaurant.

Maybe I'm being nitpicky. But this stuff is starting to get on my nerves.

#22 Michael Landrum

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Posted 15 April 2012 - 08:18 PM

Maybe I'm being nitpicky. But this stuff is starting to get on my nerves.

Just curious, and genuinely so: How do you feel about restaurant reviews that focus, to the point of fixation, on the attractiveness of the waitstaff, bar staff and host staff--and the shortness of their skirts--let alone even mention it?

Me, personally, given the tremendous efforts required to counter and prevent sexual harassment in the restaurant environment, mostly by guests directed at female staff members, I have found it to be especially repugnant and repulsive.

Especially when those same comments, if directed at his own co-workers, would get the reviewer fired.

Thoughts?

#23 qwertyy

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Posted 15 April 2012 - 08:37 PM

Just curious, and genuinely so: How do you feel about restaurant reviews that focus to the point of fixation on the attractiveness of the waitstaff and host staff, let alone even mention it?

Me, personally, given the tremendous efforts required to counter and prevent sexual harassment in the restaurant environment, mostly by guests directed at female staff members, I have found it to be especially repugnant and repulsive.

Especially when those same comments, if directed at his own co-workers, would get the reviewer fired.

Thoughts?


It pisses me off and, frankly, surprises the hell out of me. Which restaurant was it recently--Little Serow?--where staff attractiveness was noted pointedly? While it would be relevant to note if the staff were stinky or dirty or ungroomed, what possible point does it make to note that they're hot except to bring in diners who value appearance over food? These are folks who I really wouldn't want flocking to my store, for my employees' sake.

Incidentally, it also annoys the crap out of me that the man at my table is always handed the wine list and the check, while the woman orders first and is served first--even if the woman is the one hosting (as I often am).

This kind of stuff just really sticks in my craw because there seems to be a anachronistic and persistent undercurrent of (possibly unrelated) gender... issues that ladies who dine must deal with on a regular basis. I haven't served for a decade now, so I can't speak to your side of the experience, but from my side, it's boggling.

#24 Drive-by Critic

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Posted 16 April 2012 - 06:36 AM

In our culture, there is a strong correlation between beautiful and thin, especially for women. It seems to be breaking down a bit (Kelly Clarkson, for instance) but it is still a size two world in most advertising, movies, and TV. So perhaps the idea is that a roomful of beautiful women is a roomful of women who don't actually eat the food.

#25 Drive-by Critic

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Posted 16 April 2012 - 07:50 AM

Oh Tyler, you broke my heart at 20:00.

And lost ALL credibility.

#26 The Hersch

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Posted 16 April 2012 - 08:57 AM

Oh Tyler, you broke my heart at 20:00.


I can't be bothered to listen to it now, but I assume you're referring to his remarks about, ahem, Yelp.

This is what Cowen says about Palena:

Entrees at $40, though, expensive even for its kind. I have yet to go, and don’t feel compelled.


Paul Krugman reads Tyler Cowen and wants to stick a pencil in his (Krugman's) eye.

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#27 DonRocks

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Posted 16 April 2012 - 09:34 AM

It pisses me off and, frankly, surprises the hell out of me. Which restaurant was it recently--Little Serow?--where staff attractiveness was noted pointedly? While it would be relevant to note if the staff were stinky or dirty or ungroomed, what possible point does it make to note that they're hot except to bring in diners who value appearance over food? These are folks who I really wouldn't want flocking to my store, for my employees' sake.

Incidentally, it also annoys the crap out of me that the man at my table is always handed the wine list and the check, while the woman orders first and is served first--even if the woman is the one hosting (as I often am).

This kind of stuff just really sticks in my craw because there seems to be a anachronistic and persistent undercurrent of (possibly unrelated) gender... issues that ladies who dine must deal with on a regular basis. I haven't served for a decade now, so I can't speak to your side of the experience, but from my side, it's boggling.


The staff at Little Serow are not "hot." They trend young, yes, but they are beautiful because of their composure and attitude. It's not like you have a bunch of Hooters Girls running around; quite the opposite - it's pure substance, delivered with a friendly smile and a genuine concern for the customer.

And as long as both of these unrelated threads have been hijacked into anti-Tom rants:

No one on your and Tom's side of the restaurant business [knew about the Kobe scam], maybe. That's what made it so easy to get away with.

People on my side of the business have always known.


This is not true, and here's a counterexample. My first "beef" about this issue was written in 2007, and I wrote that shortly after I first noticed the problem was becoming widespread. It's hard to know everything, Michael. I sure don't, and it wasn't on the forefront of my mind in 2005 - perhaps I took note of it when it became illegal in 2001, I don't remember. Here's the review where Tom essentially trashed the "Kobe" burger in late 2005. No, he didn't point out that it couldn't have been Kobe, but so what. I remember a few years ago when Jon Krinn was serving "Mishima" beef at 2941, and charging an arm and a leg for it. He told me it was raised in Texas, and I didn't even bat an eye - sometimes it's difficult to spot a problem when it's in the early stages of developing. People do not realize what Tom Sietsema has done for DC dining on a national scale. And if you can find me a better food reporter than Tim Carman in this area, please let me know who it is. We all learn from our past mistakes and get better, or at least most of us do. I'm tired of people getting personal when it comes to criticizing another person's body of work. I do not mind criticizing the writing itself, or the content of the writing (nobody has been more critical of Tom's star system over the years than I have, and I will continue to vehemently disagree with reviews that I deem grossly inaccurate, but *only the reviews themselves* which even Tom would acknowledge are fair game); the thinly veiled personal attacks are getting to be too much for this gentle soul to handle.

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#28 zoramargolis

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Posted 16 April 2012 - 10:38 AM

Paul Krugman reads Tyler Cowen and wants to stick a pencil in his (Krugman's) eye.

Krugman FTW. Major prize-winning NY Times columnist vs. D-list college prof.= no contest.

#29 dgreen

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Posted 16 April 2012 - 09:18 PM

I don't see anything wrong with his advice on how to use Yelp. I only listened to a few seconds at that 20:00 mark, but he was simply saying, "Read the long, well-thought-out, smart reviews on Yelp. Ignore the ratings and simpleton reviews." I guess he could have said, "Go to donrockwell.com," but that wouldn't have worked for every city not named Washington, DC. (Yes, I realize there are other cities on here, but you get the point.)

Hey, I'll admit I'm biased. I'm a GMU econ grad and really enjoy reading Cowen.

#30 DonRocks

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Posted 16 April 2012 - 09:22 PM

I don't see anything wrong with his advice on how to use Yelp. I only listened to a few seconds at that 20:00 mark, but he was simply saying, "Read the long, well-thought-out, smart reviews on Yelp. Ignore the ratings and simpleton reviews." I guess he could have said, "Go to donrockwell.com," but that wouldn't have worked for every city not named Washington, DC. (Yes, I realize there are other cities on here, but you get the point.)

Hey, I'll admit I'm biased. I'm a GMU econ grad and really enjoy reading Cowen.


I agree with your assessment (which is why I said "broke my heart" and not "disagree with"). Still, Yelp is the voice of the uninformed masses, taken to an extreme, is it not? And perhaps dr.com is the voice of the little, ethnic-owned, mom-n-pop "good food" that he extolls the virtues of?

Not sure what more I can do to help the ethnic mom-n-pops than what I do now, and Tyler supporting Yelp is like me supporting Fodor's or Frommer's, and completely ignoring his book. He had a chance to mention this website alongside Little Serow, Queen of Sheba, and H-Mart, but he chose not to.

My assessment of him still stands as written above, but I'm not going to say that hearing that didn't hurt. I was one of Tyler's earliest supporters among the DC restaurant media. It hurts, all right.

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#31 The Hersch

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Posted 17 April 2012 - 11:07 AM

I guess he could have said, "Go to donrockwell.com," but that wouldn't have worked for every city not named Washington, DC. (Yes, I realize there are other cities on here, but you get the point.)


That excuse really doesn't work. The Kojo Nnamdi show is distinctly local to the Washington area.

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Who taught my grief to thee?


#32 Pat

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Posted 17 April 2012 - 12:53 PM

The Yelp comment didn't bother me for the reasons it bothered Don. Picking that as his crowd-sourcing site makes sense given his economic views; it's consistent with everything else he's saying. He didn't mention any message boards of the dr type (chowhound, egullet).

What I objected to was his saying that you should evaluate quality by the long positive reviews with details. Yes, many of those could be useful. There could also be long detailed posts from shills. Even more so, though, I disagreed with his instruction to ignore negative posts. Really? The example he gave was someone giving a low rating because the food is too spicy. If I'm looking at, say, reviews of a Thai restaurant, and someone thinks the food is too spicy, that's a data point for me (among others) that perhaps the food is "authentically" spiced. It's also helpful to me if I really dislike spicy food.

#33 dcs

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Posted 21 April 2012 - 08:44 AM

There is an adapted excerpt of the book in the May 2012 issue of Washingtonian, in case you want to sample the milk without buying the cow.

Scaling the Great Wall

Shopping for a month at an Asian supermarket can open your eyes to wonderful foods, cause a lot of confusion, and yield some interesting discoveries about how we choose what to put on the table. By Tyler Cowen



#34 Lydia R

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Posted 25 May 2012 - 04:07 PM

Reading Tyler Cowen's column, "Getting a good meal in D.C. requires some ruthless economics"

online today [in Sunday's WaPo print version] reminded me to circle back to find links to the magazine articles mentioned above. Discussion about this specific column here.


Six Rules for Dining Out (The Atlantic, May, 2012)

Scaling the Great Wall (Washingtonian, May, 2012)

What a dismal science.

"I close in saying that I may have had a tough break, but I have an awful lot to life for." Lou Gehrig 1939

 






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