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Jeff Heineman

Eating well in DC? It's all Economics

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From his piece, "Getting a good meal in D.C. requires some ruthless economics," in today's Washington Post Business Section:

"And here is the clincher: Once you have one “pretty good but no longer special” experience at a relatively new restaurant, stop going.

Forever.

Weep but don’t look back, unless you hear consistent reports that it was truly an aberration. Most likely the magic is gone. Look around for the next excellent place because I promise you there will be one. Cultivate culinary disloyalty in yourself. That is more valuable advice — for Washington at least — than any restaurant recommendation I might send your way."

Thanks, Tyler.

You write an article with sentence two stating "where to go for a delicious meal at a fair price?" and then advocate never going back to a favorite restaurant after the sweet spot is over. From an economic point of view, if restaurants were to be built and then empty after a short period of time I believe "fair" prices would rise to an "unfair" level. If we build restaurants with 2 year time horizons, at best, prices would sky rocket, and the next great restaurant that Cowen advocates finding would never be possible.

I have "unbookmarked" his Ethnic Dining Guide. His careless disregard for the household economics of those of us who run restaurants for a living has tinged my opinion on him as a whole.

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Jeff, it's not about building restaurants with short horizons, it's about building restaurants capable of consistency. I can't tell you how many times I've gone to a new place and was impressed, only to go back a few months later and find that the quality has noticeably dropped. How many times should I go back there before trying something else?

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Jeff, it's not about building restaurants with short horizons, it's about building restaurants capable of consistency. I can't tell you how many times I've gone to a new place and was impressed, only to go back a few months later and find that the quality has noticeably dropped. How many times should I go back there before trying something else?

What if you go to a new place 5 times, and have 5 great meals. And then the 6th time, they missed on a few things? In my opinion, you go back to see if that one visit is a trend.

Tyler Cowen says there's no chance that this is an aberration, it's always a trend, and you should never return.

Never, in my life, have I frequented a restaurant as a regular that didn't have an off-day somewhere in there. Check my post history - I've mentioned less-than-perfect visits to Ray's the Empire and Freddy's (note who started the thread). Yet, I go back, because the aberrations are just that.

There was almost nothing worth taking away from that article. I can't believe the Post (re)printed it.

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I have "unbookmarked" his Ethnic Dining Guide. His careless disregard for the household economics of those of us who run restaurants for a living has tinged my opinion on him as a whole.

This remind me a little bit of people who write in to Tom Sietsema saying that they're never going back to a certain restaurant because their inconsistency at refilling water glasses reveals their contempt for young diners/minority diners/no-drinkers/non-regulars/ the casually-dressed or what have you.

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What if you go to a new place 5 times, and have 5 great meals. And then the 6th time, they missed on a few things? In my opinion, you go back to see if that one visit is a trend.

Tyler Cowen says there's no chance that this is an aberration, it's always a trend, and you should never return.

Actually, he said "don’t look back, unless you hear consistent reports that it was truly an aberration"

And he's talking about relatively new, high end restaurants...not a place that you've likely been to 5-6 times.

If I went to Grapeseed and had a mediocre meal, I'd assume it was an aberration, since I've eaten there a dozen times and always loved it.

But if, for example, after a great first meal at Fiola I went back and had a less then stellar second meal, I'd probably try a number of other places before considering whether to go back.

Just for the record, I've yet to eat at Fiola. :)

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This remind me a little bit of people who write in to Tom Sietsema saying that they're never going back to a certain restaurant because their inconsistency at refilling water glasses reveals their contempt for young diners/minority diners/no-drinkers/non-regulars/ the casually-dressed or what have you.

That was actually intended to be "tongue-in-cheek" (remember a few years ago when that was on everyone's menus!).

I would never "unbookmark" anyone without having a serious sit down getting all the sides to the story. Imagine the repercussions otherwise,

I rarely "Unfriend" people either.

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From his piece, "Getting a good meal in D.C. requires some ruthless economics," in today's Washington Post Business Section:

"And here is the clincher: Once you have one “pretty good but no longer special” experience at a relatively new restaurant, stop going.

Forever.

Weep but don’t look back, unless you hear consistent reports that it was truly an aberration. Most likely the magic is gone. Look around for the next excellent place because I promise you there will be one. Cultivate culinary disloyalty in yourself. That is more valuable advice — for Washington at least — than any restaurant recommendation I might send your way."

Thanks, Tyler.

You write an article with sentence two stating "where to go for a delicious meal at a fair price?" and then advocate never going back to a favorite restaurant after the sweet spot is over. From an economic point of view, if restaurants were to be built and then empty after a short period of time I believe "fair" prices would rise to an "unfair" level. If we build restaurants with 2 year time horizons, at best, prices would sky rocket, and the next great restaurant that Cowen advocates finding would never be possible.

I have "unbookmarked" his Ethnic Dining Guide. His careless disregard for the household economics of those of us who run restaurants for a living has tinged my opinion on him as a whole.

Sorry, but I think you misunderstand his point, and are confusing the dining strategies of those who read food articles and boards (i.e. who tend toward being epicureans, caring greatly about their dining-out food and what goes into it) with the general dining out population (who don't to anything like that degree).

Cowen is saying that, after a while, often very quickly, many new restaurants get "fat and happy" and standards decline, a conclusion I share and I think most who participate here understand and have seen with their own eyes and taste buds. The underlying question is, why do restaurants decline this way? The implicit answer is that they have established their reputations, achieved notice among the wider population of "great unwashed" who dine out (i.e. a much broader range of diners than just the types who read DonRockwell), and are doing very well financially, so can afford to cut back a little, still keep the unwashed coming, and pocket the difference -- that's the economics part, and who would blame them -- they are entitled to make some money after all! But the question is, what do we, who are more in the epicurean category, do in the face of this economic reality?

The whole purpose of boards like this, which are read by a tiny fraction of the dining public, is to share NEW information, frequently on NEW restaurants that are trying like hell to turn out a great meal and go up the reputation curve. Cowen is suggesting that, given the above, the best strategy is to stop going to the place that has now cut back and chosen to enter its "decline to profitibility" phase and seek out the new places that are now trying hard to establish their reputations. This shift by us, a tiny fraction of diners, certainly doesn't mean that restaurants will last only two years and never be profitable --it assumes they are and will remain popular with the great mass of diners and will make lots of money, which is how they were able to enter the decline phase in the first place. But it also indicates that standards important to us epicureans are no longer being met, so we should look elsewhere, finding new places with the help of DonRockwell type information.

I see this as good advice from Cowen, and I fail to see the harm to the restaurant industry as a whole or to individual restaurants of our adopting this strategy.

PS My choice of the term "great unwashed" is not meant in a pejorative way, only pointing out that most diners aren't like typical food board readers, not taking the time or energy to highly educate themselves about the intricacies and latest trends of food and dining.

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The implicit answer is that they have established their reputations, achieved notice among the wider population of "great unwashed" who dine out (i.e. a much broader range of diners than just the types who read DonRockwell), and are doing very well financially, so can afford to cut back a little, still keep the unwashed coming, and pocket the difference -- that's the economics part, and who would blame them -- they are entitled to make some money after all! But the question is, what do we, who are more in the epicurean category, do in the face of this economic reality?

Reminds me of a lot of professionals (not in the food industry) with whom I work. It is completely unacceptable, and completely human, and Cowen makes a good, if uncomfortable point.

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Since they publish over 719,000 copies of the Sunday Post I might think that some of the "unwashed" might get ahold of, read and be influenced by the article.

FYI - Grapeseed and Freddy's will be installing full service showers, truck stop like, to better serve the masses.

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Tyler Cowen's article is to enjoying food, as Chester Brown's graphic novel "Paying For it" is to intimacy.

Here is what I mean. Chester Brown is a brilliant cartoonist, whose cartoon history about Luis Riel (part of 19th century Canadian history) is absolute genius. But "Paying For it," his memoir and polemic about his experiences with and advocacy for being a consumer of prostitution, is really disturbing. It demonstrates a really odd perspective on, or inability to deal with, human relationships.

Tyler Cowen knows a lot about food. But entirely missing from his article is any sense of actual human connection. It is all just transaction, "rationality" (which is actually not rational at all), and selfishness.

I was thinking about this as I ate dinner for the millionth time at Radius Pizza tonight, which I love. I have a relationship with Radius Pizza. Sometimes we have our disagreements, but we care about each other.

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Tyler Cowen's article is to enjoying food, as Chester Brown's graphic novel "Paying For it" is to intimacy.

Here is what I mean. Chester Brown is a brilliant cartoonist, whose cartoon history about Luis Riel (part of 19th century Canadian history) is absolute genius. But "Paying For it," his memoir and polemic about his experiences with and advocacy for being a consumer of prostitution, is really disturbing. It demonstrates a really odd perspective on, or inability to deal with, human relationships.

Tyler Cowen knows a lot about food. But entirely missing from his article is any sense of actual human connection. It is all just transaction, "rationality" (which is actually not rational at all), and selfishness.

I was thinking about this as I ate dinner for the millionth time at Radius Pizza tonight, which I love. I have a relationship with Radius Pizza. Sometimes we have our disagreements, but we care about each other.

Tyler Cowen has a great many experiences with ethnic restaurants which he has written about for years. The Source, Fiola and a few others as well as our city which he mentioned or alluded to are another matter.

I must also add that I am not a graduate of George Mason. Rather, the Univesity of Maryland. So I might have an admitted bias.

I reacetd very negatively to his pontification.

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Mr. Cowen's central theory is that restauranteurs have an economic incentive to lure diners in the first three to six months of business, which diminishes once they establish a base. Fair enough, but he seems to imply a sort-of bait and switch mentality on the part of restauranteurs that is unfair. This may be true to in a very limited number of cases (though his examples are poorly chosen). However, in most cases restaurants settle into grooves (which he apparently finds unexciting) based on what sells, food costs, etc. If the wonderful dish he loved at Restaurant X isn't returning a profit, it's going to cost more or be taken off the menu. Or, it could be a well-conceived, cost effective dish, but if nobody orders it, the ingredients rot in the walk-in. There's no evil motive, it just takes time to get this sort of thing right.

Regardless, Mr. Cowen's advice that we hit the hot spots when they are hot and get out quick is naïve at best. Many restaurants start slow an mature into great places. Many start off to great fanfare and mature into something different, but no less worthy (and often more). And many true gems never get much buzz. Fortunately, there are resources like this website, available to everyone, that exist to tell people about these restaurants. Essentially, Mr. Cowan's "rule of thumb" is only valuable if you are too stupid to use Google.

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I agree with almost all of the above comments and I understand where you're coming from, but in Mr. Cowen's defense, his article was printed in the Business section and his main thrust is the economics of dining out. I was also shocked when I read that he says we shouldn't go back to the new restaurant that wasn't as good as your earlier visits unless we hear differently, however from an economic standpoint, I can see his point. If we spend money on a meal after a bad meal, we *could* be throwing good money after bad. If we look at it from a strictly business point of view (from the diner's perspective) it makes sense. From the restauranteur's view, it's a horrible suggestion, of course. Yes, restaurants can have off nights and our next meal may be as good as our earlier ones, but if money's tight and we are risk-averse investers (diners) then we shouldn't go back unless our friends, a reviewer, DonRockwell.com says that the place hasn't dropped off. Having said that, I'm not taking Mr. Cowen's suggestion and I'll give a place where I had a less-than-great meal another try or two before giving up on it.

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My undergrad degree was Economics and I find it disturbing that he didn’t provide any figures to support all the claims made in the article. I do understand what he’s saying and while it may be true to some degree, I also won’t be following his advice. I really don’t like being told what to do, and to follow his advice would pretty much take the enjoyment out of dining.

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Fortunately, there are resources like this website, available to everyone, that exist to tell people about these restaurants. Essentially, Mr. Cowan's "rule of thumb" is only valuable if you are too stupid to use Google.

Perhaps, but I'm willing to bet that, for most restaurants, at most a small proportion of customers learn about the place by Goggling, of among those who do most got their information from Yelp. So just how valuable and effective those resources are in the bigger picture seems open to question. Particularly since most of the information to be found will likely refer to the previous incarnation of the place, not the current one.

Fair enough, but he seems to imply a sort-of bait and switch mentality on the part of restauranteurs that is unfair.

I don't see it that way. He is suggesting adopting that action only when and if a particular restaurant has fallen down. As such, it would affect those choosing to go downhill, not the ones who choose to remain good actors.

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What's not being mentioned here, probably because the restauranteurs and the other folks on this site (eaters?) have a generally cordial relationship at dr.com, is that we simply have different goals when it comes to food. The folks in the restaurant business need to make money...period. It's nice if they have a passion for food, and care deeply about service, and are expanding and enhancing the DC food market, but the bottom line is always going to be making enough money to stay in business. My goal, simply as an eater, is to eat well without breaking my budget or expanding my waistline/cholesterol count. Most of the time, these two parties have a nice, symbiotic relationship, but I'm sure my habits as a diner aren't always in the best interest of the restaurant industry and vice versa.

While I certainly have a number of restaurants I consider my favorites, there is no place I could truly be considered a regular at. Why? Because there are so many restaurant options out there, and I love variety...so I tend to try new places instead of going back to an old favorite. So does that attitude benefit the industry by spreading out my money, or are they better off if I ate at a few places more often? I don't really know the answer to that.

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