Archive for the ‘Restaurants’ Category

Tyler Cowen’ Six Rules for Dining Out

Sunday, April 15th, 2012

Tyler Cowen’s endless posts about “Markets in Evevrything” do not help me keep up to date with his proflific blog. They are so brief, varried, and many that I can’t even tell what the commonality that makes a post ripe for the “Markets in Evevrything” title is. This is perhaps, the halmark of a hurried blogger, but I’ve attributed it to a bad writer, or at least someone who isn’t writing with me as an audiance. There are 142 unread posts by him on my Google Reader. So, when he linked to this adaptation of his new book on his blog, I missed it, but my dinner group did not.

The overall idea some stragies to follow to end up eating the best food possible at the lowest price possible. So go read it and then come back for my take.

1. In the Fanciest Restaurants, Order What Sounds Least Appetizing
The premise here is that there are only two reasons something will be on the menu and the fanciest resturants, those being that A) it’s expected to be on the menu, or B) the chef makes it well. The goal of this advice is to push you into something that must be from column B. I don’t spend much time in this caliber of place, but when it is resturant week and I am I usually follow a more reserved but similar strategy. I order based on liking at least one or maybe two ingrediants in a dish, and I don’t worry about what the rest of the ingrediants even might be. This also when new to an ethnic food.

2. Beware the Beautiful, Laughing Women
The idea here is that places with great bar sceens don’t need to have great food. Well, at least once they have estabished a great bar sceen they don’t. I don’t pay much attention to this; in fact, I’ve fall pray here, specifically to the place once known as Ivy and now known as Social 49. The people and space in there are so beautiful. But did learn something, I’ve only had drinks at Social 49.

3. Get Out of the City and Into the Strip Mall
When I read this I was thinking of one place, Ritu ki Rasoi a delicious Indian place in Burlingon. It is located on a loading dock behind an auto parts store and is quite a find. But then the author went on to list subrubs where you can find good food “Orange County, California; the area near San Jose; Northern Virginia, near D.C.; Somerville, Massachusetts; and so on.” So maybe I don’t have to drive all the way out Burlington to find actual strip malls after all. My guess now is that he’s talking about Tu Y Yo.

4. Admit What You Don’t Know
Ask people who might know where the good resturants are, where the good resturants are, espcially people who travel to the area frequnetly. This seems like a no brainer, but I never do it. It does make sense though. When I saw someone who was most likely a pharama-gril at Junior’s Taco Shop on my trip to Ridgecrest, CA a couple weeks ago, I assumed it meant that I was having lunch in the right place. I was already pretty sure I was having lunch in the right place though, it was packed. But, I didn’t think of her a poential resource for finding more good resturants. I didn’t make that leap.

5. Exploit Restaurant Workers
There is good food, for cheaper, where there is cheap labor, including family eastablishments. I sort of assume all resturants in an area face roughly the same labor costs, so this doesn’t seem help me much. Sure the meals in chinatown always include more food for the money than anywhere else in the city, but I don’t want to eat a meal in chinatown every week, so this isn’t that much of a help. The authors example is to stay away from places with excessive waitstaff and valets. I suppose that is fair because, where this advice certainly goes wrong though, are poor areas of the country like Roswell, NM. They don’t have better food just cause there is cheap labor.

6. Prefer Vietnamese to Thai
Finally a valid reason not to like Thai food! I’ve been sort of wishy washy about Thai food for a while in world where everyone else seemes to love it. His argument here is that Thai food became hip, and like in #2, it no longer had to be good. That’s probbally not why I don’t like thai food that much, but it does feel good to have some else dis-recomend it. That said, I am not a fan of Vietnamese Pho at all either. Maybe that is for the laugauge barrier reasons that the author lays out.

So maybe I’ll buy his book. Certainly I just totally ignored its existance before, but the Atlantic adapation of it was worth reading!

On “Reviews, Reputation, and Revenue: The Case of”

Tuesday, October 4th, 2011

I, perhaps famously, introduced my parents to Yelp this summer on the way back from our annual North Carolina beach trip by suggesting we have lunch at The Ten Top in Norfolk, VA before heading to the airport to return home. The review instructing me to get the Turkey Apple Club on cinnamon bread and suggesting that the pasta salad was especially good sold me enough to sell my parents. It worked out wonderfully, and is actually my favorite part of the whole trip. That may be because I was raised on going out to eat, and it was one of two restaurants featured on the trip, and certainly it was the better one. A fond memory thanks to strangers on the internet, organized by Yelp.

I use Yelp frequently. In my Wednesday Night Dinner group, where we try a new restaurant most every week, picking a restaurant and sending it out to the group often is done via a one line email with a yelp URL and a time. I don’t know why we still include the time, its always 7:30; the only important information in the email is the Yelp URL. Every member has their own method of picking places, some uses sources other than yelp, as do I. I often use local reviews like this one for last week’s delicious pick, L’Impasto, but I always check the Yelp reviews as well. In fact, the reviews for L’Impasto were so good, and so few in number that I considered the possibility that they were fake. If they were fake, they were at least correct in this case.

Yelp might review Hotels, they do review places that are not restaurants, but I certainly have never looked at those reviews other than as indication that I didn’t hit the restaurants filter button yet. Although, certainly restaurant menu prices are a lot more sticky than nightly hotel rates, there is no reason this tactic could not be attempted with restaurants. The real question raised by this comic, however, is if the erroneous signal sent by enough people operating in dick mode could be enough to cause the place to close, negating the benefit received by the dicks. There isn’t an answer to that yet, but I came across an academic paper today where “in ongoing work, [the author is] estimating the relationship between Yelp and exit decisions” of restaurants. Such information is crucial to answer the question of if the dicks are going to end up screwing themselves.

“Reviews, Reputation, and Revenue: The Case of” by Michael Luca of Harvard Bushiness School, actually finds that there is a correlation between the average Yelp review and restaurant revenue from 2003 to 2009 in Seattle. Actually, “A one-star increase [on Yelp] is associated with a 5.4% increase in revenue.” Yelp was introduced in 2005, so his data set can provide details about the impact of Yelp as it grew to become the dominant resource that it is today. He uses a couple randomization techniques allowed by the way the data is collected and presented to control for correlations between average Yelp review and other factors that may increase restaurant revenues, like having better food, to bolster his argument to the level of causation. The statistics are over my head, but it the theory seems solid, and certainly a lot of his assumptions ring true to my use of Yelp.

The paper brings up another interesting point that rings especially true. It finds that while overall, Yelp reviews correlate with revenues, that “chains already have relatively little uncertainty about quality, their demand does not respond to consumer reviews.” That is, reviews don’t matter for chains, maybe people don’t even read them. I said I was raised going out to eat. I was a picky eater and only child so going somewhere I would not fight about was probably my parent’s primary concern. That means that I was raised eating at chain restaurants, most notably Olive Garden. I believe that from when I turned five until I went to college I was at an Olive Garden at least once a month. If you include college, it might have to grow to once every three months. I still love Olive Garden thanks to all that conditioning, and when I go home to Ohio, I think I eat there within the first 36 hours, without fail. I have not once read a yelp review about the Olive Garden.

My dinner group essentially bans chain restaurants, with a couple of minor exceptions. That is likely one of a number of cultural reasons why, since moving to Boston, I’ve broken my Olive Garden streak. However, apart of my pilgrimage to Olive Garden upon setting foot in the state of Ohio, I seek out independent restaurants there as well. The paper also finds this is a trend much larger than my group. Specifically “chains experienced a decline in revenue relative to independent restaurants in the post-Yelp period.” Since ratings don’t matter for chain restaurants, but they do provide useful information on independent restaurants, there is a pretty good rational “that increased information about independent restaurants leads to a higher expected utility conditional on going to an independent, restaurant. Hence Yelp should … increase the value of going to an independent restaurant relative to a chain.”

With the power that Yelp has amassed of the past 6 years, comes skepticism, the specter of fake reviews, which I feared, and also the specter of intentionally false reviews as evidenced by xkcd. There is still another aspect of power that people take issue with, corruption or extortion of independent restaurants. Clearly, with the power to increase revenues drastically with a small shift in rating, there is an opportunity for yelp to offer to artificially increase rating at a cost to the restaurant, or extort from them with a threat of a lower rating. Enter this Davis Square Livejournal post:

I went to Paddock Pizza in Somerville on Sunday (not usually open Sundays, but there was an event) and I loved the pizza (plain). When I told one of the owners, she said she enjoyed it, too, but the first pizza chef, no longer there, got some bad reviews on Yelp and asked if I might be willing to put in a good one. I would in theory, but I’m not always much with the food review writing. Since I like their pizza and want them to stick around and keep serving it, I am willing to take someone who likes writing such things. (Their pizza is also pretty inexpensive, more so from 4 to 6pm (early bird specials), though they are only open Wed-Sat, 4-10pm). Message me if you are interested and are flexible-ish time-wise.

The text presented has been edited since my original reading. It originally included a line about “detesting” yelp, which was responded to in the comments, and caused a thread about Yelp’s abuse of its power, or at least perceptions of abuse, as no actual abuse has been proven. Here we have a restaurant which is aware of the power of Yelp to affect their bottom line, asking a patron who has expressed a positive experience to help them increase their rating. It seems the restaurant is acting fair in this transaction, they aren’t faking a review, they are merely attempting to turn a positive dining experience they provided into a positive review. Unfortunately for them, their pizza loving patron is not a writer it seems and is unwilling to jump through the hoops to become one because of perceived, unnamed abuses by Yelp. However, the crux of the post is that he is looking to hire someone to write a good review for this place for the price of dinner, presumably half a pizza. That must be some damn good pizza, maybe I should go check the Yelp reviews though. Every review since 2008, when the first review appeared has been >= 3 stars, arriving at a current rating of 3.5/5 stars. True, recent rating seem higher, but haven’t caused a upward trend in the overall rating yet. Verdict? Well no one has picked anywhere for Wednesday yet.

Ice Cream Marathon

Sunday, August 15th, 2010

On Saturday August 14, 2010 the long planned Wednesday Night Dinner Ice Cream Marathon occurred from 1pm until 7:30pm. We followed and approximately 7 mile route from Boston’s North End to Harvard Square in Cambridge following this route:

View Ice Cream Marathon in a larger map

We stopped at each place marked in green. We skipped over duplicate stores, chains, and stores we didn’t know existed. We carried score cards. Here is the digital representation of mine:

Location Time Flavor Size Score (1-10)
1. Gelateria 1:20pm Hazelnut / Vanilla Small 5 / 8
2. Sprinkles 2:00pm Butter Pecan Child 7
3. Emack
& Bolio’s
2:45pm Cake Batter1 One Scoop 3
4. Picco’s 3:25pm Cinnamon2 One Size 93
5. Bon Bon 4:25pm Pineapple Sorbet One Size 2
6. J. P. Licks 4:55pm Cake Batter Not Available4 0
7. Toscanini’s 5:55pm Cake Batter Kiddie 9
8. Christina’s 6:30pm Corn5 Small 4
9. Lizzy’s 7:30pm Vanilla Cookie Dough Kiddie 6

1Like most flavors at Emack and Bolio’s this cake batter is infused with chocolate. This is not an acceptable thing to do and still call it cake batter, but that is what they do.
2Also bread and water were provided at no cost at Picco’s.
3The flavor of the Cinnamon (and they Honey flavor that I tired) were so intense as to deserve top honors. However, we were unable to finish these flavors due to their intensity.
4J. P. Licks has suddenly, and without warning discontinued the cake batter flavor at all of their locations. This is not acceptable as it was the best cake batter flavor available in the city and my favorite ice cream overall. Until such a time as cake batter is returned to the menu I am forced to boycott J. P. Licks. I did get in line and ask for cake batter, only to be told they they don’t have it, to which I responded, “Ah, never mind then.”
5Bacon flavor was also available and I tried a spoonful of it. Someone got bacon flavor and was unable to finish the salty delicious treat. I had tired corn flavor earlier in the week and thought it quite good, but I was unable to finish my small size of it either.

The clear winner was Picco’s. Picco’s is a sit down pizza restaurant that also hand makes ice cream for their desert menu. They were great sports and sat a table for 13 who intended only to have ice cream. They also provided bread and water at no charge, which was most appreciated. Surprisingly appreciated was the bread! The flavors at Picco’s are intense, rich, and wonderful. I could taste the gainyness of the cinnamon in my ice cream! Everyone agreed this was the best place.

Clear runner up in my book Toscanini’s. Toscanini’s, since inciting me into their store for the first time in years with their ROFLCon inspired “Internet” Flavor (vanilla + grape nerds) has become my favorite ice cream parlor. The fact that J. P. Licks has recently committed seppuku has only help them reach the top. Other excellent recent flavors include Fig Newton, Ginger, and the best remaining cake batter flavor in town! Enough said!

Rock and Roll Hall of Fame

Friday, February 27th, 2009

I’m blogging from the Friday awards ceremony at the FIRST Buckey Regional, but when I arrived in Cleveland on Wednesday my first stop after the hotel was the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. It is, of course, the only thing I thought there was to do in the city. Josh and I were surprised at how un-interactive the exhibits were. Most were simply clothes, cars, notes, posters, or records sitting in glass cases. Well, the cars were not in glass cases. It did have quite a lot of exhibits, but since we’re not very well versed in music many of them amounted to, “so who’s that?”

Afterwards we went out to dinner. We were surprised to find a pedestrian only street lined with all sorts of restaurants, Mexican, Vietnamese, Mediterranean, Irish, American. We gave the Mediterranean one a try. It was called La Strada. We started with a free fried eggplant appetizer because they were out of the one we actually wanted. I had a chicken and cuscus dinner. Everything we had there was excellent. However, after dinner they kept offering us all sorts of things. Desert, coffee, complimentary fruit, then later tea, and a wet hand cloth. It was a little too much, made me feel sort of bad that all I wanted to do was pay and leave. Actually, I didn’t have to pay because Josh owed me a dinner since the Red Sox & Yankees tied the season series last summer at 9 games apiece (we decided due to extenuating circumstances that I would win ties).

Cranmore and Saddleback

Monday, February 16th, 2009

This post is about my two (so far) local ski trips this winter.


On January 24th Mary and I drove to North Conway, NH to give Cranmore a try. We mostly went because it would be cheap. That day they were running a deal where driver’s of hybrid cars get free lift tickets. Oddly, since passengers of hybrids didn’t get free lift tickets it actually discourages carpooling, which, given the distance, makes a larger environmental impact than the hybrid. For the curious, they asked to see the car’s registration to prove it is a hybrid; note that my registration doesn’t have any indication of such a status, but they were not concerned. It also came recommended by Kelly, who skied there frequently in her youth.

I was disappointed with the runs there. The vertical was 1200 feet, which seems respectable, and they had some nice lifts to keep the lines moving, but we took our warm up run on a blue and diverted to a black. We mostly diverted to get away from the crowd, but it was not difficult at all. The conditions were pretty good. It was clean and ~25 degrees out, but there was a howling wind, that was blowing snow up the mountain. This was not a problem as far as seeing, but it did manage to keep the slopes well groomed, as any tacks you made were covered back up by the snow you loosed. It was fun to spend all afternoon (we skied from 11:30-4pm) speeding down the relatively tame runs, but we did manage to do just about every black and blue there in that time frame. In short, it was a fun time, and it was cheap due to the free ticket, but I wouldn’t go back unless I was teaching someone.


Eleven people somewhat loosely associated with Wednesday Night Dinner went to Rangeley, Maine from February 6 – 8 to ski at Saddleback. Saddleback was a small, local place until recently when it was purchased and greatly expanded. They expanded their trials by 40% since last year, and they have plans to continue this kind of growth. When they are done it will be huge, at least as fat as New England standards go. It was also exceedingly cheap and not at all crowded. Of course, it is almost five hours drive to get there. That is why we spent two nights there. Also the lodging was part of a package deal that left us with $28 lift tickets. Since its so new and expanding everything, but most importantly the equipment was all brand new.

The skiing here was excellent and challenging. There were some glades and slopes that looked downright scary, some of which I did and some of which I skipped. The weather was warm, topping out at ~36 degrees, with little wind. Although it got overcast in the afternoon. Here are some icture highlights from the trip to continue the story:

The Cabin. There were 3 rooms (with an open kitchen/living space). There were 9 beds in the place and we slept 11. It was cozy, but cheap.

Breakfast was eggs and toast.

Before we could get the slope we first had to climb this ice covered hill between our lakeside cabin and the road. It was well below freezing in the valley (it was warmer up on the mountain by a lot) and so we ended up pushing all of the cars up the hill. I don’t recall having ever needed to use low gear on my car before, but clearly it helped here. What didn’t help is that due to the lake, we didn’t have much chance to get a running start. Luckily Sunday morning was much warmer and so it wasn’t a problem.

The view was pretty spectacular from the top of the ~4000 foot mountain. The lodge was at ~2000 feet. This view looks west down towards our cabin and New Hampshire. Looking north one could see Canada as well.

We rode a lift up with an instructor and we discussed these two trails that looks like there was all kinds of debris in them. He said that it was only the tops that had the debris and that bottoms were clear, and of course ungroomed. He told us how to cut over safely. There we found the best conditions of the day; although, they were not untouched power by any means. I found I was able to cope (and have fun) with the natural, soft moguls that had developed. It was great. Of course, the story with the trail is that they didn’t finish cutting and clearing it all before the first wave of snow; this picture looks up at the debris field of course.

In closing:

  • Don’t take my word for how great this place is.
  • Don’t ever give it a try.
  • Continue to take your slight shorter drives to your much pricer, smaller, and more crowded resorts of choice.

Peterborough St. Fire

Wednesday, January 7th, 2009

No, Peterborough St. is not near me. This time the fire worth blogging about was not as close to home as last time, or as close to my car as the time before that, but it is interesting none the less. Of course, whenever I say anything positive about a fire I feel obligated to point out that no one was hurt. This fire is notable because it burned down a restaurant that I have been to with my Wednesday Night Dinner group. I don’t know for sure, but I can’t think of any other restaurant I’ve ever been too that has since burned down. Of course, I’ve not been keeping close count of that statistic. We’ve been to so many though, which one was it?

This one, Sorento’s Italian Gourmet, which is near Fenway Park. Their website currently offers some pictures of the fire. Unfortunately there were about 5 more restaurants on the block, all of which were also destroyed by the fire and none of which Wednesday Night Dinner had ever gone to.

This restaurant is particularly notable because it was, by my calculations, the most well attended dinner of 2008 with 13 people, and it was a place that I chose. It was also the only dinner of the summer that I managed to convince my avid blog commenter Kelly to attend. So to all you readers, if you start commenting and then come visit me in Boston, you may be invited to a Wednesday Night Dinner, but I can’t promise that the place we go will burn to the ground a mere six months after we dine there.

Biking to Get Somewhere

Tuesday, November 4th, 2008

Last Wednesday I took my bike out for it’s first real trip. One where biking was being used a transportation, not a Sunday morning jaunt. It felt good, until I got home and my legs were like mush. The stops on the trip are Wednesday night dinner at Midwest Grill in Inman Square and then Government Center. The ride to Inman wasn’t too bad, which is good because its hard to get to Inman any other way, but next time I need to go to government center I’m just going to lock up the bike and hop the T both ways. Here’s the map of my travels that night:

View Larger Map

Dinner at the Midwest Grill was expensive. It was $31 after tax and tip, which is the most I’ve ever paid for a Wednesday Night Dinner. We do try to keep things on the inexpensive side. The Midwest Grill does not offer midwest type food, but rather is apparently a Brazilian BBQ type place. Brazillian BBQ is similar to Mongolian in that there is only one thing on the menu and it is all you can eat. The difference is that instead of concocting bowls of yummy goodness, you load up a plate with sides. Once you’ve got your plate you sit down and waiters come around to your table with various types of meat on two foot long skewers. They cut you off a piece and you enjoy while waiting for the next waiter to come by with something else. It was an interesting experience. I would go back, if there was any chance in hell that I’d ever be able to eat enough that my $31 would seem like a good deal. Of course, I paid $35 for dinner on Friday, and ate less, so I don’t know why I feel like I got such a bad deal, but I do. Part of that may have been the service. We had a table of six men, but on every single item a nearby table of 4 with two women got first dibs and larger better cuts, we always got seconds. It seemed unfair, but there was little we seemed to be able to do about it.

50 States Party

Tuesday, October 21st, 2008

Last Friday I attended a 50 states party, an attempt to better educate ourselves about the 50 states during this election season. In reality it was just a party, with some pretty tame costumes. There were about 25 people there, but not quite 25 states as many people just assumed no one else would dress as California. I went as Kentucky (pictured) and was pretty happy with how my costume turned out. Actually, the cheap Kentucky bourbon was not mine, but it fit the theme. The chicken doubled as dinner and a costume, so I think that’s worth extra points. A few of the other states and the costumes that I remember being there.

  • Kansas – John Deer Tractor Driver
  • New Jersey – Indian Gas Station Attendant
  • Louisiana – Make Levees, not War
  • District of Columbia – Beltway
  • Ohio – Joe the Plumber
  • Hawaii – Hula Girl
  • Maine – Lobster
  • California
  • Alabama
  • Missouri
  • Maryland
  • North Carolina
  • Pennsylvania
  • Texas

That’s about all I can remember as far as the represented states go.

Full Moon Resturant

Tuesday, September 23rd, 2008

In an effort to try out all the restaurants within a 10 minute walk of my new place my room mates and I went to the Full Moon Restaurant Monday night. It was excellent, but not fancy. It was the kind of place with a kids play area, chalk on the walls (for more than just the nightly specials) and crayons to draw on the place mats with. I was told of the difficulty of drawing a lobster with chandelier earrings on Sunday, and so give the opportunity, I tried my hand at it. (This came up in some kind of social game that I missed out on, on Wednesday). Despite that my lobster looked like a catfish with pincher’s that part was readily recognized, but the silver chandeliers dangling from it, with their yellow lights on the ends were not understood — apparently it is more difficult than I imagined. Anyways, the food was great, I got the special, a pork chop with mashed potatoes and asparagus. I cleaned my plate, it was delicious. I will be going back, with Wednesday Night Dinner once, and without many times.

Kennebec White Water Rafting

Saturday, August 9th, 2008

On July 27th a bunch of us from my Wednesday Night Dinner group went white water rafting on the Kennebec River in Maine. It was a great time, we camped, kayaked, rafted, and cooked dinner over a fire. We drove up Saturday, stayed overnight, rafted Sunday morning and then drove home. It was a long trip, we were only ~35 miles from Canada. This was the first time I got to use my tent or otherwise come anywhere close to camping since moving it to Boston. The weather was perfect – it was 70 and partly sunny, although; it did rain a bit during the night, which eliminated the chance to do some star gazing.

Kayaking was on a nearby lake, and included an encounter with a loon. We came upon a what appeared to be a duck, at least until it opened it’s mouth to make a sound – then we knew it was no duck. After a few minutes worth of calling by the first loon, a second arrived. This one had a baby loon on its back. It seemed to be about 1.5 times the size of a baseball. It climbed off, presumably, its mother’s back and into the water. We had two kayaks approaching in on it from different directions, on a line running right through the family’s present location. They made a dash, as fast as the little one could swim in the perpendicular direction. We did not follow, it was very cute.

The surprising thing was that the water was also ~70 degrees. It is a damn controlled river, but they must release from the top of the lake or something to get those temperatures. The river was also strange in some other ways. First, we put in within sight of the damn, maybe only 100 meters downstream. To get to the put in there was a huge stairway to take down fully inflated rafts, carried by us. There were immediately 3 large rapids – two class 3’s and then a class 4. The class 4 was a ~6 foot waterfall. The water was big and it was hard to paddle so hard so close to the start of the run. It was also interesting, going over the waterfall they actually told us not to paddle but instead get the paddle away from us and hold onto some rope in the raft. It was quite the departure from the never stop paddling mantra I’ve learned.

The rest of the river, however, was quite different from the first, say, 30 minutes of it. There were only a handful of class 2 rapids the entire rest of the 4 hour trip. So here we are in these enormous 10 person rafts, which were needed to get through the big water upstream, but which make class 2 rapids super lame. It appears the company was well aware of this problem. After lunch they trucked in a double ducky raft for each raft, so that people could trade in an out of a smaller boat (where the smaller rapids would be more fun). They also let us swim pretty much the entire rest of the river. It was ok, but I would not go back to this river unless I was either in a smaller boat, or only did the top few miles (and did them multiple times).

Also, the lunch on river was simply amazing. A pre-trip choice of chicken, steak, or salmon with rice, pasta salad and cookies. There was also gorp, lemonade, ice tea, and water while we were waiting for the real meal to cook.