An Economist Gets (a Zero Martini) Lunch

economistTyler Cowen’s new book An Economist Gets Lunch is, as he would say, self-recommending. When I lived in the DC area Cowen’s ethnic dining guide was a reliable source for finding good restaurants off the beaten path. If you read Marginal Revolution you already know his style and have a good idea of whether you’ll like the book. A few of the policy-oriented chapters are perhaps too brief to convince devoted skeptics of genetically modified organisms or long-distance trade, but they inject a healthy dose of economics into the conversation about how to improve the food system. I highly recommend it and agree with almost all of it.

Like Cowen, I place a high value on making every meal count. Given the nature of my job as a brand ambassador for a spirits company, however, I must often take a different approach than he does to seeking out good restaurants. When I travel I’m rarely able to eat in the suburbs, unless I’m going to an airport or distribution warehouse. And I definitely can’t avoid the places with vibrant social scenes selling lots of drinks – not if I’m doing my job properly, anyway. Yet despite this I still manage to eat very well.

With the exception of wine, Cowen seems to have a blind spot for alcohol. He notes that Prohibition sent American food into decline by shuttering many of the better restaurants, but aside from wine pairings one doesn’t get the impression that he would have missed the drinks had he been alive then. Post-Prohibition he laments the continued popularity of drinking spirits with food through the 1940s. Beer is noted mainly for its high mark-up. I don’t think cocktails are mentioned at all. The section on dining in Tokyo does recommend izakaya bars, but only secondhand via an email from another blogger and with the preface of “the sake aside…”. His book is about food, not drinks, but given how often the two go together – and more importantly, how often informed consumers of one are also informed about the other – paying so little attention to their intersection leads one to miss out on some good dining opportunities.

Cowen notes that the influence of alcohol on food can run in two directions. On the plus side, profitable drinks serve as a cross-subsidy for quality food, helping cover costs of rent and labor. On the negative side, an emphasis on drinks and sociality can take the focus off of meals and attract customers who come for other reasons. Just as a restaurant with a great view can skate by on mediocre food, so can one full of attractive, happy, socially lubricated people. The challenge is to find the places where quality of the food and the drink is high.

I’m happy to report that there are ever more places doing both very well. For a long time drinks received too little care in part because two of the same forces that damaged American dining – Prohibition and World War II – cast an even longer shadow on American drinking. The former threw talented barmen out of work or overseas. Both events were disastrous for quality wine, beer, and spirits. Home brewing of beer wasn’t legalized until 1978, helping open the field to new entrants. Spirits and cocktails have taken an especially long time to recover, due to complex and restrictive laws regarding distribution and service that differ in every state. The rediscovery of vintage cocktails and spirits began taking off in the late 1980s and has only recently expanded widely.

The upshot is that the quality driven parts of the drink industry attract people who are passionate about all aspects of food and drink. To succeed one has to taste widely and pay attention to technique; it would be surprising for this passion not to transfer to related domains in food. When I want to find good places to eat in a city I don’t know, I ask for recommendations from a bartender or barista who cares about what they do. They rarely steer me wrong.

This same thinking applies to customers. People who have cultivated their taste in drinks demand good food to go with their beverages, and I think it’s increasingly difficult for a good restaurant to skimp on its bar (if it has one) without putting off informed consumers. The same is true for bars: If they’re serving high-end drinks, they’ll want any food on offer to be of comparable quality. The rise of the gastropub is an example of this, but it extends to many types of cuisine. In my current home of Portland, Oregon, new, high-quality ethnic restaurants often make a point of hiring a talented bar staff. Some of the best new French, Thai, Mexican, and Japanese places to recently open here have included very respectable bars. (It helps that the barriers to obtaining a liquor license are fairly low in Oregon.)

When quality cocktail bars do serve food, they can be among the best options in a city, especially at night. For example, on a recent trip to Nashville I arrived too late to find anything but places with active bars still open. I went to Patterson House, a “speakeasy” themed cocktail lounge considered one of the best in the city. Drinks get by far the most attention here but they do offer food. It was quite good and, I think, better than almost anything else I’d find in the city at that hour. If you want to make every meal count, sometimes you have to go to the cocktail bars.

Reading An Economist Gets Lunch inspired me to think explicitly about how to find good food in American bars. Here are a few general suggestions based on my own experience:

Avoid places with lots of vodka and light rum. These can be bought cheaply and are easy to dress up in crowd-pleasing ways with liqueurs, fruit, and herbs. If these are what the customers are demanding than the food may be equally designed for broad appeal.

In contrast, look for ingredients that signal a knowledgeable staff and consumers. Italian amari, herbal liqueurs, rhum agricole, quality mezcal, batavia arrack, and – lucky for me – genever are good indicators. If I see a bar stocked with these I’ll want to see the food menu.

Go into the city. The density of consumers with expendable income, knowledge of food and drinks, and access to transportation that doesn’t require them to drive is in urban areas.

Laws matter. In some states regulations require that places selling spirits also serve food. Where these laws don’t exist, many of the best cocktail destinations won’t bother much or at all with food, so one might plan to eat and drink separately. (These laws are bad news if you just want to drink, since your drink prices may be covering the cost of an under-utilized cook and kitchen or bars may simply close earlier to save on labor. Virginia’s law creates particularly perverse incentives.)

Follow the food trucks. In cities with liberal regulations quality bars can team up with quality food trucks to outsource their kitchen. The truck parks outside and customers travel just a few steps to reach it. This is a fantastic way for each business to focus on its strengths and keep informed customers happy.

Charcuterie is your friend. Much of the preparation is done in advance and it pairs well with drinks, so it’s ideal bar food.

Don’t forget to Bone Luge.*

Finally, a note on behalf of cocktails. Cowen writes of the United States that our access to quality raw ingredients at affordable prices is inferior to that in much of the world. Thus, he advises, go for dishes that are composition-intensive, not ingredient-intensive. “The best option is buying prepared food from people who can put together sufficiently good raw ingredients in an interesting way.” He’s talking about cooking but its an apt description of what bartenders do.

David Wondrich describes mixed drinks as “the first legitimate American culinary art.” And why not? Mixology plays to our strengths. We are good at trade and distribution; we can take flavors from around the world, have them distilled for us (literally), and combine them to make novel creations. The toolbox available to a bartender in a well-stocked bar is incredibly broad (this is one reason I switched to making cocktails from making coffee, with its more limited range of flavor profiles). The skills needed for mixing cocktails are also highly transferable, requiring less tacit knowledge than the many complex processes that go into food preparation, so that a successful cocktail recipe is easily spread. These factors suggest that if your culinary interests extend beyond just food, quality cocktails and spirits offer rewards to exploration.

*Only kidding on this one. Maybe.