STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Let's turn now, to the economics of a good meal. Tyler Cowen is an economist, author of the blog Marginal Revolution, and a serious eater. He seeks to use his understanding of economics to zero in on the best food and best restaurants, and he shares what he's learned in a book called "An Economist Gets Lunch." Cowen is a fan of local food. But for the taste, not because he thinks it will save the world.
TYLER COWEN: I've been a foodie most of my life. I started when I lived, for a year, in Germany in my early 20s, and here was this new food environment and I decided I needed to make sense of it. And I found it was the rules of economics that do the best job. Food is a capitalist product of supply and demand.
INSKEEP: Well, let's talk about that a little bit, because, of course, a lot of people who are arguing about food or arguing for local foods, for example, will be making an argument that well, they'll be arguing that it's worth it to pay a little more. They're arguing about something a little beyond pure supply and demand, aren't they - are arguing for a different set of values.
COWEN: It's still an economic issue. Local foods are, in general, not more environmentally efficient.
INSKEEP: What do you mean?
COWEN: Imagine a small local farmer who is making a lot of trips with his truck, that eats up a lot of gasoline. That is not environmentally efficient. The way to make the world a better place, through your eating, is simply to eat a bit less meat. Local is sometimes good, sometimes bad. But even when it's good, its environmental impact is relatively small compared to other possible improvements.
INSKEEP: So the thing to do, is just become a vegetarian, or go in that direction.
COWEN: Or eat less meat and make fewer car trips. Those are the most effective things you can do, rather than doing things that make you feel you're cool or trendy.
INSKEEP: Now, you're not a vegetarian.
COWEN: I'm not a vegetarian. But I think people who are vegetarians, they are actually more virtuous than the rest of us. I think they should be admired.
INSKEEP: Now one of the parts of this book, you simply are going to restaurants - at home and overseas - and you end up with a bunch of little aphorisms or rules for how to locate a restaurant that is good. You write that you're cautious about restaurants with lots of beautiful women in them.
COWEN: Correct. Men will go to those restaurants, no matter what, for an obvious reason. Typically those restaurants are very good in their first six months. They get good reviews. They become hot spots, and then they stay that way and the quality slowly declines.
INSKEEP: Now that seems related, in a way, to another thing that you say - and other people have said as well - avoid city centers. Avoid really busy areas if you're looking for good food.
COWEN: Their rent is too high. They have to do high volume. If a place is hard to find, very often that's a good sign.
INSKEEP: Are all of these things connected, in that basically, you think that when circumstances are such that a restaurateur does not have to work that hard to get clients, they're not going to produce good food. And if they have to work hard, they will?
COWEN: That's correct.
INSKEEP: And you go on to say, if you need to ask where to eat, ask a person between ages 35 and 55.
COWEN: Well, that depends on the context. Let's take the example of Nicaragua. Men eat out more than women do, for sociological reasons. And Nicaraguans who are young are more likely to seek out, say, American fast food. So if you're in Nicaragua, you should probably be asking a man who is somewhat older, and best of all, involved in the transportation business, so he is mobile and going around and having to eat a lot of meals out.
INSKEEP: Kind of an older cab driver, like the one you grab at the beginning of the book.
INSKEEP: What if you're in Topeka, Kansas?
COWEN: If you're in Topeka, Kansas, you should probably - if you're not a vegetarian - simply eat the steak. Steak, corn and salad are very good in Kansas.
INSKEEP: Well, now that's really interesting. You seem to favor regional specialties for their taste, which is different than saying you favor local food for the environmental effect.
COWEN: That's correct.
INSKEEP: But you're all about local food for the taste, pretty much.
COWEN: A lot of local food is very tasty. I'm very happy to eat it. I just don't think it's the same thing as saving the world.
INSKEEP: Why do you also say that it is better if you go into a restaurant and people are screaming at each other?
COWEN: If people are screaming at each other, it means they feel comfortable there. It means they are regular customers. I'm not saying all such places are good, but when you see the screaming you could start drawing some inferences that it's cooking for people who really know what they're eating.
INSKEEP: In a way, you suggest profiling a restaurant. You could peek your head in the door and look around, and ask yourself - you write at one point - whether the people in there look like someone like you, or someone who would like the kind of food you like.
COWEN: Absolutely. Just see who's there, what kind of expression is on their face, how are they dealing with each other, do they look like they're serious about the food, and make a judgment.
INSKEEP: If they're smiling, you're not - you're less likely to stay.
COWEN: It's a mark of suspicion, and I think they're there to socialize. And if you go to the very best, very finest restaurants, or if you go to the very best sushi counters in Tokyo, it's remarkable how many of the people are not smiling. It looks like a deeply grim, serious exercise, and that's where I want to be.
INSKEEP: You're smiling now.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
INSKEEP: What kind of a dinner companion are you?
COWEN: I think I'm a lot of fun. But...
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
COWEN: It's not for me to judge.
INSKEEP: Well, if someone sees you having a lot of fun, they'll run the other way, according to your advice.
Well, Tyler Cowen, thanks very much.
COWEN: Thank you.
INSKEEP: And the name of the book is "An Economist Gets Lunch: New Rules for Everyday Foodies." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.