OpenTable's site might be pretty sluggish today. Washingtonians are cramming in last-minute weekend reservations for the 167 spots participating in this year's record-breaking summer edition of Restaurant Week. While the prix-fixe menus are notorious for surcharges, limited selection and only cheap cuts of meat (hello, skirt steak; goodbye, prime rib), Restaurant Week lets anyone feel like a foodie for 30 bucks.
Pretty good deal? Not really, according to George Mason University economics professor Tyler Cowen. His popular blog, Tyler Cowen's Ethnic Dining Guide, gives readers the straightforward scoop on foods from at least 75 regional categories mostly in his Maryland-Virginia-D.C. neighborhood. Even during Restaurant Week, Cowen prefers trekking out to Eden Center, a Virginia shopping center nicknamed "Little Vietnam," or Columbia Pike for warm Salvadorian pupusas. His hideways aren't hip or hyped. In fact, many sit behind faded signs in eyesore strip malls and treat Restaurant Week just like any other seven days.
This week's Washington Post profile on Cowen promotes his new book, Discover Your Inner Economist, released last week, and his two cents about Restaurant Week. "Choose an expensive restaurant that has a reputation to protect" or one "with a formula" that can't change for a week. More and more, Cowen is being spotlighted as a public intellectual for his street-smart strategies and cultural insight, in the same vein as Malcolm Gladwell, Steven Levitt, or Stephen Dubner. While his book isn't necessarily part of the burgeoning food-lit genre—just as he's not necessarily a trained food professional—a huge chunk of it is devoted to tips like avoiding restaurants in high-rent areas and, instead, zeroing in on immigrant neighborhoods.
When he turned in a draft of his book, his editor suggested—four days before deadline—that a chapter on how to use economic theory to eat well might make it stand apart. Because Cowen had long been chewing over a book on food, the new chapter was written "almost off the top of my head" and had "zero editing, while all other parts of the book went through six or seven drafts."
Cowen spends four of the chapter's 33 pages explaining why cheap food stalls in Singapore offer some of the most exciting food in the country, which is useful if you're in Singapore but less so in Washington, where the best you can hope for at a downtown street cart is a better-than-average hot dog or burrito.
Cowen treats eating like he does all aspects of life—economically. He considers neighborhood, the amount of diners sharing and even those iron bars in the windows. Does that mean good, authentic food? Most likely yes, in Cowen's perspective. Order his book on Amazon, check out his many blogs, or consider his Restaurant Week picks, which can, of course, apply to cities other than D.C.
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