April 17, 2012
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Why Do Restaurants Decline Over Time?

Yglesias also likes An Economist Gets Lunch. His explanation for why restaurants decline is wrong, although Tyler Cowen’s explanation is also wrong.

First: part of the delight of food is novelty. A tasty dish that is also completely unexpected, or that is (at any rate) a very rare experience, will always seem more exciting than something we have all the time. That’s one reason why people in the 18th and 19th century went nuts for things – oranges, pineapples, sugar plums – that makes kids shrug today. If you have one orange a year, then that orange makes a wonderful Christmas gift. If you pick up a bag of oranges every week, it’s no big deal. The orange is not worse, but it seems to have declined.

Second: cooking, like all performance, tends to decline because it is very difficult to recognize small changes that make things worse. Restaurant life is always about small adjustments. This piece of meat is a little lean. Today’s peppers are on the spicy side. The customers today all seem to be in a somber mood; maybe it’s the rain? Stuff changes all the time. Against this background, it can be especially difficult to notice small lapses and shortcuts that make dishes just a little bit worse. Besides, after a few years, you’ve plated that duck confit thousands and thousands of times, and lots of people find it much harder to care as much about the ten-thousandth crêpe as they did about the tenth.

Third: the reward curve flattens out. In week three of a restaurant’s existence, it’s a bundle of potential. Anything can happen: the next person through the door might be a reviewer, or a publicist, or someone who’ll tell dozens of trendy friends to visit. Everything still hangs in the balance. After thirteen years, you are who you are; everyone in town thinks they know what you do. Crucially, you still exist: you have a business. That wasn’t necessarily assured back in week three. This fact is independent of your dependence on regular customers, and the effect is as pronounced in high-end chain restaurants that cater to tourists and conventioneers as in neighborhood joints.

Yglesias attributes decline to the conservatism of regular patrons. That’s a factor, but regulars can also help because they have a longer baseline. You see that sole meuniere ten times a day, but a regular might see it very eight weeks or so. If the guy on sautée is starting to scrimp on the spices, the regular has a better chance of noticing.

In my experience, incremental deterioration is usually decisive in restaurants. You see the same thing in other kinds of performance. It’s not invariable or inevitable, though. Some disciplines –musicians in symphony orchestras – are largely dedicated to training people to resist this decline. The traditional training of physicians was aimed at avoiding the related deterioration in performance when you are tired, distracted, and everyone is losing their head and running in circles, but this also helped doctors pay due attention to their hundredth appendectomy.

And it can be done in restaurants. Rick Bayless does it, somehow: Frontera has been around for ages, it’s thoughtful, and it’s still good. We had another nifty meal at Avec last night, and Avec’s got all the warning signs Tyler Cowens points to: a space that’s almost all bar, filled with attractive young people even on Monday night. Those chorizo-stuffed, bacon-wrapped dates are still terrific.The design of Next is, I think, another response; Next won’t grow stale because it’s always about six weeks old.