Urbanism and Restaurants (Hoisted from Comments)

There’s a brief but fascinating discussion on Market Urbanism between Scott Johnson (who comments here and on many other blogs as EngineerScotty) and Stephen Smith about the difference between formal eating in American suburbia and traditional cities.

My own experience is that, for all the supposed expense of New York, food here is remarkably cheap relative to the quality available. The quality of deli subs, which cost between $3 and $8 depending on size and how upscale the place wants to look, is much higher than the equivalent available on Subway. Similarly, the richer neighborhoods support many full-service supermarket chains, which tend to offer similar fare to Whole Foods but at lower prices. The expensive restaurants remain expensive, but there are plenty of good midscale ethnic restaurants offering comparable prices to and better food than their equivalents in smaller cities.

Part of this is that housing prices are to a large extent an opposing force to many other expenses (especially commuting – housing plus transportation cost as a percentage of income is nearly constant nationwide). Small and shared housing leads to a culture of eating out by itself, which encourages restaurants by itself. Even the non-touristy, but still upscale, parts of the French Riviera have a good restaurant scene, though for much higher prices than New York.

The cost of living in New York, or similar dense urban cores, depends on your lifestyle. If you feel like you must own a car, and believe in the suburban American ideal of nice, large homes, then the cost of living is brutal. The BLS and ACS estimates of New York’s living costs are not too bad – 36% higher than the national average according to the BLS (with rents 57% higher), or 28% higher for rent alone according to the ACS. But the corporate-focused ACCRA index thinks New York’s three largest boroughs range from 57% to 118% more expensive. Conversely, if you’re a student or a young couple or an immigrant or a poor person, your cost of living is much lower, because you don’t need a car.

Good cheap food is available wherever inequality is high within a small area; it means there’s disposable income to spend on food but workers’ wages are low. Singapore, the land of $2 food court lunches, is a good example. The US overall is a high-inequality country, but the suburbs tend to be homogeneous within their class. Within large cities, rich and poor live closer together, and, more importantly, the cost of living for the producers of midscale ethnic food is low (which means nominal wages don’t have to be as high) and so is the cost of living for many non-car-owning young couples and other consumers of midscale ethnic food. In this particular social class, New York is unusually rich.

The suburbs have different income and class dynamics, to say nothing of the fact that density is too low to support niche restaurants. Scott explains:

In much of US culture, there is an implicit expectation that “proper” members of society ought to be capable of hosting formal gatherings in their homes.  I’m not discussing friends and family crowding around the kitchen table; I’m talking about formal occasions, including the hosting of business meetings, political events, and other occasions where professional acquaintances (as opposed to relatives and personal friends), are invited to the home, and served in a “professional” manner.  (And likewise, many holidays such as Thanksgiving and Christmas, typically involve a feast at the end of the day; one which is by tradition prepared and served at home, and often involves a large number of guests).  As a result of this, many US homes, especially the larger ones, have hundreds of square feet nominally dedicated to formal entertaining:  our homes have things like “dining rooms” and “living rooms” and the ubiquitous 0.1 bath, all of which exist to permit a semi-public space in which the dirty laundry (literally, in some cases) of family life do not intrude (and likewise, where guests at formal gatherings can be contained, and kept out of the private parts of the home).  These things are often redundant with other rooms in the house intended for the family’s own use–kitchen tables, “family rooms”, etc.–and contain redundant sets of furnishings (table and chairs, sofas, lighting).  And our homes also come with oversized kitchens where large feasts can be prepared and large quantities of dishes can be cleaned and stored, should it be necessary.  This cultural expectation even affects land use; it seems our suburban neighborhoods are designed to accommodate the possibility that on any given night, someone might have 10 or more car-driving guests at their home, all of whom need a place to park.

In many other cultures, the idea of formal entertainment in the home is considered ridiculous (at least unless one is extremely wealthy).  If one needs to formally entertain clients or host large gatherings, one charters a restaurant for the purpose.  This is especially true for gatherings outside family or social circles; inviting business clients into the home is considered highly inappropriate.  (One other cultural difference–many other cultures have far less attachment to “home cooking” than is found in the US, and view professionally-prepared cuisine to be superior to that whipped up in a home kitchen.  Of course, in many parts of the US, the local dining scene is limited to fast food, greasy spoon diners, and chain restaurants of dubious quality; in that environment, a home-cooked meal may well be the preferred gastronomic choice).  In these cultures, there is no need for individual dwelling units to come equipped with miniature banquet facilities; which permits greater levels of density.  And greater levels of density permit a more robust restaurant scene, that can handle the formal entertainment needs of the populace.

Stephen then adds:

That is indeed interesting, but I think that the culture is a result of the anti-density regulators rather than a cause. But that’s interesting what you say about restaurants – I never thought about it that way, but it’s definitely true that when I lived in Romania, only my stepdad’s very close business partners – basically, his close friends – would come into the house. In fact, though our apartment and late house were more than big enough to host people for formal dinners (as opposed to small family dinners), the only time I remember having people over was when my mom hosted an American Thanksgiving! I guess that’s proof that you need to develop the culture over a period of time, and that Europeans don’t just switch to the American way of hosting people when they get bigger apartments/houses.

What do you think – is it primarily an income dynamic, as I believe; an urban design and density dynamic, as Stephen believes; or a cultural question, as Scott believes?

Update: Stephen in the comments links to an article about a study showing that supermarket food is cheaper in New York than in the rest of the US as well. This has been my experience as well. Part of it is more competition, but another part comes from a method alluded to at the end of the article: since there are so many full-service supermarket chains, different stores discount different items at each time (that’s the circular the article mentions) as well as sell different items at slightly below average prices. It’s perfect price discrimination from the supermarkets’ perspective.

5 comments

  1. Steve

    It’s not an either/or situation, it’s both/and. Density drives culture (a more dense environment supports a variety of distinct cultural norms than a less dense environment; for instance, the less ornamented kitchens available in a denser environment helps drive, e.g. trattoria culture), but at the same time culture drives density (a culture where the normative outlook is rural rather than urban will favor greater self-sufficiency and expense shrinkage). In other words, a rural culture favors bigger kitchens and home hosting, since there is little market opportunity for eating out. Whereas, in an urban culture, where space is the premium, privatized kitchens are important assets despite their greater capital expense, due to the reduced capital expense that comes from outsourcing space requirements. The two interreact with one another in a feedback cycle, and untangling the origins of each is supremely difficult.

    American communal eating culture is thus a half-rural half-urban mélange. Diners are the American version of French cafés, Italian trattorie, and Spanish tapas bars (among other things)–they are commoditized kitchens, a hallmark of urban culture. Whereas, at the same time, the American fetish with gigantic home kitchens, much like the fetishes with big homes, massive lawns, and large lots, is an enduring relic of rural culture.

    The two haven’t sorted themselves out properly, which is why our built environment is a mess and we have the eat-in chain “experience” which is really just an illusion when compared to the richness of urban dining culture in the suburbs. We want to have our cake and eat it too, and we’re discovering just how many sacrifices we have to make in our vainglorious attempt to.

  2. Emily Washington

    I’m not sure I’m convinced that this cultural phenomenon drives construction in homes built more recently. Scott’s description of entertaining business colleagues at home reminds me of Mad Men, where Betty is expected to host Don’s business partners. In my family however, this has never really happened — the large dining room was only used for entertaining friends and family, but does allow for bigger groups than would be possible in a smaller house. I find it hard to believe that in houses built today people explicitly want space for “professional” entertaining, especially given the trend of more open floor plans that are geared toward casual entertaining.

    In DC, I do not observe the phenomenon of good cheap food for the most part. Here it’s easy to spend $10 on lunch from a food truck. While it’s possible to eat more cheaply, I wouldn’t describe most of them as good food, especially compared to the options in NYC. Now that I live in a city, I find that the biggest obstacle to entertaining at home is making too much noise for the neighbors, another reason that city dwellers may be more inclined to go outside the home for larger gatherings.

    • Alon Levy

      Yeah, something like Mad Men is what I thought of too. The house there is justifiably large, since the Drapers are wealthy and are involved in the network of chums who are indeed expected to host formal parties; I’m not sure how true the same is for people who are merely middle-class. But, even other suburban houses I’ve seen, despite not having as many redundant rooms, have large contiguous spaces that could be used for hosting. For example, my cousin and her husband lived in a house in a New Haven suburb where the bedrooms were all upstairs, and if I recall correctly the same is true of a family friend’s old house in the Philadelphia suburbs. City apartments are more haphazard – some have rooms attached to a long, narrow corridor, and getting from the living room to another room or the toilet might require passing next to a bedroom. (Others, including the one I live in, have the bedrooms open to a living room, with no separate hallway space, so the non-bedroom space is pretty much contiguous.)

      In New York, food trucks sell shish kebab or chicken over rice for about $4-5. I sometimes see $6 in touristy areas, and do not recall having ever seen $7 except during street fairs. Does that really go for $10 in Washington, or is it only if you get more or higher-quality fare?

      • Emily Washington

        I haven’t eaten at many NYC food trucks, so I really can’t compare quality. Here in DC food trucks are very popular right now and do have have good food.

  3. Stephen Smith

    Did you see this WSJ article on NYC’s food actually being cheaper than elsewhere? It’s definitely been my experience – while it’s possible to spend a ton of money, if you set out to not, then it’s actually quite easy.

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