Are The Trendy Shallow?

A lot of the press on Tyler’s new book has focused on his suggestion to avoid restaurants with pretty women:

Beware the Beautiful, Laughing Women

When I’m out looking for food, and I come across a restaurant where the patrons are laughing and smiling and appear very sociable, I become wary. … Many restaurants, especially in downtown urban areas, fill seats—and charge high prices—by creating social scenes for drinking, dating, and carousing. They’re not using the food to draw in their customers. The food in most of these places is “not bad,” because the restaurant needs to maintain a trendy image. … I also start to worry if many women in a restaurant are beautiful in a trendy or stylish way. The point is not that beautiful women have bad taste in food. Instead, the problem is that they will attract a lot of men to the restaurant, whether or not the place serves excellent food. And that allows the restaurant to cut back on the quality of the food. … When you enter a restaurant, you don’t want to see expressions of disgust on the diners’ faces, but you do want to see a certain seriousness of purpose. … This review on says it all:

One of my favorite places in DC—awesome lounge, great decor, and food is delicious.

At least they got the order straight and put the food last. (more)

Matt thought he disagreed, but Tyler clarified. It seems to me that people focus on this issue because it is a veiled insult. Chuck Rudd says it more directly:

Initially, I rebelled against Cowen’s implication that men have unrefined palates or that they just don’t care about food quality. I don’t want to make some sort of gender issue out of it, but his argument implies that these trend-seeking women’s palates are unrefined as well. (more)

Notice that the claim is that places with more pretty women cut back on food quality, but not on decor, location, or service quality. So it isn’t that places just generically slack off when they are more popular. It must instead be that pretty trendy people, compared to other people, can less distinguish or less care about food quality, relative to other types of quality. And since food quality seems harder to observe that decor, service, etc. quality, the implication is that pretty trendy people are more shallow, i.e., less discerning about or interested in harder to observe qualities.

Sounds plausible, though, since I don’t get many offers to hang out with pretty trendy people, I don’t have first hand evidence one way or the other. I’m open to chances to collect evidence though. You know, in case any of you pretty trendy people have a slot open …

Note that Tyler probably got more attention for a veiled insult than if he had insulted directly. Homo hypocritus delights in indirectly jockeying for status and support.

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  • Doug

    I don’t think it has to do with trendy people per se, but more is a function of signaling. Young pretty women are going to be consuming a disproportionate number of their meals in the process of courtship. I.e. they get taken on a lot more dates then say a male 55 year old Korean immigrant. The purpose of these dates is to try to impress them.

    The prettier and more desirable they are the more competition there is and the more extravagant the dates have to be. Ultimately the point of this exercise is to signal wealth and willingness to spend on the lady in question. Service, decor and location are all more important than food in this regard because they are harder signals to fabricate.

    There are many places with fantastic food that are dirt cheap. Just go to China town or find a taco truck. In contrast location, decor and service all cost good money to provide. It’s very hard to be outstanding in any of those dimensions on the cheap.

    So it doesn’t necessarily have to do with trendy or pretty people. It has to do with signaling, and that particular group just happens to signal/be signaled to more. But look at it this way, if your picking a place to go with your wife on your anniversary are you going to pick a hole in the wall in an ethnic neighborhood with counter service? Or are you going to go to a fancy downtown French restaurant with gilded walls and table cloths, but ultimately mediocre food?

    • Jeff S

      You don’t need to invoke signaling here. When you go to a restaurant and spend $X, you are buying a package of goods, including food, decor, service, etc. One of those goods is “scene” and another is “trendiness.” Trendiness in particular is expensive because it has such a short shelf life that high profit margins are required to cover start up costs quickly. If more of the $X is going toward trendiness or scene, then less of it is going to food.

      Some people like these other goods (decor, scene, etc.). Nothing wrong with that. But if you are looking for most of your $X to go toward food, look elsewhere.

      • mobile

        If you’re paying anything for “trendiness”, then you’re signalling.

  • I think Tyler and Rudd are speaking to the women at would-be Chilis, Buca di Beppo type joints. Pretty, sure, and trendy definitely, if trendy is defined as “popular.”

    But then you take a place like San Francisco, where it’s very much trendy to NOT eat at places like that, and the positive association between good looking (and especially fashionable – for men with a discerning palette for more than just food) women and Chilis-avoidance is stark and obvious.

    But maybe my sample is tainted by the starving student hipster types, who don’t have the money to go to the fancier places. Cowen’s ilk are older and financially established.

    • Scott H.

      Tyler is not talking about Buca and especially not Chillis type restaurants.

      Your San Francisco description sounds about right to me (for what Tyler is talking about), but I don’t understand how you got there with a sample of “starving student hipster types”.

  • Mark M

    I’m pretty sure that your mood has a direct impact on your palate. You are more likely to enjoy a meal when surrounded by stunning decor and pretty trendy women.

    Sure, if you take the food out of their home context to compare apples-to-apples, the old burger joint on the corner may objectively have higher quality food than the trendy restaurant. But when I go out to eat I don’t take my meal into a sensory deprivation chamber with just me and my meal. The environment, including the other clients, makes an impression that impacts how much I enjoy my meal.

    • John Maxwell IV

      The Penn and Teller bullshit episode on fast food covers some researcher at Cornell who discovered that people will rate the same food massively differently depending on the restaurant it has said to have come from.

      • Swimmy

        There’s also an amusing segment where they try to trick some trendsters into worshipping bad food. It works for several but not all of them.

        I wonder how the research that shows how background noise affects the taste of food comes into play here? Maybe trendy restaurants serve good food but people with discerning palates can’t tell because it’s too noisy?

      • Kitty_T

        The episode busting fancy food and the bottled water episodes are two of my favorites. I still smile when I picture the “water concierge” filling bottles from the hose in the alley behind the restaurant.

        I’d suspect that food might suffer more than decor or service in the presence of attractive women because, of those, it’s the element that has least to do with creating a certain type of atmosphere. (Not to say that pretty women are elements of decor but … I supposed I just did.) People who are concerned with the atmosphere more than (or even as much as) the food may forgive weak food faster than weak service or bad lighting.

      • Kitty_T

        I should note that I don’t think going to a restaurant for atmosphere is somehow inferior to going there for the food. I’ve gladly munched on overpriced blah for the sheer joy of dressing up, sitting someplace attractive and feeling cool for a few hours. I’ve also eaten horrifying bar food in dumps that smell like bleach to have really interesting conversations with the local bar flies.

        As I think Mr. Cowen would agree – the goal should be to maximize whatever it is you want. The first step is not letting terms like “shallow” prevent you from being honest about what that is.

  • Lord

    You might call them shallow in that way, or deeper or more focused in that they put more emphasis and value higher minor differences in more easily observed qualities, it is just the focus is not primarily the food but who to be seen with and see.

  • “But maybe my sample is tainted by the starving student hipster types, who don’t have the money to go to the fancier places. Cowen’s ilk are older and financially established.”

    I think so. Because Tyler’s assertion rubbed me the wrong way too. But he lives in DC, which in my opinion is the antithesis of cool. He’s probably thinking of the sorority girl types that pepper trendy club-like restaurants there. But in places with a large population of hipster-types, you’ll often go to a very good restaurant and find a mixture of people from that country and stylish attractive hipster types wearing Anthropologie dresses and Urban Outfitters skinny jeans. I’m thinking of Sripraphai, Saravana Bhavan or Tibetan Yak in NYC or Birrieria Zaragoza in Chicago. Among the hipster subcultures in these places, it’s often a bit of a competition to eat at the most authentic restaurants.

    • Also, maybe I’m totally arrogant, but if you want to take a pretty trendy tour of Chicago some time, you are welcome to contact me.

      • Next time I’m in Chicago, I hope I’ll remember to look you up. Alas it only happens every few years.

  • john pertz

    I do not see how you can apply this critique to New York. The Manhattan scene is chalk full of restaurants populated by beautiful-trendy women and run by amazing chefs. For instance, Marea, arguably the finest seafood-Italian restaurant in the city is full of beautiful and stylish women every single day. This same scene is repeated at other restaurants serving delicious food such as Babbo, Del Posto, Eleven Madison Park, Per Se, Daniel, Cafe Boloud, Bar Boloud, every restaurant in the Danny Meyer empire and on and on and on.

    I love Tyler Cowen and am currently reading his new book but on this point I simply do not agree.

  • John Maxwell IV

    “I’m open to chances to collect evidence though. You know, in case any of you pretty trendy people have a slot open …”

    I’m sure the pretty trendy people reading this blog would make for a good random sample!

  • Robert Koslover

    Now wait just a gol’-darn minute! Are you suggesting that OB is neither a “pretty” nor a “trendy” blog? Are you implying that the people who read and/or post comments here are not part of the “in” crowd? Surely one be both deep/intellectual and “trendy” at the same time, right? I mean, like (oh, and “for sure!”) consider Legally Blonde. Heh.

    • To the extent TED talks have really taken off among the pretty and trendy, OB can consider itself cool.

  • Michael Vassar

    Why is caring about tastes more ‘deep’ than caring about appearances?

    • Indeed! My favorite objection.

    • You could ask why deep is good, but by definition surface appearances are shallow, and things harder to see that appearances are more deep. Seeing deep things is more impressive because it is harder.

      • Anyone can taste (or see) things and judge based on taste (or appearance) – even dogs. It’s the relation of sense data to an underlying aesthetic that’s “hard.” One food aesthetic (that I think Tyler subscribes to) is that déclassé food is cooler than expensive food, because it’s somehow more about the food than…whatever else restaurants are about. The food aesthetic that this perhaps responds to is that expensive, “official” food is cooler than cheap food (the kind of person who refers to a taco truck as a “roach coach”).

        An evaluation of the visual or social environment presented by a restaurant is at least as deep as tasting something and going “mmm.” What we really mean by shallow in this context might not be lack of depth of experience, but social-signallyness. It’s trivially true that the trendy are more interested in social-signallyness.

        If we don’t perceive ourselves as trendy, we can internally raise our status by imagining we are capable of relating to an aesthetic that they’re denying or missing because of their focus on social signalling. Hence all the hate for “hipsters.”

  • sean

    I think it is more reflected in price when you go to a trendy place. If your budget is unlimited then your top restaurants will have everything – hot girls, great food, good service.

    If your budget is more limited then your probably first to choose between scene and quality of food.

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  • I know plenty of trendy places that skimp on the food, but also plenty of amazing restaurants packed with beautiful people. Most of the amazing restaurants filled with beautiful people are fancy and expensive and I think tyler also made the point that he can get just as good food at cheaper, less formal places. I think this idea of quality per dollar once a certain threshold of quality is met is what steers tyler away from the trendy places more than anything.
    If you make it to berlin. would be delighted to show you around town.

  • Jonathan WR

    “food quality seems harder to observe that decor, service, etc. quality, the implication is that pretty trendy people are more shallow, i.e., less discerning about or interested in harder to observe qualities”

    “by definition surface appearances are shallow, and things harder to see than appearances are more deep”

    “by definition surface appearances are shallow” cannot be meaningfully true. This suggests that visual appearance is by definition shallow. So a sophisticated art lover/collector who takes exquisite pleasure in Amate paintings can only be “shallow,” in that he is merely appreciating the surface appearance of a canvas.

    Alternatively “surface appearances” might be construed to mean something like immediately obvious aspects of the visual field, or something. In which case trendy decor is often NOT “shallow,” in the sense that a restaurant’s decor might be appreciated through a fine-grained and subtle understanding of various cultural norms, history, visual references, etc., not too unlike the appreciation of Amate painting.

    So I don’t think Visual = Shallow, Taste = Deep, works.

  • gc_wall

    The root of the problem is the desire to be waited on. The desire to be waited on exquisitly is signaling; it signals good taste, the freedom to spend on luxury, or that “a fool and his money are soon parted.”

  • suzanne

    We all know, Tyler included, that where a bunch of beautiful women are, there are going to be beautiful men. Beautiful men being there first or the beautiful women–it doesn’t matter. One will not find, generally, in a straight social setting, only one sex. This is the nature of our hunt. So, given Tyler’s intelligence, which cannot be disputed, why did he choose to identify the presence of beautiful women, rather than beautiful people, as being an immediate indicator of the (lower) quality of food that is considered acceptable by the customer? Equally plausible is that successful men have lower culinary expectations. Or, of course, that beautiful/successful PEOPLE have lower culinary expectations.

    Equally plausible is that when the perfect balance is achieved between beautiful environment, beautiful/successful clientele, and beautiful if not perfect food, mating is most likely to happen. It is the balance of these things that is central.

    Equally plausible is that those that are beautiful/successful are, in fact, connoisseur of all things sensuous, and that the quality of food and relative attractiveness of the people present in the restaurant are completely unrelated. Imagine all those lovely people waking up the next morning in each others embrace, introducing themselves, and commenting on how mediocre the food was the night before. (But worth it…)

    It seems to me that all of this is irrelevant. Tyler is far too intelligent and articulate to have been serious about this assertion that the presence of beautiful women means keep walking. Unfortunately, it seems he was going for the spectacular, the sensational, and was attempting to stir up a pot of interest for media and those who will read all the upcoming outraged op-eds. Naturally, branding. Naturally, sparking interest. Naturally, generating a desire among those piqued to find out more…by reading his book. This seems to me quite cheap.