Book Review: An Economist Gets Lunch

I found An Economist Gets Lunch: New Rules for Everyday Foodies by Tyler Cowen at my local library and guessed I’d enjoy it.   After all, the book combines three big interests of mine:  affordable eating, ethnic cuisine, and travel.  Cowen believes that great food doesn’t have to come from the most expensive restaurants.  You can find great eats in cities all over the world, and he offers interesting ways to suss out those hidden gems.

Just a few examples: When getting a taxi at an airport in a big city, pick an old cab driver– he’s likely to know the city well– and ask him where he himself likes to eat.  Chances are, he’ll lead you someplace affordable and delicious.

The best pit barbecue places are usually found on outskirts of small towns.  Big city fire regulations are too stringent to allow the restaurants to stay open, so they usually end up on the edges of small towns.  Also the best BBQ is usually served at lunch, not dinner.  Since a good barbecue place cooks its meat all night, they’ll often be sold out of the best cuts of beef by early afternoon. What’s still around by dinner has often been cooked a bit too long.

It’s hard to find authentic Indian food in America these days.  Cowen suggests looking for a Pakistani restaurant instead.  The style of food is very similar, but less likely to be Westernized.

When you’re on the hunt for a great meal in Italy (I don’t currently need this info, but I hope to one day) it’s best to avoid the three most popular tourist cities: Rome, Venice, and Florence.  Apparently restaurants there cater to tourists, which usually leads to less authentic cuisine served by busy chefs who know most of these folks won’t ever come back anyway.  If you must eat in those cities, pick busy restaurants on the outskirts of the cities, as those tend to be more frequented by locals who know where the food is good.  And don’t miss Sicily–the food there is heaven for foodies.

The book felt a bit disjointed at times, and some of the tips are of no earthly use to me in my current life.  (I’m not planning to eat French food in Japan anytime soon despite the fact that the Japanese are apparently masters at it.)

But what I loved about the book was its tips for finding good places in any city, and its emphasis on the power that we have as consumers to choose and shop and cook for ourselves.  Maybe you want to find a good Chinese (or Indian, or Mexican) restaurant in your town, or in a city you’re visiting soon.  Or maybe you want to find some high quality, low cost ingredients to whip up a meal in your own kitchen.  Either way, you CAN eat well without spending a fortune.  That’s something I’ve believed for years, and it was invigorating to read someone else’s tips for doing that very thing.


  1. With the price of corn hitting an all-time high, everyone is going to have to figure out what a low-cost food budget looks like.
    When traveling, we find it wise to ask locals where the best place is to eat whether it be the staff at the local gas station, someone that serves you at a diner, etc. But we have one steadfast rule when traveling—-no franchises—-none.

    • I’m sure the no franchises rule does a lot to make your eating more interesting on a trip. We sometimes end up at McDonalds or Pizza Hut while driving someplace just because it is a known quantity and price. But….yawn….