It is a fun question going around the internet this past week, so here we go.
In particular, people focused on the question of France vs. America. As one would expect, those on the French side think those on the American side are crazy, it is insulting to even consider this a question. Those on the American side like food.
All of this is always just, like, your opinion, man, or at least that’s the story.
Checking the Survey Data
YouGov asked back in 2019, got the following answers across nations, which we were reminded of during current debate on Twitter of American versus French food.
I will quibble, but I was impressed how good this list was for nationally identified cuisine, as opposed to in-country experience.
Where do I see obvious mistakes, ignoring the unfamiliar ones?
Everyone is underrating Brazilian because meat on swords is awesome, Pão de queijo is awesome, and the accompaniments are optional, if not diverse enough for the true top tier.
Mongolian is not even listed, and I am aware that what I call Mongolian is not in any way an authentic experience, where you fill a bowl with meats, noodles and sauces (and for some, vegetables) that they then grill for you, but that format is indeed excellent, and I will take advantage of it every chance I get. Which is not often. Somehow you cannot get Mongolian BBQ anywhere in New York City, although a comment did point me to one in the East Bay which helps.
I have two very different places I like to go for Lebanese, one low end and one high end. I’m not sure if this is a coincidence or not and what distinguishes them from other Middle Eastern cuisines, except perhaps their rice style. Either way, underrated.
America’s biggest mistake is underrating Indian quite a lot. Indian provides a unique set of flavors and experiences, done mediocre it is fine and done well it is very good. Only China and Thailand have it lower than America, and I am guessing that opinion is mostly not about the food.
Spanish and British seem clearly overrated here, although perhaps Spanish gets a lot better when Italian isn’t available locally. I have never not felt Spanish cuisine was an inferior good.
Thai food is very good when they don’t overdo the chili oil as a cheat code, but is likely higher than it should be due to its absurdly excellent marketing.
Korean is alien, they serve you all these things my brain refuses to agree are food, so while I still occasionally enjoy the straight Korean BBQ experience it always seems like an inferior good to me. But who am I to say?
I consider Italian to be Tier 0 and the clear #1, then Tier 1 can go mostly in any order for Chinese, Japanese, Indian and American. Tier 2 is Mexican, Thai, Brazilian, Greek and Lebanese, plus whatever includes Katz’s and Mongolian BBQ.
In practice that’s essentially all my meals. My wife will sometimes make what she calls Vietnamese Chicken and I occasionally go to The Halal Guys. Otherwise, that’s it.
Then there’s France.
Genius in France
French restaurants I see as overrated. I always feel like they want me to be impressed rather than that they want me to enjoy the food. And yes they are often very impressive, but who wants to pay for being impressed? Or they want to check off boxes.
Whereas Italian focuses on your experience of consuming food. In France or in French places, in my experience, everyone is implicitly trying to impress you in the same way (except the higher end places that want to impress you even more, but which made me mostly feel like I was being robbed, and sometimes lower end places are a pure simulacra) and everyone has the same menu that does little for me. As Tyler notes the hours are infuriatingly particular. If you messed up and went to the wrong place, it was bad, as in reheated frozen bad.
French style assumes you want to sit around and not eat painfully slowly before, during and after your meal, and that you want to plan all of this around drinking wine. I am fine with having a nice slow meal on occasion, to enjoy some company, but slowness for its own sake is painful, and like Tyler I do not drink. This is not an advantage.
French supermarkets I remember from my visits as being a huge pain in the neck where there is limited selection, the hours will often leave you hungry and they treat you rudely and badly. If you want exactly the handful of things they think you should want, and are willing to go at the times they want, you will do well, and I can survive for a few days on baguettes, butter and cheese. For more than a few days, none of that interests me.
Bakeries are a different story. Yes, the croissants and other pastries are amazing, I give them that. The baguettes are iconic but like their other breads they are only average, and a generally bad design.
This might be consistent with Nate Silver’s position that they do better for the 20th percentile, where that is indeed the best you can do, but it must get repetitive quickly.
France loses badly on variety all around. The supermarkets and French restaurants are narrow and similar, and there are not so many foreign alternatives available.
Tyler Cowen as usual offers mostly completely different considerations than mine. Perhaps there are indeed small towns with amazing specialties, but once again that is anti-variety that benefits no one most of the time. What is the point? The idea is to have one of everything here, not to have everything of one type in each place and have to travel.
I Thought This Was America
What about here in America?
Where to put American food depends on what you mean by that. If you mean things that are distinctively American, then I go by the earlier rankings, and have it as somewhere between second and fifth.
If you mean the overall quality of experience of eating in the USA versus in other countries, we are number one, and it is not close, because on top of other considerations we have the best of all possible worlds via our diversity. I get great versions of everything, the variety is amazing even in generic places but especially places like New York City, and I always find a plethora of good choices wherever I travel. Within walking distance of my apartment there is an amazing version of everything I like to eat.
I do realize New York is an outlier, but you still do very well in other places. Restaurant variety is mostly off the charts good, the standard strip mall sees to it and quality is typically not bad at all.
Nate Silver does his analysis, and he concurs. If you make an effort to find the best restaurants, and especially if you want to live in a place, New York City is the food king of the Western world, although I can’t speak to the comparison to Tokyo.
Nate notes that you cannot purely stumble into a place in New York and do all that well. Yes and no. You cannot go in with zero information, but if you know how to read Google Maps and are willing to consider several options, you can do very well overall, although many great places are still easy to miss. The problem is Asian food, where people are too obsessed with superficial questions in reviews, so it can be very tricky to identify the very good places, and they often have only 4.2-style ratings.
He notes that wait times at good places can be tough, but I have mostly found the opposite, all you have to do is not test the prime spots on Friday and Saturday evenings and 95% of even great places are no problem, unless you are going into the multiple-Michelin-star land where I don’t want to go anyway. Yes I have issues with Four Charles Prime Rib or Carbone but there are so many other options.
Nate’s theory is that some places in California have the best American median quality of all meals or all restaurant meals consumed, perhaps in the San Francisco area, because they combine strong local produce quality, strong variety, few chain restaurants and he does not mention this but very high income to spend on all of it.
What I love most about American food, and eating in America in general, is that it is the opposite of the French mistake of trying to impress you or waste your time. American food wants you to be happy, it wants to give you the experience you want and not hold back, it values your time and it does not much care how it looks doing it. There is the high end variation where it does care what it looks like, at which point it is a kind of generic Italian with a lower average and ceiling but still solid.
Americans spend less time on meals than others. A lot of this is that we spend a lot less time waiting. Some of that is that we have baked speed into our designs, some of that is caring about service and not making people wait endlessly for no reason. Is there something nice about a quiet relaxed meal? There certainly can be, if you want that no one will rush you. Even when I want to relax, I don’t want to be forced to wait.
America did optimize somewhat too hard on speed and convenience for a while, at the expense of quality. I find most of that is gone by now, and what is left is the best of both worlds.
There is one actual downside. America does not much care about your waistline, so do be careful of that. American foods both are generally not so healthy and also the portions are absurdly large. You need to know when to quit.
What about our supermarkets? Once again, we knock variety out of the park. We might not deliver on your country’s particular specialty but overall the places are huge and do not waste their space, and you can choose to go cheap or go fancy at every step. Produce is the one place we may have some issues due to longer supply chains, as Nate Silver suggests, combined with less customer discernment on that front. I am one of those non-discerning customers, because I have little use for the produce, and also can afford to and do hit artisan stores often.
Note that much American food is in optimized to survive having mediocre ingredient quality, whereas other top cuisines rely on quality ingredients to work. If your ingredients are indeed mediocre, American is your best bet, with Chinese the only other consideration. If your ingredients are top notch, you more often want to go in another direction to take advantage of this.
Nate thinks that because of our penchant for fast food, prioritization of speed and reluctance to spend time eating, median meal quality here is going to end up lower.
I think speed and convenience matters, but sometimes Americans do take this too far. If you ignore the value of speed, and you care a lot about produce quality, than perhaps we fall behind on the median meal due to all the fast food at home and outside it. But much fast food has gotten remarkably good, and also we are much richer and can far more often pay for better and more varied things. Also I think we focus a lot more on what we actually like, not only less on formalism, and this matters.
I think that American food suffered a quite horrible period centered on the 1950s, from a combination of the effects of prohibition on our restaurant industry and the impact of various new weird industrial foods and a focus on mass production over quality. Things were dire. That reputation persists.
But then American food got The Upgrade steadily over the last 50 years. It has radically improved in quality and variety over my lifetime, and it is very easy to find the ones with higher quality if you pay attention when trying places and do even a little gradient descent, and combine this with Google Maps.
Even fast food has radically improved. Shake Shack and In & Out are vastly different than McDonalds and Burger King. We now have fast salad chains, fast quality Mexican chains and much more.
Whereas to the extent you like French food, it seems to be because it has done its best to stay exactly the same.
The counterargument is that we do have to answer for Olive Garden and Applebee’s. Which somehow are still bringing Americans together?
Abstract: We use location data to study activity and encounters across class lines. Low-income and especially high-income individuals are socially isolated: more likely than other income groups to encounter people from their own social class.
Casual restaurant chains, like Olive Garden and Applebee’s, have the largest positive impact on cross-class encounters through both scale and their diversity of visitors. Dollar stores and local pharmacies like CVS deepen isolation. Among publicly-funded spaces, libraries and parks are more redistributive than museums and historical sites. And, despite prominent restrictions on chain stores in some large US cities, chains are more diverse than independent stores. The mix of establishments in a neighborhood is strongly associated with cross-class Facebook friendships.
This goes back to The Upgrade. Before The Upgrade, if you were able to access an Olive Garden or even an Applebee’s you were doing all right. It was food, and you could eat it. After a given sector got The Upgrade, we learned you could do so much better. Even so, I am often reminded that such places are not so bad. There is a famous Pro Magic player from another country who loves Olive Garden. The last time I was traveling and ended up at Applebee’s went fine, and the value cannot be denied.
Again, it’s not great, but it is food. It is what is sometimes called the great middle, everyone can eat something and you have a nice place to hang, it will be fine and everyone can agree on it, in exchange you are not at a good spot on the cost-quality curve.
I get why the poor use such places. I l do not know what rich people are still doing, in 2023, at either establishment? Or why people would actively travel to such lousy chain restaurants, breaking geography?
A theory is that it is exactly the mixing that is enabled here. A party of four rich people would never choose Applebee’s. However, a party of two rich and two poor people might, the poor can afford it and not feel sick about the price, and the rich can get a form of dining they are familiar with and can abide and also trust. They would perhaps all be better served by the actually good cheap local place, but cannot coordinate on this. And such places offer the trappings of socialization in ways fast food places don’t, even when the rich go to such places they don’t stay to mingle.
Note also that this could be reverse causation. Perhaps we do not mingle because we go to Applebee’s, instead we have an Applebee’s because we mingle. If we did not need to find such compromises, the place would rapidly no longer be in business.
To me America is the clear winner. Quality is strong and improving. You get endless variety, both at restaurants and at the supermarket. Even when I lived in a small town like Warwick, none of the places worth going to were duplicative at all, so I had a decent rotation even in a very small town. Even when we slum it, we do so for good reason, and get things in return that we value. Our wealth lets us afford all of this.
Certainly you can argue that on a per-meal basis, the median meal eaten in France might be, in the sense that a food critic might evaluate it in isolation and ignoring costs including time (or even having the perverse opinion that longer time spent is a benefit rather than a cost), better than the median American meal, either at a restaurant or overall, due to the considerations of fast food and produce quality, but that is a poor proxy for overall quality of life or experience related to food.
To me, the real question is America versus Italy. Italian food in Italy is often outstanding, although as usual you need to beware, my visit to Rome was a mix of reliably outstanding Italian places that I searched for carefully, as good as such food gets, and reliable true disaster when going places on a whim while walking around, including some truly inedible places trying to pretend to sell you pizza. I presume that once you get into less tourist style places, the ratio turns more favorable. But, as Nate Silver points out, if you want non-Italian food the pickings will be quite slim. The Italian bench is deep, but only so deep. So it’s great if you both are only going to be there at most a few weeks and pay enough attention to find the good side of the divide.
In terms of actually living somewhere purely for the food, I wouldn’t be anywhere else.