The Empty Restaurant


Here is the logic. Let’s say a restaurant allows a line to form outside the door. Why don’t they just raise their prices? Well, for one thing the line, and the accompanying difficulty of getting a reservation, is a way of marketing the restaurant to potential customers. Which means the place needs marketing in some manner, which means its audience is in some way not so well-informed about where they ought to be eating. They tend to be trendy people who follow…lines. Conformists, in other words.

A lot of places with lines are quite good but when they fall they fall hard. In the meantime, the presence of a line indicates the place extracts consumer surplus in some fairly inefficient ways, so why should you go, especially if you are not a conformist? I recall the wise words of my undergraduate differential equations teacher, Professor Lim, who once averred “I don’t want in line.”

My favorite foodie economist Tyler Cowen argues today that you shouldn’t judge a restaurant that doesn’t have long lines or tends to be empty because those two things are not always indicators that a place is actually good. I usually eat at places based on recommendations from friends or from reviews I’ve read, and those places have been generally busy. And dining in an empty restaurant can feel strange—Why is it so empty, you think or whisper to your dining companion, and then crack a joke about money laundering. I’m going to conduct an experiment in which I eat at one of the more empty restaurants in my neighborhood. I’m sure it’ll be fine, maybe even great.

Photo: Jennifer Woodward Mazzerato

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