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.