Happy Birthday, Hipsteraunt

Last month was the two year anniversary of the website Hipsteraunt, which I built with my friend Lance Arthur. He did the design, I did the random menu generation. It is a quirky bit of AI and NLP under-the-hood, so a user gets menus featuring free-range suspended chicken feet, truffled shisito pepper with achiote, and marshmallow crudo, at a place with an ampersand in its name. The inspiration had been a particular dinner out in San Francisco, at an immensely overrated restaurant. But it could have been Brooklyn or the West Loop. I am a quant & machine learning researcher by happy vocation, but also a chef by training. (Le Cordon Bleu with honors, thank you.) So the term “foodie” has always struck me as what privileged folks call themselves when they like to eat fancy food, but would not be caught dead hanging out with a line cook.

Hipsteraunt remains a tender satire of a certain sort of fetishized dining out. It was meant to be an acerbic call to check-your-privilege, together with a reminder that nothing in food is new. No combination of ingredients or flavors has not been tried a thousand times before. Even offal and the Asian flavors everyone loves to exoticize. (Awkward…) We lived through the fusion cuisine of the 1980s, remember? In hindsight, it might have cut a bit too close to the bone. The site garnered plenty of attention, but less heady pokes like the fake Guy Fieri menu and the brilliant Jacques le Merde have been far more successful. An annoying bug with making menu URLs permanent snagged things up the first couple weeks, too. Nonetheless on Hipsteraunt’s second birthday, I celebrate by raising an artisanal cocktail (a lemongrass aviation, perhaps) and toasting the addition of a few new ingredients: Keep an eye out for those trendy signifiers of faux-edgy cuisine we all love, like burrata and purslane, za’atar and togarashi. Goodbye ginger, goodbye almond milk. But it looks like bacon is still there.


Separated by the Same Language

Some snarky, some important advice about America and England.

About ten years ago, I moved from Chicago to London for grad school. I intended to spend a few years in the United Kingdom, but my best laid plans saw me there for about five years. This is a much longer span of time than the typical study abroad or a backpacker’s tour. This summer I returned to England for an extended visit and observation. Time has clarified some non-intuitive quirks I didn’t know I had learned while living here. So a list for future expats, tourists and the curious:

  • London dominates English culture, far more than New York or Los Angeles dominates American. It is the largest city in the European Union, sprawling bigger than Paris or Rome, and probably the most diverse. On the ground, London fashion leads New York and Los Angeles by a few years. Yes, even New York City. Really.
  • The most bureaucratic aspect of a very bureaucratic country is consumer banking. Everything about English checking accounts, ATMs and credits cards is mind-boggleingly difficult, inefficient and wasteful. Things are still mostly done on paper, with proofs of residence, reference letters and other signs of class being the necessity. Plan to spend literally ten times the amount of effort screwing around with English banks as you would in America.
  • The opposite is true of The Internet. When it comes to healthy competition among mobile phone providers and ISPs, England is incredibly high-tech. This is probably because England is geographically small and wealthy. So pay-as-you-go plans with dumb phones are convenient and dirt cheap, and getting fiber optic broadband to your flat is trivial.
  • The English are far more sensitive to class than Americans, especially around verbal accents. People in England can be extremely wealthy but still “low class,” and vice-versa. Differentiating wealth from class is probably the most alien aspect of English culture, for Americans. My favorite breakfast place in Bristol has a reputation for being posh (a.k.a. high class), but is actually less expensive than most supposedly bohemian hipsteraunts in the city. The English are more likely to “unlearn” a low-class accent, and Americans mistakenly think splashing a lot of cash guarantees privilege.
  • Restaurant servers in England rely less on tips for their income, which makes the service either atrocious, or more honest — depending on your politics. American-style tipping is becoming more common in England, but still the exception. Go with 10% atop the bill if you had good service, otherwise keep the change. You always have the right to dispute any gratuity automatically included in a bill. Do not tip if you pick up a round of drinks at the bar.
  • Speaking of which, English drinkers take turns buying full rounds of drinks for the group. This is good etiquette, and something Americans should take up. The English will notice if you never happen to run for a round, and you will get a bad reputation. Americans think of themselves as heavy drinkers, but we are actually more teetotaling than the English.
  • “In America a hundred years is a long time, and in England a hundred miles is a long way.” Because English culture is so old and the country so densely populated, there is a lot of diversity even between neighboring towns. Driving a couple hours for a visit is nothing to an American, but can baffle an English person.
  • Most English do a good job of differentiating American politics from the American people, even if we do elect those goofballs in DC. Politically speaking, our country is seen as an isolationist and violent bully. But culturally, everyone loves our hip hop and big-budget movies.
  • The English are as likely to think of themselves as European as not, so membership in the EU is a constant point of political tension here. The English are a bridge between the New and Old Worlds. The snarky newspaper headline is “Fog in the English Channel: Europe Cut-off!”
  • Being invited into an English home for a meal, tea or supper is a big deal, more so than in America. Take it as flattery and bring a bottle of wine.
  • The English can hate their (elected) government, but still love their country. This is one surprising upside of still having a monarch. Americans who hate their elected leaders are more likely to be seen as “unpatriotic.”
  • Taxes in the UK are actually not that much higher than in the US, despite what American politicians imply. My nominal tax rate as an evil banker in London was only a few percent more than it was working in Chicago. The English love to hate on the National Health Service (NHS), but it does a decent job of providing widely-accessible health care. There is a parallel private health care system for the wealthy, which is much more American in style. Most English see health care as a civil right like suffrage, unlike Americans who usually see health care as an expense.
  • That said, the English are not necessarily more healthy than Americans, but they are definitely thinner. You can usually spot the American tourist by their weight and the fact that they do not smoke.
  • The geography is confusing but easy to memorize. Britain or Great Britain is the large island off the coast of Europe. It contains the countries of England, Wales and Scotland. So the Scottish are British, but definitely not English! However the United Kingdom includes Northern Ireland, which is not (Great-) British. Sometimes the UK is represented as a whole (i.e. at The Olympics), while at other times the individual countries in the UK matter (i.e. soccer). The UK flag (the Union Jack) is an overlay of the English, Scottish and old Irish flags. The English flag is about St. George the dragon slayer, and looks like a red cross on white.
  • The English are a pretty secular people. They are not necessarily atheists, but religion is just not that big of a deal.
  • Beer is the only inexpensive thing in England. Well, maybe eggs and milk in the grocery store also. The best and most traditional beer is the hand-pulled sort you find at a pub. Start with these bitters, and then try the bright, alcohol-heavy and bubbly lagers. Timothy Taylor’s Landlord is a fine example. (Most Americans only ever drink lager or the occasional stout like Guinness.) Yes English beer is served warmer than American, but the English weather is cooler too. Cocktails in England usually mean carefully measured 25ml shots, leading an English friend to flatter America as the “land of the free-pour.”
  • The best fish & chips is not found in pubs, but in dedicated shops called chippies. To find a chippy, look for counter service, paper-wrapped fries and a small menu. Good fish & chips -fish has a tasty, crispy batter around surprisingly delicate fish. Greasy fish inside is not good fish & chips -fish. Examples are the Fryer’s Delight on Theobald’s Road in Bloomsbury in London, and Fish Lovers on Whiteladies Road [sic] in Bristol.
  • The solution to late-night, drunk munchies in England is your Middle Eastern kebab shop. Mayonnaise-heavy garlic sauce on your chips is a must, especially after a few pints.
  • Talk is of “the pub” as if there is only one, but this is just a quirk of language. There is not a place called The Pub, or ever just one pub in an area. You just say “meet me at the pub.” Similarly, English folks will refer to “my local [pub].”
  • The weather in England is grey and wet, but actually very mild. This is because of the North Sea jet stream, even though the island is on latitude with Scandinavia. Despite the Dickens novels, snow is rare here. And compared with America, there are very few bugs and insects. There have been people living in every part of England “forever,” so there is very little actual wilderness even though the countryside is green and pretty. The high latitude also means very dark winters, and long summer days. There is nothing like leaving the pub at nine o’clock in August while there is still plenty of sunshine.
  • Americans are terrible with European and British geography, but the English are just as bad with ours. When I mention my hometown of Chicago to many English, they presume it is near the East Coast because of movies with skyscrapers and organized crime. Explaining that Chicago is a seventeen hour drive from New York City usually stuns the table… Two friends from Barcelona and the Black Forest in Germany actually grew up closer to each other than my wife and I, from Manhattan and Chicagoland.
  • Traditional businesses in England have flaky and frustrating hours, especially as an American used to working from nine to five, and running errands outside of this window. While I lived in England, pubs were granted more flexible hours (2005) and smoking was banned (2007). So thankfully pubs are no longer required to close early and go lock-in.

What is There to Eat Around Here?

Or, why clams are bourgeois — the presence of clams on menus is indicative of a place where people spend a lot of their money on housing. This is how I found out.

We have all played the proportional rent affordability game. How much of my income should I spend on where I live? One rule of thumb is “a third,” so if you take home $2,400 per month you aim to spend about $800 on rent or a mortgage payment. Some play the hypothetical budgeting version of the game. We might pay more of our income for housing if it means being able to live in a particularly desirable area.

Expensive Housing
Here is a map of income normalized by housing expense, for a bunch of Bay Area neighborhoods. This information is from our Altos Research active market real estate data. More technically, each dot on the map represents the ratio of a zipcode’s household income to the weighted average of single family home list prices and multi-family home list prices. I used median numbers, to minimize the impact of foreclosures or extremely wealthy households. Single and multi-family home prices were weighted by listing inventory, so urban condos matter as much as those McMansions in the ‘burbs. The green dots are areas where proportionally more income is spent on housing, and blue dots are the opposite.

Bay Area Housing Proportional Housing Expense

The data shows that people living in the city of San Francisco spend a much larger proportion of their income on housing than Oaklanders or those in San Jose. If we assume that the real estate market is somewhat efficient, then those who choose to live in certain neighborhoods forgo savings and disposable income. Why is it that housing expenses for living in San Francisco are so much higher than San Jose, even when we control for income disparity?

The Real Estate Menu
Like a proper hack economist, I am going to gloss over the obvious driving factors of proportionally expensive housing, such as poor labor mobility, lack of job opportunities, and a history of minority disenfranchisement. I am a chef by training — culinary arts degree from CHIC, the Le Cordon Bleu school in Chicago — and remain fascinated by the hospitality industry. So instead of diving into big social problems, I focused on something flippant and easy to measure: Where people go out to eat, across areas with different levels of proportional housing expense.

I analyzed the menus of a random selection of 5,400 sit-down and so-called “fast casual” restaurants across the United States. This menu population is hopefully large and diverse enough to represent dining out in general, though it is obviously biased toward those restaurants with the money and gumption to post their menus online. However there is not a disproportionate number of national chain restaurants, since even the most common restaurant, T.G.I. Friday’s, is only about 2.5% of the population:

Restaurant Histogram

Menu Words
The next step in my analysis was counting the common words and phrases across the menus. Here are the top fifty:

1. sauce, 2. chicken, 3. cheese, 4. salad, 5. grilled, 6. served, 7. fresh, 8. tomato, 9. shrimp, 10. roasted, 11. served-with, 12. garlic, 13. cream, 14. red, 15. fried, 16. onions, 17. tomatoes, 18. beef, 19. rice, 20. onion, 21. bacon, 22. topped, 23. mushrooms, 24. topped-with, 25. steak, 26. vinaigrette, 27. spinach, 28. lettuce, 29. pork, 30. green, 31. potatoes, 32. spicy, 33. white, 34. salmon, 35. in-a, 36. soup, 37. peppers, 38. mozzarella, 39. lemon, 40. sweet, 41. with-a, 42. menu, 43. beans, 44. dressing, 45. fries, 46. tuna, 47. black, 48. greens, 49. chocolate, 50. basil

Pervasive ingredients like “chicken” turn up, as do common preparation and plating terms like “sauce” and “topped-with”. Perhaps my next project will be looking at how this list changes over time. For example, words like “fried” were taboo in the 90’s, but more common during this post-9/11 renaissance of honest comfort food. Now-a-days chicken can be “fried” again, not necessarily “crispy” or “crunchy”.

A Tasty Model
Next I trained a statistical model using the menu words and phrases as independent variables. My dependent variable was the proportional housing expense in the restaurant’s zipcode. The model was not meant to be predictive per se, but instead to identify the characteristics of restaurant menus in more desirable areas. The model covers over five thousand restaurants, so menu idiosyncrasy and anecdote should average out. The algorithm used was our bespoke version of least-angle regression with the lasso modification. It trains well on even hundreds of independent variables, and highlights which are most informative. In this case, which of our many menu words and phrases are correlated with proportional housing expense?

Why Clams are Bourgeois

The twenty menu words and phrases most correlated with low proportional housing expense (the bluer dots) areas:

1. tortilla, 2. cream-sauce, 3. red-onion, 4. thai, 5. your-choice, 6. jumbo, 7. crisp, 8. sauce-and, 9. salads, 10. oz, 11. italian, 12. crusted, 13. stuffed, 14. marinara, 15. broccoli, 16. egg, 17. scallops, 18. roast, 19. lemon, 20. bean

Several of these words of phrases are associated with ethnic cuisines (i.e. “thai” and “tortilla”), and others emphasize portion size (i.e. “jumbo” and “oz” for ounce). Restaurants in high proportional housing expense areas (greener dots) tend to include the following words and phrases on their menus:

1. clams, 2. con, 3. organic, 4. mango, 5. tofu, 6. spices, 7. eggplant, 8. tomato-sauce, 9. cooked, 10. artichoke, 11. eggs, 12. toast, 13. roll, 14. day, 15. french-fries, 16. duck, 17. seasonal, 18. oil, 19. steamed, 20. lunch, 21. chips, 22. salsa, 23. baby, 24. arugula, 25. red, 26. braised, 27. grilled, 28. chocolate, 29. avocado, 30. dressing

These words reflect healthier or more expensive food preparation (i.e. “grilled” or “steamed”), as well as more exotic ingredients (i.e. “mango” and “clams”). Also, seasonal and organic menus are associated with low proportional housing expense. The word “con” turns up as a counter-example for Latin American cuisine, as in “con huevos” or “chili con queso”.

Food Crystal Ball
This sort of model for restaurant menus could also be used for forecasting, to statistically predict the sort of food that will be more successful in a particular neighborhood. This predictive power would be bolstered by the fact that the population of menus has a survivorship bias, because failed or struggling restaurants are less likely to post their menus online.

This confirms my suspicion that housing expense is counter-intuitive when it comes to dining out. People who spend more of their income on housing in order to live in a desirable location have less disposable income, but these are the people who pay more for exotic ingredients and more expensive food preparation. Maybe these folks can’t afford to eat in their own neighborhood?