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.
You'd think a post like this couldn't be objectively wrong, but it is: Mongolian Barbecue is neither Mongolian nor barbecue.
(You're also wrong about Spanish food, but that's subjective. Good Spanish food is really good. But that's just my opinion.)
Have you been to London?
When I lived in mountain view there were four different Mongolian barbecues on the one downtown street in the city. I was and remain confused by this.
As an Australian, this claim about median food quality in the US sounds kind of insane to me. Admittedly I haven’t spent much time there, but I’ve been decidedly unimpressed by the food. Maybe it’s just a combination of the bad exchange rate and where I’ve been, but it was absurdly expensive and generally mediocre…
I've recently made a compilation of every national cuisine you can try in NYC, though of course it's not just the number of cuisines that makes the city's restaurants great: https://nsokolsky.substack.com/p/74-cuisines-you-can-try-in-new-york
Enjoyed the post and I think conceptually it is accurate (America has the greatest variety and range of food options) but have to note that post-pandemic the experience of eating out in the US has degraded dramatically, I think with overall food quality dropping and price (particularly with tips, going from 18-20% to 20-30% expectations) going up a lot. For a family of four, we looked at vacations in Florida vs Barcelona during kids spring break, and Europe won on every measure - Florida tickets were 6-700, vs 400 for Barcelona, hotels were half the price for similar quality, and average meal for family of 4 was ~$200-250 with 1 drink per person in the US vs ~$90-110 in Spain and the food was much better in Spain for just about everything (from steak, to seafood, for everything but Sushi), and the overall dining experience was just much more pleasant and this is with a couple of kids who like to eat early-ish. Similar experiences in Italy, Greece and Eastern Europe. Maybe over time the lower amount of variety would hurt but the overall experience is much better in Europe except for maybe the really high-end US restaurants (which I will admit not willing to take my kids to yet).
I think you're right about many reasons why chains continue to be gathering places. Another is this: you're paying for menu predictability. Does the local restaurant likely have something everyone in the group will eat? Well, fairly likely if they don't have an allergy or dietary restriction. But do I want to have to guess ahead of time? And what if there is a serious restriction? Can they accommodate that? Do I want to trust that they _really_ can?
Well, let's put it this way: there's a reason that Cheesecake Factory, which optimizes for giant menu and has a pretty good ability to meet most "I'll die unless you get this right" menu restrictions, is beloved for team dinners by traveling professionals whose expense accounts stretch to far higher budget tiers.
Chains (when done well) are Schelling points on many, many dimensions at once.
Now I am curious to know the name of the anonymous Magic pro who likes Olive Garden, although I respect Zvi's willingness to not publicly out somebody for clout.
Just a few remarks from a german reader: Countries I'm missing in the discussion: Switzerland, Austria and Israel. Fantastic food in each of these countries but of course they are small (and maybe expensive, especially Switzerland) so they are easily overlooked. Turkey seems to be overrated but it is a holiday destination so people get into contact with this kind of food. Saudi Arabia is not your typical holiday destination, so it's not surprising they find themselves at the bottom of the list. Food in the Middle East never impressed me (exception: Israel), to me it's more or less the same everywhere. But maybe we all are biased in one or other way...
My view on Asian food in New York City is that it's easier to get truly mediocre Chinese in NYC than it is most other ethnically-inflected foods, I suspect because foot traffic and information costs keep places afloat where a reliance on repeat business would not. Conversely, I think it's a little harder to find top-drawer Thai food than some other cuisines but the quality of a basic Pahd Thai is remarkably consistent across a wide range of establishments and generally pretty good -- the quality floor ends up being pretty high even if less frequently exceeded.
Your comment on baguettes is really about your poor ability to select food. France has many crap baguettes (and croissants!) but in any decent size town it is usually trivial to recognise a good one. My preferred local bakery has excellent sourdough, rustic wheat loaves and more to boot.
Also French restaurants certainly do vary but please judge them by the French version not the new York ones. For example no-one ever died wondering where the next course/coffee/ check was at lunchtime in a Paris restaurant!
I don't think you have eaten in French restaurants outside of Paris. Disregard tourist traps. While travelling across the world you will encounter randomly good or bad diners and consistently bad chain establishments in the small towns in US and incredibly diverse and ALWAYS good taverns and trattorias in small towns in Europe. If you take into account the price it's not even close.
Lots of confusion here about whether we are rating a countries cuisine, or the available restaurants in that country.
Tokyo has the best restaurants in the world and it's not even close. Aside from Japanese, many of world's best French, Italian, Spanish, and Chinese restaurants are all in Tokyo.
The chart seems fine for actual country rating. Though I think Southern American BBQ could be a "country" and rank up high.
Skeptical that this isn’t biased by people’s perception of what represents their national cuisine. What is ‘American’, what is ‘British’? Agree some are easier to identify than others.
I have the answer to applebee's/olive garden and it's neither compromise nor socialization (at least not exactly). It's comfort plus conformity.
I once dated a person who was an incredibly picky eater. People get confused about picky eating - they think it's an aversion to textures or tastes or whatever. It's none of those things. It's a fear that the thing you put in your mouth will be different than expected. If the picky eaters I've met in my travels tried a dish and it was a heavenly revelation, they'd be upset because they were not expecting to have a heavenly revelation right now thank you. Also it looked weird. So if you're going out on a date or going out with friends, you go to Applebee's. Because Applebee's will hand you the same greasy sandwich you've had 872 times before and it will be exactly as expected.
You might think that "picky eaters" is too small a base to build a chain empire on, but you'd be very wrong. While most Americans are not as drastically picky as this person was, there is a prevalent attitude in middle America that food should be reliable, predictable, made of the same 4 ingredients you always eat, and not have any weird foreign vibes.
These people also want to Go Out to a meal where a waiter serves them food and refills their glasses. They want to tip generously to impress their dates. They want to do the ritual of looking at a menu, asking questions about it and ordering food. They want to be absolutely certain that there is no tomato anywhere in the dish they order.
I'm a Spaniard, and what I've noticed is that many people in the U.S. have a limited understanding of what food in Southern Europe is genuinely like. They often overlook how it excels in areas that matter to them: health benefits (thanks to the Mediterranean diet), quality of produce (including vegetables, cheese, meats, fish, fruits, and nuts), and cooking techniques that result in unique and varied flavor profiles.
In Southern Europe, food is about enriching your life, not merely impressing your palate. People's lives often revolve around food, and they are discerning critics. Not only have they tasted a wide variety of dishes, but they've also cooked many of them at home. They're constantly sharing tips about which restaurants to try, which markets to shop at, which Spanish chefs to follow, and even which places to visit primarily for the food. Social circles frequently gather on weekends in restaurants, bars, or homes where food is considered another guest at the table. They critique dishes, challenge each other to improve, and often decide to cook themselves, confident they can do it better. As a general rule, the culinary skills found in an average Spanish home surpass what you'd typically find in an average American restaurant.
It's also a mistake to speak of French and Spanish food as if they're a monolithic culinary style. Both Spain and France, often cited as the powerhouses of modern cuisine (for an authoritative source, check "Modernist Cuisine" by Nathan Myhrvold), boast multiple, diverse, and rich regional cuisines. These regional cuisines are as different from each other as the various regional foods in India. While there are common elements—like the use of olive oil, a focus on seasonal ingredients, a philosophy of highlighting the essence of each dish, and similar proportions of carbs, fats, and proteins—each region has its unique flavors and dishes.
So why do Americans have such a skewed perception of life and food in Southern Europe? One significant factor is the lack of immigration from Spain and France, except for Italians who have had a too much of a strong influence on American perceptions of their cuisine. Cultural and economic factors likely contribute to this. Spaniards and French people value their family and quality of life highly, making them less inclined to move to a country where they might earn more but live less comfortably. This is particularly true for Spaniards, many of whom return to Spain if they do emigrate for professional or survival reasons.
This lack of immigration also explains the scarcity of authentic Spanish restaurants in the U.S. There are only a few, and most that do exist are of subpar quality. Even in places with a higher concentration of immigrants and focus on fine dining, like Miami or Chicago, the quality often falls short. Another issue is the difficulty in finding skilled cooks in the U.S. who can handle the complexities of Mediterranean dishes. Many lack the necessary training (as they are often immigrants, at least in Florida/California), and those who are trained are often accustomed to a different style of cuisine. They haven't developed a palate and understanding of the cuisine. This is not an invention of mine; I've recently talked to a Spanish chef opening a restaurant in Chicago who had to change his whole menu because his staff would be unable to learn how to properly cook it.
The same issues largely apply to French cuisine in the U.S., which brings me to your point that French cuisine focuses on impressing the customer. Traditionally, French cuisine has always been associated with fine dining, and especially so in the U.S. I've always found this to be a parody; Americans are often bewitched by French culture and elitism, it's a self-reinforced belief.
Spanish and French high-end restaurants in America often feature Spanish and French dishes, but they focus more on impressing diners with innovation and surprise than on authenticity, often at the cost of flavor. Running such a restaurant in the U.S. is expensive, often requiring chefs to be brought in from Spain or France, which in turn requires a focus on "impressive" menus to justify the costs, and especially to convince chefs to immigrate to the U.S. There's also a demand for such restaurants, as Americans want to buy in into the luxury of dining at "great" places, and they want to attract business gatherings. Ultimately, any food connoisseur will tell you these restaurants are mediocre. They are focused on making you feel special, not in feeding you stellar food, and they are to be avoided.
The interesting paradox is that if you look at the the most awarded restaurants in the world, most of them outside the US, you'll find the top lists to be dominated by Spanish, French, or at the very least Mediterranean-inspired or Mediterreanean-instructed chefs (like René Redzepi from Noma in Norway, trained at El Bulli). Fine-dining experiences in Europe are significantly different than in the US.
I don't want to argue about which cuisine is the best; I appreciate great frood from anywhere in the world, and personally I truly enjoy the food from Japan, Peru, and China. However, I find that your views on Spanish food seem not only highly biased but also reflective of a broader American perspective that I consider flawed and self-centered.
I encourage you to visit different regions of Spain to experience the food as locals do - you'll need at least three weeks to truly enjoy and experience it. If you need recommendations, let me know and I'll happily share my personal list. And, if you're ever in the Bay Area, I'd be more than happy to share authentic Catalan and Valencian dishes with you, including a true paella.
Ultimately, take my word for it. The Spanish food you can find in the US is a caricature of what it truly is. It somehow pains me how inadequate the American perception of Spanish food is, given the merits it actually has.