Category Archives: Dining

Why Tipping is Inefficient

I am not a fan of tipping.

I’ll go into some of my pet peeves around the practice, but I heartily recommend a much more reliable source: a series of blog posts from a restaurant owner who had two restaurants–one with a flat service charge and one with tips–and his thoughts on how tipping led to worse service.

In general, people think that tipping ensures good service, but I’ve never found that to be the case.

Problem #1: Most people don’t tip differently based on the level of service they receive.

I’m guilty of this myself. Honestly, the biggest variable in how much I tip is what’s the largest whole dollar number that’s less than or equal to 20% of my bill. If it’s really bad service, I might tip a little less, but I still never tip less than 15%.

Problem #2: Even if people were to tip based on the level of service they receive, the money doesn’t reinforce the service.

In sit-down restaurants, you don’t pay the bill until you’re done with the meal. Heck, you don’t even have to leave the tip until you’re leaving. So how is leaving a good tip supposed to ensure good service for what happens prior? The tip is supposed to be a “reward”, but unless you go to the same restaurant frequently and receive the same waiter and tip well enough to be remembered, tipping doesn’t actually ensure you better service unless your waiter decides to stereotype you into someone who might tip well prior to the meal commencing. It’d be better if you could wave a wad of cash in front of your server at the beginning of the meal to ensure good service.

Problem #3: Tipping incentivizes the wrong behaviors.

If you’re a waiter, the best way to increase your tips is not to provide better service (since most people don’t tip differently based on the service), but to increase the base off of which tips are calculated. This means 1) upselling and 2) increasing the number of tables you serve. I hate it when waiters try to upsell you, and it definitely decreases my enjoyment of the restaurant. And in order to increase the number of tables that a waiter serves, a waiter either needs to rush tables to turn over the table more quickly or be spread too thin to cover more tables. Both lead to worse service.

Ultimately, tipping is inefficient because it doesn’t incentivize good service; if anything, it incentivizes worse service (similar to how real estate commissions don’t incentivize good service… it incentivizes a real estate agent trying to get you to buy or sell a home). A better solution would be a fixed service charge, so that the waitstaff can focus on service, rather than on maximizing their short-term benefit of daily tips.

Travel and Food Tips for Athens, Greece

Travel Tip #1: Get to the Acropolis at 8am. Seriously. Not 8:15, not 8:30, get there at 8:00. It doesn’t sound like that much, but those extra 10 or 15 minutes can really help you get a jump on the crowds so you can take unobstructed photos without tons of other people in them. And by getting there slightly earlier, you also get to avoid that much more of the stronger sun. As an aside, don’t be fooled if you’re not feeling thirsty or hot at the top of the Acropolis because it’s windy up there; you’re very likely getting quite dehydrated if you’re not taking care of yourself.

You can't get a photo like this if you wait too long to get to the Acropolis

You can’t get a photo like this if you wait too long to get to the Acropolis

Travel Tip #2: Once you’ve visited the Acropolis, the Acropolis Museum (note: closed on Mondays) is a must-see. And one tip is to go on a gallery talk. My friends and I had the fortune of being the only people on the tour that we went on, so it was essentially like having a private tour guide of the Acropolis Museum. And our tour guide was an actual archaeologist, and she was awesome! Highly recommended.

Travel Tip #3: Go to a Greek island. It doesn’t matter which one. Or go to multiple ones. Even if you only have a couple of hours, you can make a mini-trip to Aegina, which is one of the closest islands to Athens. It takes a little over an hour to get there on the big boats (which I recommend over the much more turbulent but faster small boats), and it’s completely worth the detour.

The water is incredible

The water is incredible

Food Tip #1: Stani is a must if you can tolerate dairy. It’s an old-school dairy bar that serves the most delicious yogurt I’ve ever had. At first, I was shocked to see people ordering an entire block of yogurt for themselves, but after trying it, I completely understood how one person could eat so much yogurt. And their cream pie dusted with cinnamon is pretty delicious as well.

Delicious, delicious yogurt topped with honey and walnuts

Delicious, delicious yogurt topped with honey and walnuts

Food Tip #2: For good taverna food, Paradosiako is a good bet. Although it did seem a little overrun with tourists, the food was hearty and delicious, and it felt like you were eating out of someone’s kitchen. We particularly enjoyed the fava bean dip (perhaps the epitome of what comfort food), the stuffed peppers, and anything with eggplant.

Food Tip #3: Kostas is often recommended for their souvlaki (and my friends seemed to enjoy their grilled meat in pita very much), but I was very pleasantly surprised by their vegetarian sandwich as well. It was just vegetables and yogurt in pita, but it was seasoned well and much better than I was expecting. It’s not much more than a snack, though, but it’s so cheap that it hardly matters. For specifically vegetarian food, Avocado is a welcome respite when you’ve been traveling for a while and just need food that feels good to eat.

Such a tiny grill for such a wonderful operation

Such a tiny grill for such a wonderful operation

Have any favorite Athens tips you’d like to share? Leave them in the comments!

Aegean Airlines Economy Class Snack Boxes (Regular, VGML, Kosher)

When I booked flights for my friends and myself to fly from Istanbul to Athens on the Aegean Airlines website, I reserved a strict vegetarian/vegan/VGML, as that’s my normal dietary preference. But since it was so easy to request special meals, I decided to request a Kosher meal for one of my friends because hey, why not?

The flight itself was fine for a short hop. One of the flight attendants was quite attractive, but she also looked like she hated life every time she interacted with customers. It didn’t necessarily result in poor or lacking service (except for lacking a smile), and her face was hilarious to look at every time.

It’s always a treat when flying non-US airlines on these short hops because they always manage to do so much more in such a short period of time. In this case, for our roughly hour-long flight, they did a beverage service and served snack boxes, which I found impressive (although I guess not as impressive as the full meal service I received on the 40-minute flight from Doha to Dubai on Qatar Airways I took earlier this year).

Regular snack box

Regular snack box

Up first was the regular snack box, which had a chicken sandwich and something along the lines of a honey cake for dessert. Verdict from my friends: surprisingly delicious, especially the dessert.

Kosher snack box

Kosher snack box

Next up was the Kosher snack box, which had orange juice, tuna, crackers, and an apple compote. Verdict: confusing, but tasty. It was a little unclear why they chose the things they did  (I’m guessing for shelf life?), as it was slightly unclear what components were supposed to go together (tuna on crackers? apple compote on crackers? apple on tuna?). Individually, though, the items were tasty.

VGML snack box

VGML snack box

Contents of the vegetarian sandwich

(Meager) Contents of the vegetarian sandwich

Finally, we have the VGML aka strict vegetarian aka vegan snack box, which had a roasted vegetable sandwich and a Nature Valley granola bar. Verdict: okay, but lacking. The bites of the sandwich that actually had roasted vegetables were pretty delicious, but there weren’t many roasted vegetables to speak of. And for what it’s worth, many vegans don’t consider honey to be vegan, so the granola bar isn’t strictly vegan (although it’s at least not blatantly not vegan like some of the things I’ve received in VGML meals from United…).

Overall, surprisingly tasty snacks from Aegean Airlines on the short hop from Istanbul to Athens. I’d happily fly them again, although it’s a little sad that the tickets I booked didn’t accrue miles on United and only accrued 50% mileage on US Airways.

Food Tips for Istanbul

Tip #1: Kaymak. Eat it. It’s wonderful and delicious and similar to clotted cream. I think the best kaymak we had was at Karakoy Ozsut, which is right near the Karakoy tram stop. The owner is super friendly and talked to us about the herd of buffalos that he keeps and good farming practices.

Delicious, delicious kaymak

Delicious, delicious kaymak

Tip #2: Balik ekmek is ubiquitous around Galata bridge. You might be attempted to eat the fish sandwiches from the busy gaudy boats on the Eminomu side of the bridge, but you should really go to the Karakoy side and find the men with the portable grills making balik ekmek. They’re ten times as delicious as the sandwiches from the seemingly more impressive boats.

These guys are so much better than the boats across the bridge

The sandwiches from these guys are so much better than those from the gaudy boats across the bridge

Tip #3: The best baklava that we had was at Karakoy Gulluoglu (okay, it sounds like we spent all of our time in Karakoy, which isn’t true, but there was a lot of good food in this area). The baklava wasn’t cloyingly sweet or heavy, you can get a dollop of kaymak on the side, and they even have options for diabetics or people with gluten sensitivities. It’s also a great place to sit for a while to escape the heat as they have air conditioning, self-serve water, and bathrooms.

Also located very close to the Karakoy tram stop

Also located very close to the Karakoy tram stop

Tip #4: As much as I love the Spice Bazaar, you probably shouldn’t do any serious food shopping there unless you really know your stuff. You can often find the exact same goods just outside the market for a fraction of the price, and many things are not what they seem (e.g. Turkish “saffron”).

Tip #5: Istanbul Eats was a very reliable source of good food recommendations. Many of the places that we ate at were written up on their site. We particularly enjoyed Nar Lokantasi, Karakoy Lokantasi, and Gram (all for lunch).

Do you have any favorite Istanbul food or dining tips that you’d like to share?

Waiting for the Cronut

The cronut is the latest craze to hit New York. People are waiting hours in line starting in the wee hours of the morning to get them, and there’s even a black market of cronut delivery services that charge upwards of $40 per cronut. But seeing as how I was up at 5am anyway due to jetlag, I figured I might as well read outside while waiting for a cronut instead of read inside, and made my way to Dominique Ansel when it was still dark out.

Before the cronut craze, though, I knew that I wanted to stop by Dominique Ansel when I was in New York. The last time I was here, the kouign amann was perhaps the best pastry I’d ever eaten, and I wanted to eat it again. So it’s not just about the cronut at Dominque Ansel (although the almond croissant that I had last time was terrible; far too wet).

I got to the storefront at 5:43am. There were already 2 people waiting at this point. For a point of reference, the bakery opens at 8:00am.

6:00am. 19 people in line already.

6:00am. 19 people in line already.

At 6:17am, two people run by, who are clearly much better people than the people like me who are waiting to stuff their faces with a croissant-donut frankenmonster. I hear one of them exclaim to the other, “fucking donut”.

6:20am. Line hits corner of the block.

6:20am. Line hits corner of the block.

It’s interesting to see how people are amusing themselves. Most people are on their phones. Person who arrived first is watching a downloaded TV series on his laptop. Person #2 is attempting to use Grindr surreptitiously, but not being very successful at it.

6:34am. Dominque Ansel arrives at the bakery.

6:34am. Dominque Ansel arrives at the bakery.

The man himself arrives in a cab. Is it surprising that a pastry chef who made a deep-fried croissant is so thin?

6:50am. Line extends well past where I can see from my place at the beginning of the line. Website says that getting there at 6:45am means you have a good chance of getting a cronut.

6:50am. Line extends well past where I can see from my place at the beginning of the line.

The website says that people arriving by 6:45am have a good chance of getting a cronut. Since they only make 300 and each person can buy 2, it’s entirely possible that people arriving now will not get cronuts. Shortly after, another person runs by and exclaims expletives at the fat-assery of the line.

8:10am. Line wrapped around the block. Doubtful that all of these people will get cronuts.

8:10am. Line wrapped around the block. Doubtful that all of these people will get cronuts.

The bakery opens slightly after 8am. I get my 2 cronuts, a kouign amann, and a canele for $19.87. Since I don’t actually want to eat 2 cronuts, I go to the back of the line and ask if anyone wants to buy a cronut off of me. One woman offers $20, and I accept.

The cronut. July's flavor is blackberry lime.

The cronut. July’s flavor is blackberry lime.

So the verdict: definitely tasty, but definitely not worth the wait and/or paying $20 (or more) for it. My opinion might be different if they offered freshly fried cronuts, but it’s otherwise just a really good, slightly unusual donut. My recommendation would be to go later in the morning and just get a kouign amann and a canele. Both are decidedly more delicious than a cronut, and there’s no crazy hype around those (I have not had a comparable kouign amann to those from Dominique Ansel; the canele from Boulette’s Larder at the Ferry Building in San Francisco is comparable to the canele from Dominique Ansel).

It was kinda fun to wait in line, though, more as a anthropological case study than anything else. What compels people to wait in line starting at 6:00am for a pastry? And who are the sorts of people who are willing to do this?

Dining Review: Gartine, Amsterdam, Netherlands

When I was looking for things to eat in Amsterdam, I kept seeing Gartine mentioned, which I didn’t really understand since it’s just a breakfast/brunch/lunch place. How good could a place that doesn’t even serve dinner be?

I was blown away by Gartine. It’s amazing. The best brunch I’ve ever had. It’s not fancy, but it’s simple and pure and delicious. It was so good that after going there once, I had to return the next day since I knew that if I didn’t I would regret it.

Gartine aka best breakfast ever

Gartine aka best breakfast ever

Gartine is small, with just a handful of tables downstairs and a small seating area upstairs (which seems to be very coveted). We visited in the off season and were able to get seated prior to 10:30am on both days that we went, but I would generally recommend making reservations, as we saw multiple parties get turned away as it got closer to lunch time.

It’s run by a friendly couple who exude love for what they do. You just feel warm by sitting there, and you can tell they take so much pride in their craft. Have you heard of the Danish term hygge? That’s what I felt eating at Gartine.

The food is simply prepared but incredibly well executed. Everything we tried was varying shades of great: the scrambled eggs were light, fluffy, and perfectly seasoned; the sourdough toast was hearty and full of flavor; the french toast was not too sweet and served with a heavenly apple butter; the jams are homemade and intriguing. If you’re a party of 2, I’d recommend splitting a large breakfast and another plate, like the scrambled eggs.

The bread part of the large breakfast and the scrambled eggs

The bread part of the large breakfast and the scrambled eggs

Leaving Gartine behind in Amsterdam definitely made me sad as a place like this could never exist in San Francisco, since there’d be a 3-hour wait, the prices would be at least 50% higher, and the quality of the food would suffer since they wouldn’t need to try even half as hard and they’d still have people beating down the doors to get in. The food at Gartine is nothing that you’ve never eaten before, but the quality and execution is just so darned good. It’s a definite must-eat if you’re ever in Amsterdam.

Dining Review: L’Arpège, Paris, France

L’Arpège is mecca for vegetarians. It’s the only 3 Michelin star restaurant that I know of where the primary focus of the food is on vegetables. Chef Alain Passard decided to showcase vegetables in 2001, several years after he had already received a vaulted third Michelin star, and it’s a testament to his craft that he retained all three stars after making the switch. L’Arpège is also reputed to have the best butter in the world, with Bordier making a butter specifically for Chef Passard.

Given all of the above, and the fact that several chefs that I adore said that L’Arpège was on their must-eat lists, I knew that I had to eat there when I visited Paris. I made reservations well in advance using the Visa Signature Concierge, but for lunch service instead of dinner service, as the lunch menu is considerably less expensive than the dinner menu. While lunch was still a very pricey 140 euro per person, the dinner menu clocked in at 420 euro, which I believe is the most expensive menu in Paris.

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Lunch menu for the day

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Compare to a 420 euro truffle menu! Granted, truffles are expensive.

Before getting into the food, I have to say that the service was impeccable. I loved the hostess in particular, who was personable in both English and French. When my dining partner had a hard time choosing between “scales” or “feathers” for his meat course, she exclaimed, “why not have both!”, and we had an extra course compliments of the house. Chef Passard also comes around during the meal service to talk to every table. While he does seem to prefer diners who speak French, he’s friendly to all, and it’s a nice gesture for him to make an effort to chat with everyone.

Now, onto the food:

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Trio of tartelettes as an amuse bouche. Bonus: they gave us two plates! Possibly because we devoured the first plate so quickly.

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Beurre Bordier. Best butter in the world? We went through two of these slices.

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Vegetable “sushi” with horseradish

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Described as the perfect egg. I think that’s a fair description. While I’ve had great imitations at other restaurants, the egg at L’Arpège is a must.

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Onion gratin with SO MUCH BLACK TRUFFLE. I’ve never had so much truffle in my life. It’s a very different flavor than what I thought truffles tasted like. See this NYTimes article for more information about truffle oil.

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This is a vegetarian ravioli soup not on the menu

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This is one of two courses which I didn’t “get”. It’s a beet. A rather large one at that. While it was subtle and pure, I wish this course would have been smaller.

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Vegetable garden with couscous

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Celeriac pasta. Better than any actual pasta that I’ve had.

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Some of the most delicious things to grace a plate

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The other course that wasn’t my favorite, but that’s largely because I’m not a cheese person.

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Sucrerie

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Dessert #1: The archetypal creme brulee

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Dessert #2: Avocado souffle

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Dessert #3: Apple tart

In spite of consuming no meat, this was the most gluttonous food experience of my life. To give you a sense of perspective, we were seated at 12:30pm, and we finished 4.5 hours later where we had to waddle out of the restaurant. Chef Passard had warned us to save room for dessert when he came to chat with us, but I didn’t expect to receive three! (For what it’s worth, it seemed like the desserts were distributed somewhat arbitrarily: some tables received a millefeuille, which I really wanted and will be sure to request next time; some received ice cream; all seemed to receive at least two different things) When the apple tart was set on our table, my dining companion and I burst out laughing because it was all too much.

L’Arpège was a superlative dining experience. I will surely return whenever I’m in Paris. Although the price tag is high, I firmly believe that it was actually quite inexpensive for what you receive. The Michelin guide describes three-star restaurants as having “exceptional cuisine, worth a special journey”, and I have to agree that L’Arpège is worth a special journey, especially if you have any vegetarian tendencies.