Urban living and restaurants and liquidity

Last night I had dinner at Alfanoose, a small Mediterranean joint off Broadway. I had hummus and salad with pita bread, and had also brought along a falafel sandwich which is now sitting in my fridge and is likely to get consumed today for breakfast. Excellent stuff. Absolutely brilliant. And not expensive at all – ten bucks for the hummus and salad, and six for the sandwich. Considering that USD = 10 INR according to the Idli index, this is extremely reasonable, insane value for money.

I have been intending to write this post for ages, about how one of the best positive externalities of urban living is restaurants. When you are living in a desolate area, with not too many people around, there is no option but to cook your own food. Even if you live in a village ora small town, the number of people who are willing to eat out will be small, which means it makes little business sense for someone to open a restaurant there. You are likely to find a handful of them, but the lack of competition will mean that you can’t really trust quality.

There is a network effect in restaurants. Some people don’t eat anywhere but at home, and some don’t cook at home at all. However, there is the large middle ground of people whose consumption of restaurant food varies directly with quality and liquidity. And these two concepts are inter-related – the bigger the town is, the greater the required supply of restaurants which means more competition and thus higher quality. And higher quality leads to higher demand (more fence-sitters converted) and the virtuous cycle goes on (of course, population and the fact that some people don’t like to eat out limits the boundaries of the cycle).

Another thing is that the larger a town gets, the greater the liquidity of the food market in there, there is more variety. If you remember Bangalore in the 1980s, when I was growing up, there was one standard type of restaurant. Where you would get cheap idli and dosa and a few other standard snacks, and a few “north indian” items at meal times, and every time you wanted to eat out you had to go with one of these. And you would have noticed how with the growth in the restaurant market in the 90s you got more variety.

What makes cities such as London and New York such foodie havens is their size, and also that culturally people here are more inclined towards eating out than in other places such as India. This leads to insane liquidity in the market, and as I explained above that leads to more variety, and so you get more niche food. And when you have cities as large as New York or London, what you get is full-fledged liquid markets in cuisines that are everywhere else considered niche!

So because of liquidity in otherwise niche markets, in each cuisine you will find various kinds of restaurants. Like yesterday I had awesome hummus at this self-service place! While in a place like Bangalore to get any kind of hummus you’ll have to go to a fine dining place and spend a bomb.

Another thing I realized is that when liquidity is thin it usually occupies the top end – like how in Bangalore you get non-Indian stuff only in high end fine dining places. But I suppose I’ll write about that in detail some other day

Weddings

I’m trying to understand the significance of attending another person’s wedding. It is very unlikely that you are going to add any significant value to the process, since the person who invited you is likely to be extremely busy with the process. Unless you know one of the main people involved in the wedding really well, there is a finite probability that your attendance might not be noted also (just in case the photographer is not diligent enough).

Of course, weddings give you the opportunity to network. Especially if it is a noisy south indian setting (I’ve attended one north indian wedding so far, and what put me off was the requirement to stay silent during the proceedings) or a reception. It is a good excuse for you to catch up with all those people who belonged to the same affiliation group as you and the person who invited you. It is a good opportunity to expand your social circle.

Back in the 1980s, when I was a kid, one of the great attractions of weddings was the food. Bisibelebath was a special item back then, as were the various “wedding special” sweets. Some of the more affluent folk would also offer ice cream for dessert (that has become a common thing now, especially for receptions). The food on its own was enough to make me look forward to weddings. Over time, the general quality of wedding food has dropped. And the general quality of food in restaurants has increased well at a faster rate. So you don’t need to go to a wedding for the food anymore.

Historically, I’ve been fairly social. I’ve usually attended all functions that I’ve been invited to, especially if it’s in the same city. I admit I haven’t really travelled too many times to attend weddings but done short trips (such as Bangalore-Mysore) occasionally. I’ve always calculated that the cost (time, travel, etc.) of attending a wedding is not much in terms of potential benefits in terms of networking, catching up, expanding circle, etc. Of course, I need to admit that over the last couple of years, NED has been part of the equation, and there have been a few occasions when I’ve worn a nice shirt and then backed off from going.

It is all fine when travel is local, where NED is perhaps the only thing that can tilt the balance in favour of not attending the wedding. When you live away, the whole equation changes. The cost of travelling goes up dramatically (in terms of time, money and inconvenience). The climb is especially steep if you live a flight away, rather than just a train journey away. What used to be borderline cases when the distance was small now dussenly become absolute noes. The obvious ayes become borderline cases. And in some cases obvious ayes become obvious noes. It is only when a wedding happens in your new city that what were obvious noes become obvious ayes.

Four months ago, my cousin (father’s brother’s daughter) got married in Bangalore. If I were in Bangalore, it would have been an emphatic aye. In fact, it’s likely that I’d’ve volunteered to take up a significant number of duties at that wedding. However, the way things turned out (my being in Gurgaon), it wasn’t tough to declare that as a noe. The work that I would’ve otherwise volunteered for suddenly became “work”, became a “cost”. Combined with a couple of other factors, it turned out to be a fairly obvious noe. And I don’t think anyone really minded.

It seems to be the season for friends to get married, especially juniors from IIMB. Two of them who have just got married to each other are having their reception tonight 100m away from my Bangalore house. A case that would have been an overwhelming yes, now become borderline. Remember that NED to travel varies with the travel-cost in a super-linear fashion, and I think it is that which has turned today’s case into a no. There have already been a few other weddings in the season for which I’ve convinced myself with a similar reason. And there are more.

So I ask myself once again – why should I attend someone’s wedding? I have so far been putting the obvious variables into my calculation – netwroking opportunity, goodwill, opportunity to catch up with people, side effects (a wedding in Bangalore is a good excuse for me to visit Bangalore, etc.), travel costs, chance of occurrence of NED, how much ‘work’ it will be, etc. and have been trying to base my decision on these.

Is there something I’ve missed out? Is there something else that I need to consider which might change the costs and benefits of going? Coming back to the more fundamental¬† question, why should I attend someone’s wedding?