Consuming the city: Ranking restaurants per capita

By Joe Cortright

The number of eating places per capita is a key measure of a city’s livability.

Cities are great places for consumers. They provide an abundance and variety of choices, especially in the form of experiences. While our conventional economic indicators don’t fully capture the nature and depth of choices in cities, there are some measures that shed light on which places offer the most. Today we offer our index of restaurants per capita as one such indicator of where choice is greatest.

There are plenty of competing rankings for best food cities floating around the internet. You can find lists for cities with the most restaurants, the best restaurants, the most distinctive local restaurants… and of course none of these seem to agree (although the “winners” tend to be similar among these lists).

But what about the cities that provide the most dining options per person? And what does restaurant variety have to do with a city’s livability?

One of the hallmarks of a great city is a smorgasbord of great places to eat. Cities offer a wide variety of choices of what, where, and how to eat, everything from grabbing a dollar taco to seven courses of artisanally curated locally raised products (not to mention pedigreed chickens). The “food scene” is an important component of the urban experience.

Restaurants are an important marker of the amenities that characterize attractive urban environments. Ed Glaeser and his colleagues found that “Cities with more restaurant and live performance theaters per capita have grown more quickly over the past 20 years both in the U.S. and in France.”

Matthew Holian and Matthew Kahn have seen that an increase in the number of restaurants per capita in a downtown area has a statistically significant effect in reducing driving and lowering greenhouse gas production. We’ve assembled data on the number of restaurants per capita in each of the nation’s largest metropolitan areas. These data are from the County Business Patterns data compiled by the US Census Bureau for 2012. Note that this category, technically NAICS 72251, includes both sit down, table service restaurants and simpler fast food and self-service self-service establishments. We’re also looking at metrowide data to assure that the geographical units we’re comparing are defined in a similar fashion—political boundaries like city limits and county lines are arbitrary and vary widely from place to place, making them a poor basis for constructing this kind of comparison.

As you might guess, the metro areas with the most restaurants per capita are found predominantly in the Northeast and on the West Coast. Elsewhere, New Orleans scores high as well. While the average metropolitan area has about 17 restaurants per 10,000 residents, the range is considerable. The San Francisco metropolitan area has more than 23 restaurants per 10,000, while Riverside and Grand Rapids have only about 14 per 10,000. (On this map areas shaded green have the highest number of restaurants per capita; areas shaded red have the fewest. Detailed data on individual metropolitan areas is shown in the table below).

The top six metropolitan areas on this indicator are San Francisco, New York, Providence, Boston, Seattle and Portland. Each of these cities has twenty or more restaurants per 10,000 population. With the possible exception of Providence, all of these are recognized as major food cities in the US. (And Portland achieves its high ranking without counting the city’s more than 500 licensed food carts.)

In an important sense, the number of different restaurants in an area correlates to the range choices available to consumers. Cities that have more restaurants per capita tend to have larger restaurants (measured by the average number of employees per restaurant). Interestingly, Las Vegas, which we think of as a tourism mecca, has fewer restaurants per capita than the average metropolitan area. A lot of this has to do with scale—the average restaurant in Las Vegas tends to be much larger than in other metropolitan areas.

This ranking doesn’t include anything about quality–simply quantity–but the higher restaurants per capita can indicate higher competition (and therefore better quality options), or higher demand (a signal that more diversity of options is valued, allowing for more valuable experiences).

While this isn’t a perfect listing of best food culture — each person’s measure of the ‘best food town’ is subjective — it does settle the debate of where you should go to have the largest selection of eatery options.

Joe Cortright is President and principal economist of Impresa, a consulting firm specializing in regional economic analysis, innovation and industry clusters. Joe’s work casts a light on the role of knowledge-based industries in shaping regional economies. Joe served for 12 years as the Executive Officer of the Oregon Legislature’s Trade and Economic Development Committee.

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