Browsing through peoples’ posts of their favorite things to do in Houston, there’s a recurring theme of eating out. USA Today called Houston “the dining-out capital of the nation”: on average, we eat out more often than any other city in the country, at the second-lowest average price (Zagat). The Chronicle claims Houstonians eat out a third more times per week at 20 percent lower cost than the national average, with 9,000 area restaurants to choose from (which also makes us one of the nation’s leaders in restaurants per capita). Finally, I’ve talked to tons of people who have moved away from Houston, and one of the first things they mention missing is the restaurants.
So it’s definitely one of the great strengths of Houston, but also one that raises skepticism from anybody who hasn’t lived here: why would Houston have more or better restaurants than anywhere else? What’s so special about Houston? I think there are set of factors that have come together to create the “perfect storm” of great restaurants in Houston:
- Diversity. Start with Houston having a very diverse population from all over the globe, so there’s plenty of people available to start restaurants in their native ethnic cuisine. Not a whole lot of cities can say that. I think a lot of that is related to being the capital of the energy industry, which is an inherently global industry. That plus being a major port city and proximity to Latin America and Cajun Louisiana.
- Lack of zoning. Houston’s open development culture makes it easy for anybody to start a restaurant. Plenty of inexpensive space and not a lot of regulations/permitting.
- The freeway network. This may seem to be an odd factor, but think about it. We have a very well developed freeway network compared to a lot of cities (mainly because Houston only really grew after the widespread adoption of air conditioning in the 1950s, so the car has been an integral part of its growth vs. many older cities). Outside of rush hour, that network puts a lot of restaurants within 15-20 minutes of most people, so restaurants can easily draw customers from a large area.
- Sheer size. We have 5 million people in the metro area. That’s a lot of potential customers to draw from, especially when combined with the accessibility of the freeway network. That means there are enough people within easy driving distance to support exotic niche restaurants and ethnic cuisines.
- Intense competition. Combining the first 4 factors, we have a lot of restaurants that are easily accessible, meaning that the not-so-great ones die off pretty quickly. Why go to a mediocre restaurant if a much better one is only 5 minutes further away? In more mobility-challenged cities, many mediocre restaurants survive because they’re one of a handful of convenient options within a given neighborhood or area. In essence, they have a partial monopoly. That kind of competitive barrier is almost non-existent in Houston.
- Low cost of living, especially housing – part 1. Houston is one of the lowest cost of living major cities in America. Lower cost of living means lower labor costs, which are a big part of the cost of running a restaurant. That lets them keep prices low, which attracts more customers.
- Low cost of living, especially housing – part 2. The second impact of a low cost of living is that people have lots of leftover income to spend on eating out. That discretionary income is the raw fuel that drives the restaurant scene. If people are feeling squeezed financially, one of the first things they do is eat at home or pack a lunch to work.
- Relatively high average incomes. Mainly because of the high-paying energy industry, Houston has higher average incomes than many similar cities . Not as high as cities like New York and San Francisco, but those cities also have much higher costs of living. Our average incomes are very high compared to our cost of living, which boosts the discretionary income available for spending at restaurants.
So that’s my list of reasons for Houston’s great dining scene. It’s a substantial competitive amenity for the city. Cities like to hype amenities like museums and performing arts, but really, how often do you go to a museum or an arts performance? A few times a year? How often do you eat out? Hopefully more than a few times a year (although, for ideal health, hopefully less often than me). Great, affordable, accessible restaurants are an amenity you can enjoy every single day. We should be proud, and work as a community to preserve all the elements of our excellent “perfect storm.”
[This post originally appeared on Gattis’ blog Houston Strategies.]