Those differences are immediately apparent when looking at the city’s official road classifications: Avenues tend to be listed as major arteries, while streets are considered collector and local roads.
Several months ago, George Mason economist Tyler Cowen recorded a podcast with urban planning expert Alain Bertaud of New York University. Cowen asked whether Manhattan’s streets or avenues had better food. “In the streets, definitely,” Bertaud responded, because “you have more specialty restaurants in the streets. In the avenues, you have more people who are just transient, just pass by and are looking for faster food.”
Bell decided to test this hypothesis by harvesting the Yelp reviews of 20,000 Manhattan restaurants. The data showed that the average street restaurant had a Yelp rating of 3.62 stars, while those on avenues received 3.49 stars — a difference that isn’t likely to be random statistical noise.
More to the point, outstanding restaurants — those with a rating of 4.5 stars or higher — were nearly 50 percent more likely to be located on a street than on an avenue. Bell found that “18% of restaurants on the streets had a score of 4.5 or higher, compared to 13% of restaurants on avenues.”
The difference appears to be tied to the relative amounts of foot traffic on streets and avenues, as Bertaud posited. Streets see fewer pedestrians, and off-the-beaten-path restaurants may need to optimize for quality to keep customers coming back. Restaurants on avenues, on the other hand, are virtually guaranteed a relatively large traffic stream. That may force them to place more emphasis on volume, particularly if they’re dealing with higher rents as a result of their busier location.
The latter approach goes to extremes in big tourist draws such as Times Square, which happens to lie at the crooked intersection of two major north-south corridors: Broadway and Seventh Avenue. As the Village Voice once put it, Times Square is “the bad-eats capital of the city, because every abject chain, no matter how awful, has pitched its tent there.” The restaurants there are optimizing for volume, in other words, and particularly for out-of-town customers who won’t likely be returning regardless of whether the experience is good or bad.
It isn’t difficult to see this general principle holding for other towns as well. Main thoroughfares are often home to fast-food and fast-casual restaurants — note the emphasis on fast — catering to people hurrying by in the course of various errands. Really good food — the kind that Yelp reviewers rate highly — might be found at a tiny restaurant on an out-of-the-way street, or at the ethnic food joint in a strip mall well off the main drag.
In the end, the structural quirks of Manhattan’s street grid provide a handy natural experiment to explore the inherent tensions between quality and quantity in the restaurant business. It’s a striking reminder of how seemingly arbitrary decisions made by city planners centuries ago still have a concrete impact on our lives today.