Domino’s in the City

Over at Volokh, David Bernstein asks, “Really, in New York (outside, perhaps, Manhattan, where the pizza situation has become dire) you are rarely more than a few blocks away from at least decent New York pizza. . . . Why would anyone in Brooklyn, ever order the dreck they sell at Domino’s?”

It’s a good question. (There are indeed Domino’s and Pizza Hut outlets in the city.) A similar question arises here in San Diego. There are approximately fifteen thousand really good Mexican food joints in San Diego. There is an abundance of small mom-and-pop places, some high-end restaurants, and authentic chains like Rubio’s. Yet amidst this land of plenty, I also see the occasional Taco Bell, as well as its bastard cousin Del Taco.

What’s going on? Two things, I suspect.

First, there is some population that actually prefers Domino’s over real pizza, and Taco Bell over real Mexican food. What can I say? There’s no accounting for taste.

Second, though, is this legitimate concern: Domino’s and Taco Bell may set a pretty low bar, but it really can get worse. Both Domino’s and Taco Bell are consistently bland, uninteresting, uninspired. On a scale of one to ten, they’re a two, or a three at best.

But some of the mom-and-pop shops — the bad ones, not the good ones — can be truly awful. On a scale of one to ten, they’re worse than a mere two. They’re a one, or a zero, or into the negatives. I’ve had bad pizza from more than one corner pizza joint in New York that was truly nauseating — substantially worse than Domino’s. And I’ve had bad Mexican food here in San Diego that was similarly worse than Taco Bell.

Given that backdrop, the presence of Domino’s or Taco Bell provides a minimum baseline of quality — uninspiring, but unlikely to be truly, nauseatingly awful. If I have limited information about the restaurants in a location, and if I’m risk averse, I might rationally choose the relatively safe (but uninspired) option.

Say that I end up in an unfamiliar part of New York City. On one corner, I see a sign for Bernstein Pizza; on another corner, Wenger Pizza; on a third corner, Solove Pizza; on the fourth corner, Domino’s. I have no information about any of these restaurants, other than Domino’s. Chances are that one or two or even all three of the other options will be good pizza, and if they’re good, they’ll be much better than Domino’s. But one or more of them might be awful, and I don’t have a way to know which that might be.

Now I’m personally not all that risk averse, and most likely to simply try my luck on one of the corner delis. (Hence my cache of stories about bad food.) But I won’t begrudge the risk-averse actor in that situation her decision to limit potential losses by choosing to eat at Domino’s.

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15 Responses

  1. Your observation may be apt in San Diego — but in New York, the average pizza joint is vastly superior to Dominos. In my many years in New York, I have almost never had bad pizza at a New York pizza place and almost always had good pizza. So – the mystery remains!

  2. Kaimi says:


    I guess we’ll have to disagree on the evidence, then. I lived in the city for seven years, in two boroughs, and during that time I had pizza twice from corner joints (both in the Bronx — once up around 238th and Broadway, and once on Jerome around Fordham, a little west of Grand Concourse) that were substantially worse than any Domino’s I’ve ever eaten. I mean, really, really, really bad.

    That didn’t stop me from trying pizza all over the city, of course. But like I said in the post, I’m not all that risk averse. If I were risk averse, the bad pizza that I had from unknown corner shops (particularly the awful, awful stuff from the place on Jerome) might well have made me prefer Domino’s.

    (Of course, if you’re in Dumbo, or see a reliable chain like Ray’s or Famous Familia, or are on Arthur Ave, then you’re going to be just fine.)

  3. David B. says:

    Well, Taco Bell at least has the advantage of being inexpensive and quick. I don’t think Domino’s has much if any such advantages over its NYC competitors.

  4. Heidi Kitrosser says:

    Oh, how this post makes me miss “My Little Pizzeria,” on Court Street in Brooklyn Heights! I love Minneapolis, but they just don’t make pizza here like they do in Brooklyn …

  5. Eric Goldman says:

    This information deficiency is eminently fixable. When we travel, we need easy on-the-spot access to consumer/product reviews (and comparative pricing info would be great too). Cellphone/computer technology is getting close to the point where we won’t have to make these decisions blindly any more.


  6. Frank says:

    I have a lot of sympathy for Eric’s point of view…I just hope it’s all personalized! I remember the first time I was introduced to maple syrup “straight from the tree.” This was supposed to be the height of gourmet experience. But since I’d only had processed syrup before, the taste was altogether foreign to me. I declared a preference for Mrs. Butterworth’s, a gustatory gaffe forever marking me as a non-epicure. (For more on food snobbery, check out this podcast:

    On the other hand, perhaps my taste for the sweeter, processed stuff is lamentable.

    Fortunately, I was exposed to good pizza as a youth!

  7. Jeanette Rodriguez-Morick says:

    I think it’s even simpler: Domino’s delivers.

  8. Dude says:

    I’d add one fairly simple reason…the bland, unsurprising, predictable product produced at Taco Bell and Domino’s is perfect for children who don’t have much of a palate for truly good food. If the kids are younger than 14-15 at least, this seems to be a vast majority of them.

  9. Rex says:

    Jeanette: So does every other place in NYC, though.

  10. Bob says:

    I think the problem with this argument is that it assumes that a person is generically hungry for a certain kind of food. While this can often be true, I find that often I am hungry not just for a certain kind of food, but more specifically for a certain kind of food from a certain place. Thus, when I am hungry for taco bell food, even though I know of better Mexican food places that are equally as convenient, I eat taco bell food.

  11. Wayne Butler says:

    Some of the restaurants in Trastevere make great pizza- very thin crispy crust. But it’s a long way and they don’t deliver.

  12. Greg McNeal says:

    Ok, reading this post made me hungry (thanks guys). SO I called Domino’s and ordered one of these Brooklyn Style pizzas (a 45 minute estimated delivery time btw…whatever happened to that 30 minutes or its free thing?!?! I seem to recall lawsuits related to delivery drivers rushing to deliver pizzas, but that could be an urban legend). Anywho, we’ll see how this thing tastes.

    Upfront let me just make this disclaimer. I’m from New Jersey, so I’m used to pretty good pizza (spillage from NYC). Second, I live in Ohio and the pizza here makes me want to light myself on fire. So, the bar is pretty low. If this Domino’s really is a 3 I’ll be delighted as I haven’t had a slice of pizza here that would rank above a 1.

  13. Greg McNeal says:

    Ok, it arrived amazingly fast, under 20 mins.

    It’s a 2. It’s better than any other Domino’s pizza (not a claim to fame). Pretty much the same dough but thinner. It’s better than any other Ohio pizza I’ve had. It is a FAR FAR cry from anything you’d get in any corner pizza shop in NYC, NJ, Eastern PA.

  14. ML says:

    The risk averse theory is great. And I think the speed issue is definitely a factor. But isn’t this also just a symptom of price? That is, Dominos or Taco Bell exist in those markets (despite their general lack of quality) because they fill a low budget niche.

  15. Anon says:

    The real mystery is how New Yorkers delude themselves into thinking less is more. There’s nothing like a great Chicago stuffed pizza from Giordano’s or Gino’s East. That’s a pizza pie!