Even a struggling economy can’t keep me away from an occasional, quality restaurant meal for too long. However, dining out, like everything else I spend money on in my financially-limited life, must serve multiple purposes. If the National Restaurant Association’s annual forecasted trends list is any indication, I’m not alone in my culinary requirements. The Association’s predictions for this year’s hottest food trends focus on local goods, smaller portions (which means smaller prices!), and unique, exotic ingredients.
Many restaurants around the country feature creative, cutting-edge interpretations of these trends. A visit to any of these eateries—including those mentioned below—is sure to school you on what’s popular in the industry and make your dining experience have more bang for your hard-earned bucks.
Oddly enough, chefs are luring people back into their restaurants by using the most common ingredient of all. However, the type of salt is where innovation comes into play. Exotic, expensive salts are popping up on menus all over the country. At the JW Desert Ridge Resort in Phoenix, there’s a page on the menu dedicated to different tasting salts, including Jurassic sea salt (aged 150 million years to give it a “peppery” flavor) and volcanic Hawaiian salt, which is partially composed of clay from volcanoes. Chef David Burke, who runs gourmet restaurants all over the country, has made pink Himalayan rock salt his specialty, using it to season his dishes. The salt trend isn’t limited to savory dishes, either. Compartes Chocolatier in Los Angeles has a line of signature truffles that includes Fleur de Sel, toffee, and smoked salt. (Photo source: Tnwanderer, cc)
9. Energy Drink Cocktails
Energy drinks have become as ubiquitous at the bar as tonic or Coke. Restaurants and bars are stepping it up a notch by playing with new flavors and utilizing different caffeinated liquids. Azia restaurant in Vancouver has crafted shooters with Red Bull, including the Golden Bomb, which combines the key ingredient with Jägermeister and Goldschlager. At Sublime Restaurant and Bar in Fort Lauderdale, patrons can order the Green Tea Martini, packing a double punch of green tea vodka and green tea liqueur. (Photo source: Jphilipson, cc)
8. Grass-Fed Items
The Mad Cow Disease scare of the 90s and the increased awareness about the origins of meat in this country (anyone read or see Fast Food Nation?) have prompted a demand for healthier, better quality meats. Grass-fed meats are leaner, lower in calories, and have a higher concentration of omega-3 fats. Local Burger, a restaurant in Lawrence, Kansas, has an innovative menu featuring grass-fed beef, buffalo, and elk burgers. At ACME Chophouse in San Francisco, all of the meats on the menu are grass-fed and hormone-free. Good for the animals, good for you, and tasty, too! (Photo source: Ewanrayment, cc)
7. Sustainable Seafood
Chickens and cows get a lot of attention from animal rights activists, but fish are being exploited, too. The oceans suffer from overfishing and the depletion of fish populations (along with the ocean life that depends on them for survival). As consumers learn more about these practices and call for change, seafood restaurants are rising to the challenge by serving sustainable dishes. RM Seafood in Las Vegas, Hook restaurant in Washington DC, and Sea Salt in Berkeley are three restaurants that promote eco-friendly eating options. They offer delicious versions of classics like Dungeness crab, oyster shooters, and battered fish and chips and reduce the carbon footprint of seafood. (Photo source: Carf, cc)
6. Craft/Microbrew/Artisan Beer
One could chalk this trend up to the “buy local” mantra that is sweeping the nation, or it could just be that people love good beer with unique, specialized flavors. Either way, a plethora of bars and restaurants around the country offer hundreds of local and specialty brews. Brouwer’s in Seattle offers 300 bottles of different beer and over sixty types of beer on tap. The Moan and Dove in Amherst, Massachusetts also boasts a dazzling array of local and imported selections—its list of Belgian and Belgian-style ales alone puts most bars to shame. Not to be outdone, restaurants are embracing the beer trend by adding beer-pairing suggestions to their menus. The Monk’s Kettle in San Francisco includes a few beer options with each of its entrees. Tria, a wine-cheese-beer bar in Philadelphia, offers classes taught by brewmasters that inform patrons on how to pair beer and cheese successfully. (Photo source: Mfajardo, cc)
5. Specialty Sandwiches
Gourmet variations on old favorites have made a comeback. Vesuvio’s in Philadelphia makes their award-winning Philly cheesesteak with filet mignon, provolone, and a spicy Sriracha (Thai-style hot sauce) mayonnaise. Chedd’s, located in Denver and Littleton, Colorado offers thirty varieties of spruced-up grilled cheese sandwiches, including the Meatless Horse (featuring horseradish havarti and chipotle cheddar) and Seeds and Weeds (dill havarti and pesto jack). Even venerable favorite PB&J has found a place in upscale dining—davidburke & donatella in New York have a version involving macadamia nut butter, brioche, foie gras, and strawberry-vanilla jam. For a less intimidating twist, check out San Francisco’s Specialty’s, which adds Granny Smith apples, cranberry sauce, and a banana to the classic. (Photo source: Sifu_renka, cc)
4. Small Plates/Tapas/Mezze
Small plates, tapas, and mezze (Greek for appetizer) have become the favorite choice for patrons looking to enjoy a meal out without the subsequent strain on their wallets. Plus, these types of meals encourage sharing and variety, so the money spent feels more like an investment. Boqueria in New York is a respected Spanish restaurant that serves the usuals like patatas bravas and pan con tomate, as well as creative tapas like Txipirones (baby squid and black olive vinaigrette). The Stanton Social, also in New York, offers an impressive array of “sliders,” mini gourmet burgers/sandwiches (including the Kobe Philly, made with goat cheese and truffle fondue) that are an increasingly popular appetizer choice. (Photo source: Kphua, cc)
3. Organic Produce
Offering organic options has become standard at many places, so competing restaurants have had to get crafty. L’Etoile in Madison, Wisconsin boasts a flavorful and unique menu that includes dishes such as roasted Jordandal chicken and polenta cakes, not to mention a wealth of local gourmet cheeses. (It is Wisconsin, after all.) However, organic food need not be fancy or overwhelming; Flatbread, with locations on the East Coast, makes delicious organic pizzas (including nitrate-free pepperoni!). Lettus in San Francisco offers a variety of organic dishes, everything from salads to curries to the best veggie burger you will ever have. (Photo source: Ciaochow, cc)
2. Locally-Grown Produce
Locally-grown produce is as hot as ever as more people branch out to farmer’s markets and realize that the local stuff tastes better, is more affordable, and benefits the environment. Many eateries are jumping on the locally-grown bandwagon, but Berkeley’s Chez Panisse has been doing it since 1971. Chez Panisse’s menu changes nightly based on what’s freshest and most in season, and features an eclectic mix of the Bay Area’s best fruits, vegetables, and meats. At the Woodfire Grill in Atlanta, Chef Michael Tuohy names his entrees after the local farms that provided the ingredients. Not only do patrons support sustainable farming practices and sample local goodies, they also get a lesson on their hometown farming industry, too. (Photo source: Annie-John, cc)
1. Bite-Sized Desserts
With the influx of economic woes, Americans have a reason other than the battle of the bulge to cut back on desserts. Restaurants have responded by offering smaller portions of sweets—tiny, one- or two-bite concoctions meant to give the taste of a gourmet dessert without the caloric guilt or hefty sum. The craze started with Magnolia cupcakes, a dessert Carrie Bradshaw introduced to non-New Yorkers on Sex and the City. Magnolia’s tiny but fancy cupcakes are aesthetically pleasing and made without preservatives. Those craving more variety should check out East Coast-favorite Seasons 52, which offers “mini indulgences” like Key Lime Pie, Pecan Pie with Vanilla Bean Mousse, and Fresh Fruit Cheesecake—all bite-sized, and all reasonably priced at $2.25 each. Even the chain P.F. Chang’s had added mini desserts to its menu, including a Banana Split, Smores, and the delicious-sounding Mini Great Wall of Chocolate. (Photo source: Giovannijl-s_photohut, cc)
I’m happy that restaurants are responding to the desires of customers by making healthy, affordable, and sustainable options so readily available. If we as consumers choose to dine out, it’s comforting to know that we can invest that money in positive culinary practices and make the restaurant trip a truly memorable and unique experience. It sure beats plain old Mickey D’s … even if their burgers are only a dollar.