It’s been done with hamburgers, with cocktails, with Mexican QSR. Take a familiar concept, one with a degree of built-in familiarity and consumer acceptance, and differentiate it—around the ingredients, the menu, the presentation, the service model. Make it unique and craveable, make it stand out from the competition; just don’t make it so strange that customers don’t know what to make of it.
Hamburgers became better burgers, with righteous grass-fed beef and artisanal buns. Cocktails became craft cocktails, with mutton-chopped mixologists and drink-specific ice. And Mexican QSR became, well, Chipotle.
“Companies like Chipotle and Starbucks proved how much could be done with familiar concepts,” says Danny Bendas of Synergy Restaurant Consultants, which has provided crucial direction in such hot new concepts as LYFE Kitchen and T.G.I. Friday’s open-kitchen redesign. “They started with really different takes on things that consumers already knew they liked and wanted.”
As much as the restaurant business has already changed around innovation, there are still more categories to explore. Here are our picks for the leading edge of differentiation:
The Diner 2.0
For more than 100 years, the diner has been a restaurant archetype, offering something for everybody and breakfast at any hour. Diners have also been much maligned as the kind of places that serve an improbably huge menu of frozen and microwaved food to truckers, the clueless and the perennially unhip.
Not anymore. The “finer diner” has arrived, with chef-inspired menus, contemporary quarters, and proper beverage alcohol programs.
- Au Cheval, Chicago Yeah, there are egg dishes, chili and burgers, and yup there’s counter service and the place is open all day long and into the night. What else do you need from a diner? The latest creation of a company called Hogsalt (“preservation of food culture”), which is also behind ultra-hot Maude’s Liquor Bar, Bavette’s Bar & Boeuf and Gilt Bar, Au Cheval is all that and more. Egg dishes include Crispy Potato Hash with Duck Heart Gravy and scrambled eggs with toast and foie gras, and the cheeseburger is widely hailed as one of the best in the Windy City. Plus there’s a French bistro décor vibe, Roasted Marrow Bones with Beef Cheek Marmalade, and such “strong drinks” as a Hemingway Daiquiri and the circa-1895 Horse’s Neck (Old Overholt with lemon, ginger beer and bitters).
- Diner, Brooklyn, NYC In the hip Williamsburg neighborhood sits this new-wave diner, part of the collection of trendy restaurants that also includes Marlow & Sons and Roman. There are distinct brunch, lunch and dinner menus, but the bill of fare runs to upgraded favorites like rabbit meatballs, chilled pea soup and heesecake with lemon syrup and blueberries. A three-dozen-bottle wine list (not including magnums for big groups) completes the picture.
- Little Goat Diner, Chicago Stephanie Izard’s playful take on the icon is all about whatever you want, whenever you want it: Cereal Killers (all-day breakfast, in the form of Fat Elvis waffles with banana, peanut butter-butter and maple-bacon syrup, and Shrimp and Cheesy Grits); Sammiches (a grilled cheese with two cheeses and guanciale); Burgers; Snacks (Hot Crab Dip and Fried Pickles & Onion Rings); and a whole section of the menu devoted to Taters (smoked fries, anyone?). There’s also a bakery specializing in bread.
What was once a back-road, highly regionalized style of cooking has become the ultimate artisanal American fusion food.
- belly Q, Chicago Chef Bill (UrbanBelly, Belly Shack) Kim, in partnership with Cornerstone Restaurant Group and basketball star Michael Jordan, does “tradition, amplified”—part barbecue joint and part karaoke bar. The ’cue has an Asian slant: baby backs with a hoisin-rosemary and Tea Smoked Duck Breast via a Chinese water smoker. The real menu highlight is the grilling tables: eight tables fitted out with infrared cooktops and ceiling-mounted ventilators, which allow for smokeless DIY grilling (salmon wrapped in banana leaves, Wagyu beef) on a first-come, first-served basis.
- The Granary ’Cue & Brew, San Antonio What’s so special about barbecue in Texas? Not much at lunch, with the traditional selection of brisket, sausage and pulled pork priced by the quarter-pound, with sweet tea and such a la carte sides as Buttermilk Slaw and German Potato Salad. But at night this “globally inspired barbecue restaurant,” which also brews its own beer, morphs into a destination hangout, with interesting barbecue-based food: beef clod with coffee-quinoa crunch, tomato caramel and pickled celery; smoked lamb breast with pickled peaches; a la carte Texas Toast with barbecue butter; brisket ramen.
- John Brown Smokehouse and the Arrogant Swine, Long Island City, NY A destination Kansas City-style ’cue joint in the outré borough of Queens? Lamb sausage and foie gras join such traditional offerings as ribs, pulled pork and burnt ends (just what they sound like). Promotional celebrations include traditional Carolina whole hog barbecue, using 200-pound heirloom pigs, and there’s also a beer garden out back—also trending now. Owner/pitmaster Josh Bowen has just opened a “barbecue laboratory” called Alchemy, Texas in nearby working-class Jackson Heights.
Next Wave Asian Fusion
The words “Asian fusion” might have a nasty, all-over-the-block ring to them thanks to some misguided experiments in the ’90s and early aughts, but this generation is different. Multi-culti versus willy-nilly, these Asian-infused concepts combine authenticity and invention, with a good dose of contemporary amenities like ambitious cocktails, wine and beer, and approachable desserts.
- Fat Rice, Chicago One of the hottest tables in town is this “Euro-Asian union” of China, India and Southeast Asia’s colonial past, seen through the lens of the Portuguese and other Europeans who came there to trade. The signature dish is Arroz Gordo, or fat rice, a casserole of fragrant Chinese sausage and sofrito-scented rice with Portuguese chicken, roast pork, linguica, salted duck, prawn, little neck clams and tea egg.
- Asian Box On its way to becoming a chain, this partnership of restaurateurs Frank Klein and Chad Newton with chef Grace Nguyen focuses on “authentic ethnic cuisine, a healthful cooking approach, and use of sustainable and local products.” Customers build their own boxes from a mix-and-match roster of bases (rice, noodles, salad) with toppings like Six Spice Chicken or Lemongrass Pork, and add-ons such as jalapenos, sprouts, and various sauces and vinaigrettes.
- The General, NYC Helmed by Top Chef Season 3 winner Hung Huynh, EMM Group’s latest is a wide-ranging interpretation of pan-Asian favorites, from Chinese Chicken Tacos and Reuben Spring Rolls to tableside sashimi, cross-cultural sushi rolls (the Stonewall features black rice, Hamachi and soy caramel) and charcoal-grilled corn with kabayaki butter, chives and truffle.
Thoroughly Modern Delis
It’s not surprising that the appetite for housemade smoked and cured meats, gourmet pickles and better bread—not to mention the obsession with handcrafted sandwiches—would lead to a reinterpretation of the classic sandwich emporium.
- Wise Sons Jewish Delicatessen, San Francisco The menu has all the usual Yiddish soul food suspects, but the pastrami is smoked in house and brined for seven days, the bagels are from locally prized Beauty’s, and the chocolate babka uses an owner’s grandmother’s recipe—and the whole thing started with a pop-up. Décor is as expected, with baked goods on display, soft-focus portraits of family elders on the walls, and old-fashioned signage. With three locations, including one in the Contemporary Jewish Museum and another in Ferry Plaza Farmer’s Market, Wise Sons looks like a game changer.
- Kenny & Zuke’s, Portland Touting artisan-made deli fare, Kenny & Zuke’s uses locally raised beef, sells a shareable platter of house-made pickles and bakes all is own rugelach, hamantaschen and macaroons. The bright, yellow-and-white striped menu is old-school though, featuring noodle kugel, pastrami and rye, chopped liver, and lots of pancake-style eggs.
- Mile End Deli, NYC The elder statesman of the trend is an homage to the Jewish delicatessen via a big helping of Montreal smoked meat—kosher-style deli meat made by salting and curing beef brisket with spices. It differs from the more familiar pastrami in the use of flavorings like coriander and the fact that it uses significantly less sugar.
Among the second-wave of Asian cuisines, including Thai, Indian and Vietnamese, Korean food has been one of the last to fall. Thanks to Korean-American chefs like David Chang of Momofuku and the aforementioned Roy Choi, traditional products like kimchi and mashups like Korean tacos have opened the field.
- Danji and Hanjan, NYC These two ambitious new restaurants exemplify what this tantalizing cuisine can become when its trademark flavors and cooking styles are married to Westernized sensibilities, and they have the cult following to prove it. Danji bills itself as a modern Korean tapas joint, with approachable specialties like Bulgogi Beef Sliders. Hanjan is a sleek and casual bar/restaurant offering a mix of modern and traditional Korean food (spicy octopus stir-fry, braised pig trotters with shrimp sauce, salmon sashimi salad with chojang).
- Del Seoul, Chicago This popular fast casual spot presents a modern spin on Korean food, including a variety of Korean barbecue tacos, bento boxes, Korean BBQ Banh Mi sandwiches, the rice specialty bibimbop and some truly one-of-a-kind shareables, like Kalbi Poutine (fries topped with slow-braised short rib, beef demi, blended cheeses, crema, scallions and house pickled red onions).