The pull of fast casual’s 8% annual sales growth may be at least part of what’s driving fine-dining operators to consider simpler restaurant formats. That migration means more ideas flowing into the space. Here are five stealable applications for the menu and more that we uncovered at the Culinary Institute of America’s recent conference on casual food trends.
1. Pared-down porch menus
Entrees in the main dining room at Olamaie restaurant in Austin, Texas, run as high as $110 for a 20-ounce wagyu rib-eye with dumplings. But there are cheaper eats on offer for guests dining outside on the porch at this Southern restaurant, named for four generations of women in chef-owner Michael Fojtasek’s family. Among the porch bites: Southern staples deviled egg ($3) and pickled okra ($4).
2. A simple motto for all to see
Three-unit Souvla touts itself as a “fine-casual” Greek restaurant, but doesn’t rely solely on its food, minimalist decor and ambiance to convey that point of differentiation. The restaurant also posts its “Make it nice and be nice” motto prominently in the open kitchen for both employees and customers to see.
Founder and CEO Charles Bililies says it’s a remarkably simple reminder for the restaurant and its staff aim to live up to that segment-stretching definition at the concept. Soulva borrows “key elements from the fine-dining points of hospitality,” says Bililies—including service style, candles on the tables, music, and wine served in stemware—but guests still order off the simple menu at the counter.
The phrase itself is meaningful. "Make it nice" is also the mantra and moniker of the restaurant group behind three-Michelin-starred Eleven Madison Park in New York City.
3. Happy hour for early birds and night owls
Chef Chris Cosentino revealed why his San Francisco restaurant Cockscomb has two happy hours—one from 5-6 p.m., and later from 10-11 p.m. “We do happy hour early and happy hour late, because I wanted industry people to be able to come,” he says, which has a stated goal of making everyone feel comfortable and welcome.
4. Grits in pizza dough
Elizabeth Karmel of multiunit restaurants Hill Country Barbecue Market and Hill Country Chicken and mail-order barbecue concept Carolina Cue has a trick when grilling pizza: put grits on the dough. This will hold up the dough, Karmel says, adding texture to the finished pizza and giving an on-trend Southern twist to a customer favorite.
5. Kid-tested, kid-endorsed kids menu
When developing the kids menu for their homey casual Honey Salt restaurant, longtime Vegas restaurateurs Elizabeth Blau and Kim Canteenwalla not only sought input from their young son Cole, but also the formal endorsement of the boy and his friends.
The kids, who tested dishes like Mac and Cheese-y, Yes Please-Y and Kind-of-a-Big-Deal Cheeseburger as well as a kid-size Scottish salmon, signed their name to the back of the kids menu, which became part of its design, said Blau.
The question: Will Cole's tastes have changed when the family expands its Honey Salt concept to the Parq casino and resort in Vancouver, B.C., this fall?