This year met expectations and delivered a few surprises on the plate. These seven trends were major players on restaurant menus.
1. Clean ingredients as table stakes
Consumer demand for transparency has changed menu development and sourcing, and there’s no turning back. Fast-casual operators were pioneers in cleaning up ingredient lists, but in 2018, operators in every segment made menu transparency a priority. And suppliers responded, reformulating products with minimal processing and all-natural ingredient lists. “Free-from” is a driving force—antibiotic-free, preservative-free, GMO-free, hormone-free and free from artificial ingredients are all perceived as healthier, according to Technomic’s 2018 Healthy Eating Consumer Trend Report. Clean food is now more available in the supply chain and menu transparency is a customer expectation, paving the way to take healthy eating to the next level.
2. Plant-based plates get a culinary spin
Plants continued to make inroads on menus, but restaurant kitchens moved beyond cauliflower steaks, fake meat burgers and zucchini noodles. Chefs are smoking carrots to taste and look like gravlax, making a signature “chorizo” with walnuts that mimics the flavor and texture of the meat-based version, and pickling everything from Brussels sprouts to figs to add layers of flavor. Vegetables will continue to move to the center of the plate as chefs dig deeper into the produce bin and their culinary bag of tricks to come up with new ideas.
3. Tapping new heat sources
Harissa overtook Sriracha and gochujang as the hottest hot sauce in 2018, growing by 150% on menus, according to Technomic’s MenuMonitor. Consumers—especially the younger generation—are heat seekers and continue to look for globally inspired condiments to spice up their food. Now emerging on menus is Korean ssamjang, a blend of complex flavors including chili pepper paste, onions, garlic, and brown sugar. Ssamjang experienced 20% growth on menus this past year.
4. Flavor-first cocktails and mocktails
Bartenders kept raiding restaurant kitchens to give drinks a culinary edge. Seasonal vegetable and fruit juices, fresh herbs and flowers, cold-brew coffee and exotic teas are spiking both cocktails and mocktails—the latter boasting the same craftsmanship, balance and flair as the former. Also on the rise are lower-alcohol drinks that use a base of wine, sake or sochu instead of higher-proof spirits, and put a focus on flavor.
5. Street foods feed the all-day snacking trend
Consumers continued to ditch or downsize traditional meals, adding more snacks throughout the day. This trend coincided with the rising demand for global flavors, opening up opportunities for portable street foods. Filipino lumpia, Chinese dumplings, Asian bao, Mexican street tacos, Spanish empanadas and Middle Eastern kebabs are available to grab and go or cobble together to compose a mini meal. As more ethnic street foods make their way stateside from Latin America, Asia, Africa, Europe and the Middle East, and the snacking lifestyle continues to evolve, expect this trend to continue into 2019.
6. Elevated cheap eats
Authenticity is the goal when menuing street food, but that’s not always the case with a more surprising trend that emerged in 2018. Innovative operators are taking lowbrow foods such as bologna, porridge and peanut butter and upgrading them with chef-inspired touches. Au Cheval in Chicago, a destination for its award-winning burger, fancifies a bologna sandwich by griddling housemade meat, piling it on a brioche bun and topping it with melted cheese. Porridge made with oats or barley is now being used as a base for braised meats and saucy mixtures, much like polenta. Not a trend we predicted at the end of 2017.
7. All that glitters is not gold
Starbucks’ pastel-colored Unicorn Frappuccino didn’t inspire much imitation, but its sparkling Crystal Ball Frappuccino seemed to foster an unexpected but short-lived glittery trend. Edible glitter showed up in beer and on top of pizzas, bagels and chicken wings. These applications disappeared when the next Instagrammable moment came along, and it remains to be seen what Starbucks and social media fans will be offering up next year.