Innovation starts with appetizers

An appetizer is supposed to whet the appetite for the rest of the meal, but these days, these first courses are serving as much more than “starters.” Restaurant customers are making whole meals out of downsized dishes, and many menus are dedicated entirely to tapas, small plates and shareable apps. To find out what’s trending in appetizers, we chatted with chef Kathy Casey, author of Sips & Apps: Classic and Contemporary Recipes for Cocktails and Appetizers (Chronicle Books; 2009) and founder of Dish D’Lish airport kiosks and Kathy Casey Food Studios-Liquid Kitchen.

Q. Why are more patrons ordering appetizers in place of entrees?
A. Appetizers give customers a chance to try different things without committing to an entrée price. If you don’t like it, you’ve only spent $8 to $12—not $30. The Millennials are driving the trend—they love to share and socialize over appetizers. And instead of going out to dinner, they are just “going out.” These are occasions to explore foods and beverages.

Q. What appetizer trends are you seeing on menus?
A. Vegetable-based appetizers are appearing more often. They might be paired with cheese, as a recent dish I tried of burrata with quinoa salad, olive vinaigrette and fresh tomatoes. Or they can be very vegetable-focused, such as roasted Brussels sprouts, charred carrots or blistered green beans.

Q. How are restaurants menuing proteins?
A. Deviled eggs are getting a lot of play. Eggs are a canvas for creativity yet extremely cost-effective—and restaurants are charging a lot for the deviled ones. Seafood crudo served with fruit and salumi platters with signature chutneys and house-made pickles are also popular.

Q. What makes for a successful appetizer?
A. Go with something really craveable. It should be a little spicy, creamy or crunchy, or a blend of savory and sweet. Operationally, try to cross-utilize with other parts of the menu. Is there an appetizer component that can be incorporated into a burger topping, a salad or a side? But be clever with the verbiage and presentation so it doesn’t look like the same ingredients are everywhere.

Q. Can you share some drink pairing tips?
A. I think of spirits as different meats when choosing complementary cocktails. Vodka is chicken; tequila and gin are seafood or pork; and whisky and the darker spirits, beef. Then I pair accordingly. Another technique is to match flavor components. A citrusy cocktail goes well with oysters on the half shell garnished with pink grapefruit and chives, for example.

Feeding the bar crowd

Happy Hour is busier than ever at Gordon Biersch and Rock Bottom, two concepts under the CraftWorks Restaurants banner, thanks to the inventive array of appetizers and house-brewed beers on tap. A special happy hour and late-night menu offers 10 food items for $5 to $7. Sean McLendon, corporate chef R&D, draws on eclectic influences, including Korean, Indian, Moroccan and Latin.

“Sweet-savory combos are a favorite right now,” he says. This is showcased in Gordon Biersch’s Crispy Sweet Potato Fries dusted with rosemary sugar and served with two dips: brown sugar cream cheese and BBQ dipping sauce. Shareable house-made flatbreads tempt groups, including one served with bruschetta, hummus and olive tapenade. Shrimp and Chicken Potstickers, Flash Fried Artichoke Hearts and Mini Street Tacos offer something for everyone.

The street tacos at Gordon Biersch are “unique and globally inspired,” McLendon reports. Whole-wheat flour tortillas are topped with a choice of four proteins—grilled wahoo, flat iron steak, pulled pork or thinly sliced grilled tofu—and finished with cilantro tahini, daikon radish slaw, crumbled cotija cheese and chili threads. They rolled out as a seasonal special along with a winter bock beer.

Rock Bottom has parallel seasonal launches. Next up: panko crusted shrimp with habanero ketchup and beer honey mustard paired with winter ale. A brewmaster is available at each location of both concepts to assist with pairings.

Taking the cure

Platters of the Italian cured meats known as salumi are showing up everywhere, but Cesare Casella, chef-partner at Salumeria Rosi Parmacotto in New York City, was one of the first to bring the tradition to the U.S. Patrons can order a tasting of seven to eight to share for $17 to $18. “A glass of wine and salumi is the perfect appetizer or snack,” notes Casella.

He sources both imported and domestic product. Among the two dozen choices are prosciutto di Parma, parmacotto, soppressata, mortadella, porchetta, coppa and finocchiona. “When putting together a selezione [tasting], it’s best to combine different textures and flavors,” Casella explains. “Some salumi is hard, some soft; some is salty, some sweet. The choice of bread is also important—make sure it’s bland so it doesn’t interfere with the flavor of the salumi. And serve the meats closer to room temperature than cold.”

Freshness is what sets apart a selezione, he adds. “Keep the product rotating. It’s better to have three good salumi than 15 mediocre products. And slice the meats fresh for every guest.”

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