Top menu trends of 2021

As America emerged from pandemic restrictions, some 2020 food and drink trends strengthened while new ones gained ground.
Illustration by Joel Kimmel

The restaurant scene took a 180-degree turn between January and December 2021. As vaccines became more widely available, cooped-up consumers began to venture out in search of dining experiences and the restaurant food and drink they missed the most. While some trends that were strong at the beginning of the year continue to endure, others are emerging and gaining ground. These all rose to the top in 2021 with some continuing their ascent.

Fried chicken sandwiches dominated menus over the past year, with QSRs, fast casuals and casual-dining chains all launching one or more versions. Not to mention the chicken-centric concepts, many of which created spinoffs with global flavors and spicy sauces, Nashville hot the most popular iteration. Although big players such as KFC and Wendy’s released their upgraded fried chicken sandwiches in 2020 following the blockbuster success of Popeyes, they took them national in 2021. And both McDonald’s and Burger King waited until early this year to finally introduce theirs. Upgraded fried chicken sandwiches are now on the permanent menus of most of these big chains and are the core item for many virtual concepts. The chicken sandwich wars may be over, but chicken sandwiches are here to stay.

Bubble tea, a Taiwanese import, now appears on close to 800 menus in the U.S., according to Technomic Ignite Menu data. Also known as milk tea, the drink comes in myriad flavors and features boba or tapioca pearls that are slurped through an extra-wide straw. Bubble milk tea was the second most-ordered item for delivery by Grubhub customers in the first half of 2021, growing 505% in popularity. While concepts specializing in bubble tea used to be located in areas with large Asian-American populations, they are now expanding across the country and becoming as mainstream as the coffee cafe.

Bowl food was trending prepandemic at fast casuals specializing in the format, but in 2021 operators aiming to snag more off-premise business put everything into bowls. In fact, on RB’s 2021 list of Buzzworthy Brands—those fast-growing small chains formerly known as The Future 50—four out of 24 have the word “bowl” in their name and several others focus on salads and poke, which fit into the same category.

Bowls are portable carriers that allow for great menu flexibility in crafting food for takeout and delivery. In some cases, a signature breakfast or lunch sandwich has been turned into bowl by deconstructing the ingredients and eliminating the bread—a plus for customers on low-carb diets. While many operators craft bowls with rice, quinoa or another grain, low-carb cauliflower rice became a go-to base for chains including Chipotle, Pei Wei and Sweetgreen. And Noodles & Company launched cauliflower gnocchi for its line of bowls. Health-seeking consumers are more frequently turning to acai, salad and other bowls as a better-for-you meal solution.

Menu streamlining and simplification began during COVID when kitchens were limited to takeout and delivery and focused on best sellers and travel-friendly items. But even as restaurants reopened for dine-in customers, the continuing labor shortage and supply chain challenges kept many operators from expanding menus. With skeletal kitchen staffs, it made sense to limit the number of menu items and stick with dishes that were less labor intensive.

The difficulty of getting certain ingredients is also hampering menu development. A pared-down menu can better adapt to supply chain delays, especially with meat and seafood. These products have been particularly inconsistent and pricey, and chefs are forced to be more flexible, swapping one protein for another on the menu and hoping that customers will be flexible, too.

Limited-time offers accelerated to make up for streamlined menus. LTOs piled up in the R&D pipeline during the pandemic, and as 2021 began, chains started launching them at a faster clip. Technomic reports that the number of LTOs introduced by Top 500 chains increased 9% over the last year. Even with supply chain shortages, operators figured out how to work with one or more partners to develop a proprietary cheese blend, salad dressing or burger condiment and create a signature item that could run for a few weeks or a couple of months. There’s less commitment and risk with an LTO than with a permanent menu addition, and the innovation and excitement attracts customers.

Zero- and low-proof cocktails are disrupting the traditional bar scene. Consumers who may have overindulged in alcohol while stuck at home during COVID are fueling a sober-curious movement. There’s pent-up demand to socialize at bars and restaurants but a growing number of drinking-age customers prefer to abstain from alcohol while their friends down boozy cocktails, beer and wine. Bartenders and restaurants are responding with curated lists of elevated zero-proof drinks that look and taste on par with their alcoholic counterparts. Better quality alcohol-free spirits are in greater supply as the starting point for some of these drinks. Lighter cocktails are also on the rise, crafted with lower-proof wine, amaro, prosecco, vermouth or apertifs like Aperol.

Canned and bottled cocktails are also making waves in bars, restaurants and hotels. The ready-to-drink beverages grew in popularity as a way to sell cocktails to-go during COVID lockdown. With many states relaxing the rules around selling alcohol off-premise, operators jumped in and either created and bottled their own cocktails or purchased ready-made products. The trend has resulted in a much wider and more premium selection of commercially available bottled and canned cocktails. A total of 35 states permitted to-go cocktail sales during the pandemic and a majority allowed extensions through 2021 or permanently legalized the practice, according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States (DISCUS). Expect to see even more of these products next year, as they also ease the labor crunch in bars and hotels.

Meal kits accompanied by virtual chef demos were a salvation for more upscale restaurants when customers were hunkered down at home. Although dine-in business has returned, many operators are still offering these as an option. They’re especially in demand for the 2021 holiday season, some restaurants report, by companies who want to treat employees to a special perk. They purchase the kits, which can include wine pairings, and employees tune into Zoom to follow a restaurant chef in a virtual cooking demo or guided lesson. Consumers are looking for interactive experiences, but some are still hesitant to attend a large party in a restaurant or event space. A meal kit complemented by a virtual event is a win for all sides.



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