If 2018 pans out according to my wishes, it will be the year that unicorns bite the glitter dust and restaurants stop serving every meal in a bowl. Not that I think unicorns aren’t adorable or bowls aren’t a convenient way to eat, but there’s a time and a place for everything—and I’ve seen enough of both in 2017. So what trends do I see gathering force in the months ahead? Here are my predictions.
1. It’s all about what’s in the glass
Operators will continue to focus on the drinks side of the menu, applying hot culinary trends like seasonality, local sourcing, functional ingredients and wow presentations to cocktails. The craft cocktail movement has even infiltrated neighborhood watering holes, where I was recently served an Old-Fashioned chilled with a large, spherical ice cube. Restaurants will have to step up their game to stay ahead of the corner bar. Many are already doing so, changing up the cocktail selection as often as they do the food menu. This holiday season has seen a deluge of themed drinks created to showcase winter flavors and ingredients. And mocktails are getting the same handcrafted, seasonal treatment, with some operators even creating mocktail pairings for tasting menus.
2. Around-the-clock menus
The snacking and all-day breakfast trends will evolve into restaurants that are open from morning through night, with a menu that adapts to any time slot. Instead of offering separate breakfast, lunch and dinner menus, operators will offer one bill of fare that can adapt to appetites all day long. Recent on-trend items such as avocado toast, fried chicken sandwiches and ramen already fit this model, and more global and regional variations will come. We’ve been talking about blurred dayparts for a while, but this is a trend that consumers are driving, and I believe it will gain more traction with operators this year—especially because a simplified, around-the-clock menu has the potential to ease operations. Perhaps this will be 2018’s version of the classic diner menu.
3. Less trash talk—and more action
The zero-waste movement has gained momentum, but in most restaurant kitchens, it still has a ways to go. So-called trash fish such as dogfish, triggerfish and sea robin are getting some attention on menus, but there are oceans of species that still are largely unexplored. Sustainability-minded chefs will demand more of these forgotten species and suppliers are going to respond—just as they have with “ugly produce” and surplus crops. And while waste reduction should go further, operators should be cautious about going too far. Rescuing fruit peels, whey and mulled spices to turn into ice cream sounds tasty and appealing, but leftover turkey gravy is better repurposed in a pot pie than a dessert.
4. Digging deep for global inspiration
Consumers have totally embraced the giant cuisine buckets of Asian, Mediterranean and Latin. Even dishes from smaller global categories—Vietnamese, Israeli and Peruvian—have permeated mainstream menus. In 2018, I expect to see operators digging deeper to unearth unique ethnic flavors, ingredients and preparations that will tempt the palates of today’s adventurous diners. While some of the trend forecasters singled out Indian and Filipino as cuisines to watch, I believe Ethiopian is poised to pop. Many Ethiopian dishes are plant-forward, based on lentils, greens and beans, and richly spiced with turmeric, cumin, ginger, chilies, berbere and other on-trend seasonings. And then there’s the bread. Injera is a flat, pliable, gluten-free bread that not only works to sop up the flavorful Ethiopian stews, but can also be used taco- or burrito-style to enclose a filling for easy portability.
5. Breaking: Bread
Speaking of bread, it’s time it broke out of its humble basket and made menu news. Forward-thinking restaurants are already elevating the bread course, often charging extra for a specialty, housemade bread. At Parachute in Chicago, for example, the baked potato bing bread is a signature with a surcharge of $7 for a half order, $13 for a whole. At Loring Place in New York City, house-baked whole wheat bread with Hudson Valley butter is $6 extra. While I’m not in favor of paying more for a pedestrian bread course, these breads are shareable and special enough to sub for an appetizer—at a lower price. Even LSRs are giving bread more status. I’d like to see more restaurants serve a bread course that reflects and shows off their culinary chops.