Food

The year menu innovation got turbo-charged

2023 saw a lot of menu activity and unique food and drink launches. But many operators stuck with perennial favorites for LTOs.
Ramen continues to be a trend. | Illustrations by Marty McCake and Nico Heins

Menu developers and chefs kind of played it safe in 2021 and 2022, wooing guests back post-pandemic with flavors, ingredients and dishes that were familiar and comforting. Labor was also an issue, and short-staffed kitchens might have hampered creativity.

But the labor crisis has largely passed, and consumers and restaurants were ready for menu innovation to accelerate in 2023. The goal: to meet consumers’ expectations for culinary excitement and distinctive dining experiences without super-sizing the menu.

Here are some of the top menu trends we saw emerge in 2023:

Beet tartare

Limited-time offers are the answer.

Restaurants ramped up LTO offers, launching them out of the pipeline more often and for shorter periods of time. Technomic reported that in October alone, 2,209 limited-time offers or new menu items were introduced, 93% of which were LTOs. That’s a 41% increase over the same month in 2022.

Some featured seasonal ingredients, like pumpkin, or variations of core items, like burgers. But others were a chance for R&D teams to strut their stuff and test out unique ideas. Differentiation can draw in customers and build traffic. Some examples: Beet Tartare at Fogo de Chao; a Thai Chile Green Bean appetizer at Bonefish Grill; and a Korean BBQ Pizza at California Pizza Kitchen.


bread basket herbed butter

The bread basket becomes the bread course.

Free bread seems to be disappearing as a prelude to dinner at independent restaurants. In its place is a separate bread course featuring signature breads and often, house-made butters. But all of it comes at a price. Restaurant reviews of Bad Roman in New York City warn diners not to miss the Roasted Garlic Babka ($8), a light, buttery loaf “for the table.” Audrey in Nashville serves Appalachian Sourdough with cultured butter ($9) while celeb chef Marcus Samuelsson’s new Hav & Mar offers the Hav Bread Basket with four teff biscuits, blue cornbread and injera crisp with fermented honey butter ($19). All are shareable and are usually ordered as a starter.


birria

Birria moves on from tacos.

Last year, chains including El Pollo Loco and Qdoba brought birria tacos and quesadillas from Mexican mom-and-pops and food trucks into the mainstream. Originating in the Mexican state of Jalisco, the soupy braised meat dish is traditionally made with goat or lamb, but beef is the meat of choice for chain menu adaptations. This year, even Taco Bell launched Grilled Cheese Dipping Tacos inspired by birria.

But Del Taco took the dish onto another realm when it debuted Birria Ramen this fall. According to Jeremias Aguayo, Del Taco’s senior director of culinary R&D, “Ramen is a staple in many Mexican households and I ate it regularly growing up.” Don’t be surprised if this pops up in other chains and birria becomes as American as pulled pork in the near future.

That’s not to say all new menu items smacked of originality. Competitive chains jump on trends to avoid FOMO and lost business when something becomes enormously popular.


hot honey chicken

Hot honey is the hot condiment.

Sweet heat was the flavor profile of 2023, with hot honey flavoring everything from pizza to wings, fried chicken, breakfast sandwiches, cocktails and desserts. Close to 74% of menu items in Technomic’s database of over 7,000 operators include hot honey in their descriptions, and the condiment is predicted to have above-average growth going into 2024.

Some chains sourced Mike’s Hot Honey, a product that has grown by leaps and bounds on menus in the last couple of years, even calling it out on the menu. But others created their own version in house, blending chili peppers and honey to achieve that sweet-heat profile.


peppermint martini

Peppermint may overtake pumpkin spice as a seasonal flavor.

Nothing underscores the copycat syndrome more than pumpkin spice. The original PSL debuted at Starbucks 20 years ago, but now the seasonal flavor shows up in much more than lattes—and the deluge starts as early as Aug. 1. There’s no escaping it in operations serving coffee, baked goods, smoothies and even martinis.

But this year, peppermint gave pumpkin spice a run for seasonal dominance. The wintry flavor, most often associated with Christmas, spiked in social media posts and menu mentions in 2023. Peppermint lattes, mochas and hot chocolate started filling coffee menus at the beginning of November, and there are also plenty of shakes and cocktails boasting a shot of the cool, minty flavor this holiday season. Peppermint hasn’t yet reached the saturation point of pumpkin spice, but it may have the potential.


chicken nuggets

Nuggets nudge chicken sandwiches aside. 

Everyone jumped on the chicken sandwich bandwagon a couple years back, resulting in what came to be known as the Chicken Sandwich Wars among fast-food chains. But 2023 saw the nugget-ification of America, as my colleagues Lisa Jennings and Nancy Kruse reported. While McDonald’s and Burger King have had chicken nuggets on their menu for decades, this year, Taco Bell entered the category for the first time. Not being a chicken concept, they faced some stiff competition from Chick-fil-A, Popeyes and KFC—especially since the latter two recently sent out new-and-improved versions to up the ante.

Chicken nuggets have some very powerful forces going for them. They are bite-size, portable and ideal for snacking—a growing meal occasion—and they are an excellent vehicle for sauces. Like nuggets, Americans love their sauces—another category that has seen a lot of menu activity this year.


ramen

Taste journeys around the world.

West African, African and Lebanese were the top trending cuisines of 2023, according to OpenTable data. Each saw double-digit increases, with West African rising the most at 72% year-over-year. African went up 23% and Lebanese, 18%. But the menu items most talked about were those with East Asian ties. In diners’ reviews on OpenTable, there were increased mentions of crispy rice (27%), omakase (17%), yuzu (17%), lychee (9%), miso (4%), ramen (4%) and kimchi (2%). Japanese and Korean ingredients and dishes are leading the culinary conversation and should continue to win fans in the year ahead.

This story is part of Restaurant Business’ look back at 2023. Click here to read our other year-end coverage. 

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