Five Trends You Can't Ignore

Forget about flavors of the month. These developments have long-term potential.

In the restaurant business, if you're not constantly evolving, you're dead. What's on the horizon? What's fresh and new? What's filling seats and keeping the cash register busy? If you're looking for inspiration, consider these five trends, which have “winner” written all over them.

1. .Just Like Mom's — Only Better

With unemployment remaining high and the economy still sputtering, Americans are doing what they do in times like this — hunkering down. At restaurants, they are looking for value and comfort, or food that reminds them of happier times.

Nostalgia takes many forms. At Denver's Duo, it means buttermilk fried chicken, paired with mashed potatoes and hoppin' john. For dessert, there's lemon icebox cake, reinterpreted for today's palate.

Parish, in Atlanta, serves its own take on traditional TV dinners, presenting the $15-or-less combos on cafeteria trays. The dinners, which change weekly, include combinations such as BBQ pork shoulder, coleslaw, potato salad, buttermilk biscuit and house-made Oreo; or red beans and rice, smoked corn maque choux, fried okra, buttermilk cornbread and oatmeal cream pie.

In New York this summer, Gotham Bar & Grill features a 1980s “retro” Sunday meal — with 1980s prices. Executive chef Alfred Portale's selections include cured Atlantic salmon with cracked wheat, golden beet, shaved fennel and orange oil; and Gotham roast chicken with summer vegetables and shoestring potatoes.

Boston's Ashmont Grill focuses on value-priced salads, pizzas, burgers and wood-fired meats; but it's the sides (mashed bourbon sweet potatoes, cheesy grits and onion rings) and desserts (carrot cake, sticky toffee pudding, chocolate brownie sundae) that tug at guests' nostalgic feelings.

The ultimate in nostalgia: Ovaltine mousse, served at Delicatessen in New York, to complete a meal of a smoked salmon knish or a Reuben on rye.

In Berkeley, CA, executive chef Banks White and consulting chef Scott Howard have designed a menu for Five with variations on regional comfort food. Among the choices: a deconstructed short rib “pot roast,” orzo mac ‘n cheese with smoked Gouda and tomato jam and vanilla bean butterscotch pudding.

In San Francisco, a street cart called Toasty Melts peddles seven variations on an ultimate comfort food, grilled cheese; in Cleveland, Melt Bar & Grilled has a menu with dozens of variations on the classic favorite. Options include the Big Popper, a beer-battered sammy with fresh jalapeno peppers, cheddar and herbed cream cheese, served with mixed berry preserves, or the Tokyo Tuna Melt, with Asian marinated grilled yellowfin steak, ginger wasabi dressing, lettuce, tomato and Muenster. Drooling fans wait two hours for a table.

2. They're a Gas: Gastropubs

It's been happening for several years now, but gastropubs — especially those run by notable chefs — are becoming part of the landscape in many destinations. They tap into a variety of macro trends, among them price sensitivity and a craving for a regular, casual hangout, quality food and drink and interesting flavors. Chefs like Allen Susser, who recently opened Taste Gastropub in South Florida (see p. 10) can let their hair down, have some fun and make some money, since a presumably higher ratio of alcohol-to-food sales translates into fatter margins.

Againn, which opened its second location last month in Washington DC, presents pub traditional — fish and chips with mushy peas, bangers and mash, shepherd's pie — alongside more refined choices such as a whole roasted fish, pork belly, charcuterie board and ale-battered softshell crab. Chef Wes Morton buys whole hogs and butchers them on site.

At CommonWealth, Washington, DC's first British-inspired gastropub, chef Jamie Leeds focuses on small plates and veggie sides, but also offers very popular whole lamb or pig roasts on Sundays.

At Tap, named the city's best gastropub by Atlanta magazine, the seasonal menu includes espresso-braised pork served with endive, blue cheese, candied pecans and orange dressing; fried oysters with Rockefeller toasts and fried lemons; and a pub burger that's half brisket, half chuck served on an English muffin with house-made bread and butter pickles and a chocolate milkshake shot. Guests can enjoy a choice of 21 beers and 16 wines on tap, including a nice variety of U.S. microbrews and international beers. All are stored in and served from a 72-barrel glass-enclosed vault suspended above the bar.

Woodward and Stoddard's Fine Food & Ale, two new gastropubs in Boston, put different spins on the experience. Woodward, which opened in Boston's boutique Ames hotel last fall, presents a modern take on the tavern, with house-pickled and preserved local produce, and plates like rock shrimp with olives, garlic and tomato; mushroom toast with Taleggio cheese and roast garlic; and short rib pot roast with parsnips and carrots.

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Stoddard's, set in a 19th-century building, hews closer to the comfort food/hand-crafted cocktails formula. Appetizers include a smoked Gouda fondue and house charcuterie plate; among the entrees are a chicken pot pie and prime beef rib-eye plus potatoes prepared two ways.

3. Raising the Bar on Bar Food

More restaurant operators are discovering that eating and drinking are not mutually exclusive. Many patrons who spend time in the lounge area are looking to supplement their liquid refreshments with something more than popcorn, peanuts and nachos. As a result, more restaurants are taking bar food seriously.

Denver's Bones offers its entire menu until 2 a.m., including steamed buns, made with suckling pig or pork belly; roasted bone marrow; halibut tempura; and a variety of noodle creations.

Another Denver spot, Olivea, has elevated ho-hum bar nuts to a mix of peanuts, cashews and almonds roasted in rosemary oil and served in individual parchment paper cornucopias. And addictive fried chickpeas are served with harissa aioli.

House-made potato chips are showing up across the country. The Biltmore in Newton, MA, serves its own chips, along with “Hog Wings” (specialty cut mini pork shanks grilled with their own barbecue sauce) and ballpark sliders — marinated and grilled franks with sauerkraut and relish.

Parish, in Atlanta, puts a “better for you” spin on bar food. Choices, made with local ingredients, include Jambalaya bites (spiced braised local chicken and andouille sausage rice stew); the “PB&J” (crispy pork belly, pepper jelly, apple sourdough toast and pickled onion slaw) and the Georgia trout melt (toasted brioche, roasted apple butter, smoked trout salad, Gruyere fondue).

The Empire Lounge & Restaurant in Louisville, CO, serves calamari salad with frisee and lime miso dressing; house-made mozzarella, risotto with borlotti beans and cabbage and slow-roasted Berkshire pork butt on a challah roll with fried onions, jalapeno and pecan slaw.

Poste Restaurant in Washington, DC assembles small fish plates, including Crispy Little Fish (smelts, lemon, parsley, aioli) and Sardine Escabeche Provencale (sardines marinated in fennel, citrus, garlic and olive oil, served over picholine olives and heirloom tomatoes, finished with pickled shallots, chive flowers and capers).

New York City's Dovetail recently expanded its bar area menu to match its enlarged bar area. Classic choices include deviled eggs; Reuben sliders; avocado salad with watercress and hearts of palm, soft poached eggs with ramps, bacon, oyster mushrooms and snap peas; and sauteed foie gras with graham crackers and huckleberries.

In midtown Manhattan, Palace Gate at the New York Palace Hotel, turns out decadent and shareable burgers, truffle potato fries with garlic herb aioli, a charcuterie platter, stuffed piquillo peppers with saffron rice and other small plates.

4. Attack of the Snacks

Many of us are no longer willing or able to sit down to a proper meal. “By innovating menus with various snacking options, restaurants can boost sales throughout the day and drive guest traffic during nonpeak hours,” says Eric Giandelone, director of foodservice research for Mintel Menu Insights. Not surprisingly, Mintel reports, early and late afternoon are the busiest time for snack attacks.

Mia, in downtown Miami, has taken snacks to a new level, with global selections including croquetas oozing with Manchego cheese and Serrano ham, goat cheese crostinis with roasted garlic, thyme and organic honey; diver scallops flavored with vanilla oil and served with crispy fennel atop potato puree; or “breakfast,” which is confit pork belly served with a crispy egg yolk, bacon bits and potato puree.

The casual menu at Cindy Pawlcyn's Cindy's Backstreet Kitchen in St. Helena, CA, includes fun inventions such as Oysters Bingo and a shrimp salad BLT&A. She's also serving up mini Colorado lamb chops that can be considered finger food.

Doughnuts are turning up everywhere as building blocks for snacks or desserts. At Red Star Tavern in Portland, OR, chef Thomas Dunklin presents a unique interpretation of the classic red velvet cake: a trio of cooked-to-order doughnuts tossed in toasted pecan sugar and topped with cream cheese ice cream and chocolate.

5. Eat Your Veggies

When the lardo-loving Mario Batali embraces the Meatless Monday movement and promises to menu at least two vegetarian entrée choices at all of his restaurants, you know vegetables are hot. He's been joined by others, including Jose Andres, who told CBS's 60 Minutes that meat is “slightly boring” and says he finds cooking with produce sexier.

Moody's Bistro & Lounge, near Lake Tahoe, CA, runs a Dinner in the Barn Series each summer serving produce picked hours before (along with farm-raised meats). In nearby Napa, La Toque executive chef Ken Frank recently created a five-course vegetable tasting menu to showcase produce.

One of Wolfgang Puck's newest ventures, The Source, is becoming a mecca for DC-area vegetarians. Meatless options have included tempura tofu 3 ways, or Assam-style vegetable curry. The restaurant also offers a vegetarian tasting menu.

Miami's Wish offers a Vegetarian as You Wish option: Guests can dictate what they do/don't like, or leave it up to the chef to build a personalized tasting menu.

And, in case you're wondering, portobello burgers are officially cliché. Restaurants like Alexandria, VA's Vermilion are pushing the envelope with daring vegetarian fare such as spring pea ravioli with sheep's milk rocotta, Davon Crest spear-mint, lemon zest and morel froth; and Path Valley Arugula with rhubarb preserves, toasted pistachios and crispy goat cheese.