Karl Skaslen

7 Innovations of Highly Imaginative Restaurants

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Unique practices—presently at inception—may shape the future.
By Daniel P. Smith March 2013 New Concepts

Long before any foodservice trend goes mainstream, visionary chefs, restaurateurs, and mixologists are crafting unique offerings to entice, energize, and entertain American diners. At the point of inception, foodservice trends often gain traction at fine-dining establishments or in authentic ethnic eateries—environments where convention is more easily challenged and imagination can flourish independent of systemized operations.

In collaboration with Datassential, a Chicago-based firm that tracks foodservice trends, FSR highlights seven innovative practices that are entering or moving beyond the point of inception:

Micro-pairing Merges Bar and Kitchen

Like chef-driven menus and house-branded alcohol, micro-pairing—an imaginative cocktail created specifically for one dish—is on the rise as chefs and bartenders collaborate to deliver that distinctive culinary experience.

“Trends can create a web in the industry, in which the growth of one or more drives others,” says Maeve Webster of Datassential. “That’s certainly the case with micro-pairing, a trend whose time has come.”

At Portland’s Clyde Common, an ever-changing chalkboard in the dining room highlights an entrée dish with a specific drink as its suggested complement. Bar manager Jeffrey Morgenthaler sees immense opportunity for in-house collaboration and says culinary interest from consumers will propel micro-pairing.

“We’re in a cocktail renaissance right now and there’s definitely opportunity for the beverage side and the culinary side to get together and work alongside one another,” Morgenthaler says, excited by the creativity and flexibility micro-pairings allow.

It’s a marketing and up-selling opportunity as well. Webster says, “It’s almost like a combo meal for adults—a cocktail created to make the meal unique and individual.” She also notes that the friendly margins inherent in cocktails, particularly with ultra-distinctive signature drinks well beyond the norm, should compel savvy operators to push the micro-pairing trend toward greater acceptance.

Pickled Foods Introduce Novelty and Practicality

As a Southern boy, Dan Latimer recalls pickling projects that resulted in jars of salsa stored in the basement of his home. Now, that same centuries-old food preservation technique is weaving its way into restaurants in novel, unexpected ways with fruits, vegetables, and even proteins.

Maeve Webster, director of Datassential, echoes Latimer’s nostalgic reflection, noting, “This is how people ate in bygone days.”

Prompted in large part by the nearly ubiquitous local-food movement, pickling allows operators to add variety to their menu, create signature relishes and spreads, and offer out-of-season products in a new way. With pickling, operators can buy larger quantities of seasonal or local product for preservation.

During the summer, Husk, a southern cooking concept with locations in Charleston, South Carolina, and Nashville, orders whole beans and tomatoes by the bushel so they can pickle the products and use them throughout the year.

“In the midst of winter, we can reach into the cupboard for a taste of summer,” says Latimer, the Husk general manager who’s pleased to inject pickling into salads, soups, entrées, and even cocktails featuring pickled ingredients from ramps and berries to grapes and shrimp.

Webster says this new surge of pickled foods—one her firm labels “the next frontier”—sits at the border of inception and adoption. According to Datassential reports, 7 percent of operators offer pickled ingredients, while 11 percent consider themselves “very likely to add it.”

“Whether pickling moves further will likely depend on the ability of manufacturers to produce this for a chain,” she says, adding that the process requires time, labor, and skill. “As more consumers are exposed to pickled foods, it may drive further incorporation, but we’ll wait and see if this moves past adoption.”

New Peruvian Marries Asian and Latin Flavors

Four years ago, Datassential identified Peruvian cuisine as an about-to-explode trend. Then, Peruvian seemingly vanished.

Now, a fusion cuisine, which artfully blends Asian and Latin culinary flavors and techniques, is back and dubbed: “New Peruvian,” a term that describes chefs incorporating Peruvian favorites, such as ceviche and empanadas, into their non-ethnic restaurants.

“Because of better familiarity with Peruvian flavors and formats, there’s more opportunity for it to pop today,” Webster says. “It’s not so foreign or removed from diners’ comfort zones.”

To wit, since 2007, ceviche—the popular Peruvian dish featuring raw fish marinated in citrus juices and chili peppers—has been among the nation’s top 10 fastest-growing appetizers in non-ethnic restaurants, up 62 percent over the last four years according to Datassential.

At Pacific Catch in California, Peruvian selections weave throughout the menu, including appetizers, entrées, desserts, and even drinks. The Peruvian Ceviche, for instance, flavors the fresh catch of the day with tomato, avocado, ginger, serrano, and aji amarillo chili, while the bar offers delectable pisco sours.

“Given the range of influences that come into Peruvian food, there’s a lot of latitude to be creative, fresh, and new,” Pacific Catch corporate chef Chandon Clenard says. “And it doesn’t hurt that Peruvian food pops with flavor and color.”

Still in its inception phase, Datassential reports only 3 percent of operators currently offer a New Peruvian dish, though 22 percent consider it a long-term trend. As chains incorporate Peruvian-styled ingredients such as rice, quinoa, red onions, key limes, and aji chili peppers, Webster thinks New Peruvian has the potential to expand.

House-branded Alcohol Elevates Restaurant Beverages

Eager to differentiate themselves and capitalize on the attractive profit margins that beverages bring, many operations have expanded the house-made concept from the kitchen and put it behind the bar.

At Clyde Common in Portland Oregon, specialty drinks are aged for two months in whiskey barrels. The Barrel Aged Chrysanthemum features dry vermouth, Benedictine, absinthe, and orange twist, while the Barrel Aged Negroni includes Beefeater gin, Cinzano sweet vermouth, Campari, and orange peel.

“It’s essentially mixing one large cocktail in a barrel and leaving it for two months,” says Clyde Common bar manager Jeffrey Morgenthaler. (Clyde Common is a semifinalist for the 2013 James Beard Awards for Outstanding Bar Program.)

Morgenthaler sees the homemade drink trend only growing, particularly as operations experiment with house-concocted syrups, bitters, and colas—or create relationships with boutique distilleries.

“This is where the next frontier is,” he says. “People are more willing to branch out and try new spirits and cocktails, which allows restaurants to push the envelope even more.”

Currently in inception, Webster sees little that could prevent this trend from moving quickly through adoption and into proliferation.

“With the buying power and sheer volume of the chains as well as their relationships with distilleries and spirits manufacturers, there’s no reason chains can’t get in the game here,” Webster says.

In fact, Darden-owned LongHorn Steakhouse already references “house made” vodka on its menu.

Chef-driven Menus Unleash Culinary Exploration

With chef-driven menus, customization is off the table, as chefs prepare an inventive menu with as many as 15 items.

Webster suggests chef-driven menus are “a backlash against the responsibility of customization,” where guests can easily be overrun by choices.

But that isn’t the only impetus. Fueled by a growing fascination with tasting menus, the cult-like status of chef fandom, an ever-rising foodie culture, and heightened acceptance from diners to put themselves in a chef’s trusty hands, chef-driven menus—sometimes called kitchen counters—have appeared in upscale establishments from coast to coast.

At The Catbird Seat in Nashville, chefs Josh Habiger and Erik Anderson oversee a chef-driven event featuring up to 11 courses each night. Their lone accommodations are for allergy or dietary restrictions.

Catbird Seat owner Benjamin Goldberg relishes the opportunity to give his restaurant’s culinary artisans complete freedom in the kitchen. And diners have responded enthusiastically, eager to watch innovative chefs at work in an up-close and personal setting.

“[Habiger and Anderson] do not have to follow certain outlines or feature items that are popular. They have complete freedom to create whatever is fresh—both in season and in their minds,” Goldberg says.

Currently in the inception phase, Webster says it’s unlikely chef-driven menus will ever enter the proliferation stage.

“You may see some innovative independents doing chef-driven menus, as well as fine-dining restaurants, but that’s likely it,” she says. “There has to be a lot of trust from the guest in terms of quality, experience, and the belief that they will be getting their dollars’ worth.”

Farm-to-Table Inspires In-house Butcheries

Snout-to-tail dining has gained momentum, leading chefs and restaurants to butcher their own meat and resurrect an age-old art seemingly destined for extinction.

Webster calls the rise of in-house butcheries the natural progression of the farm-to-table movement’s growth from produce to proteins.

For many restaurants, an in-house butchery offers heightened control over freshness, portions, and pricing, a particularly critical element as beef prices are projected to reach record highs in 2013. By butchering in-house, a restaurant can ensure that nothing goes to waste—bones can be used for stocks, trimmed fat can be added into sausages, and off-cuts can become signature dishes.

The Publican, Chicago’s claim to pork fame with an eclectic menu inspired by farmhouse fare and a setting reminiscent of a European beer hall, opened its own boutique butcher shop in February 2012. Across the street from its restaurant, Publican Quality Meats (which also operates a café serving breakfast and lunch) brings in quartered or halved animals that it butchers and supplies to restaurants, wholesalers, and the public.

Publican general manager Katie Syracopoulos says the in-house butchering operation pays homage to the butcher’s craft while also affording the restaurant important quality-control measures.

Still in the inception stage, Datassential reports that 17 percent of restaurants currently have an in-house butchery program. Only 3 percent more, however, say they are likely to add it.

“Beyond fine dining and some independents, this is difficult for many operators to handle,” Webster says. “However, the in-house butchery trend could push multi-unit concepts to explore using different cuts of meat.”

Communal Dining Encourages Engagement

At casual eateries and corner taverns, communal dining has long been a slice of the American restaurant scene. But the increased appearance of strangers sitting side-by-side in upscale establishments comes as a surprise.

Webster attributes the rise in communal dining to growing participation in farm dining (which congregates guests at the source where food is harvested) and guerilla dining (which serves meals in private settings—typically urban lofts or apartments), as well as a heightened interest in community.

“There’s a feeling of wanting to be connected to one another in a face-to-face way rather than just with iPhone or Facebook,” Webster says.

At The Publican, about 85 percent of the Chicago restaurant’s seating is comprised of three large tables each of which serves 20–30 guests. The remaining seating consists of enclosed booths and two-person private tables.

A departure from the regimented ways of traditional dining, communal dining lends itself to a welcoming, spirited atmosphere. “Communal dining creates a feeling of togetherness and community that brings a different energy to the dining experience,” says The Publican’s general manager, Katie Syracopoulos, noting that an equal number of guests request a spot at communal tables as call for a spot at the eatery’s private tables.

Teetering on the inception-adoption threshold, Webster does not foresee communal dining ever hitting proliferation.

“This just isn’t for chain operations,” she notes. And adds that if communal dining at the upscale level is to expand, it will be on the backs of younger diners. “There can be uneasiness with communal dining, so younger consumers will have to feel comfortable with it.”