Chicago is one of the top dining cities in the world, or so says Donnie Madia, partner of One Off Hospitality, the award-winning multiconcept operator behind restaurants including Blackbird, Big Star, The Violet Hour and The Publican. During a panel discussion at the National Restaurant Association Show, he said the city is leading in trends as well as execution. This year, dozens of foodservice operators from the commercial and noncommercial spheres kicked off the Show with a Saturday morning dine-around that encompassed several of Chicago’s hottest new restaurants. The Taste the Trends tour, hosted by FoodService Director, Restaurant Business and Basic American Foods, showcased a number of actionable ideas for participants to bring back to their operation. Here are some of the top trends from this year’s tasting tour.
1. Quick lunch takes hold
Not everyone wants a sandwich or salad for lunch—or even just something grab-and-go to take back to their desks. Mr. Maki, owned by multiconcept operator Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises, provides an alternate solution with its teishoku, or “the Japanese art of super combo meals.” Served on a tray-like plate, the better-for-you, authentic Japanese fare is the height of convenience for those who still want a full-service experience but are short on time.
2. ‘Lifestyle’ brand as new marketing method
Instead of focusing on being health-forward or better-for-you, the phraseology has changed to “lifestyle.” While concepts such as The Little Beet Table do offer healthful meals—its website even touts its aim to “make healthful and satisfying food accessible to all”—it promotes itself as a brand that customers can frequent often, with the goal of making them feel great. A big part of that is using fresh ingredients and putting them on display for guests to see. The Little Beet Table has its juicers out on the bar, allowing diners to see that the bases for its drinks and cocktails are fresh-squeezed.
3. It’s all about the shared experience
As data continues to show, many consumers are looking for their dining-out excursions to be an experience. They want more than just a meal—they want a chance to connect with their dining partners. Bar Ramone offers just that with its porron program. The Spanish-inspired 500-mL wine dispenser is meant to be shared and passed throughout the group. Bar Ramone isn’t alone in its adoption of porrons of wine. Chicago’s Bar Biscay also has them on offer, and chef Eric Ripert recently took to Twitter to thank chef Jose Andres for introducing him to the porron.
4. Presentation counts
In today’s Instagrammable world, the back-of-house staff is often spending a lot of time on plating. But operators such as Bar Ramone are turning to the actual plates to get its dishes photo-ready—as well as to capture attention and get those snaps. The Spanish-inspired concept from Lettuce Entertain You Enterprise serves its Ortiz Tuna Salad in an oversized tuna can, catching the attention (and cellphone shots) of many Taste the Trends attendees.
5. Plant-forward proliferates
Chicago may be a meat-and-potatoes town, but that doesn’t mean it’s not deep into the plant-focused trend. Mr. Maki, for example, lists a Tomato Tartare on its list of starters. And much of The Little Beet Table’s menu is plant-forward, including its spirulina rice bowl with shiitakes and an egg, as well as cauliflower and mushroom tacos and a charred cauliflower entree.
6. Local, beyond ingredients
Local isn’t just about ingredient sourcing anymore. Chicago food halls, including Aster Hall, are backed with local vendors as a way to keep the local, entrepreneurial spirit alive. In fact, Aster Hall is run and populated by top Chicago operator Hogsalt Hospitality.