Fried chicken sandwiches and comfort food are among the National Restaurant Association’s predicted food trends for 2023
, and while some chefs and restaurant owners corroborated local interest in these specific items, they also reported broader shifts in the way the industry will approach its craft in the coming year.
Pandemic-induced problems are far from over, and many restaurants are still navigating workforce shortages and thin profit margins amidst rising prices. Yet, at the same time, the industry is seeing a boom in business that shows no sign of stopping, according to Lynn Minges, president and CEO of the N.C. Restaurant & Lodging Association.
“More people are dining out, and they’re spending more money than ever before. That is really good news for our industry,” Minges said. “I think the challenge is how restaurants adapt to meet those demands.”
Smaller focus, bigger payoff
Initially a forced response to keep the doors open with skeleton crews and limited supplies, many restaurants shrunk their menus and hours of operations over the last two years. Now some are embracing a streamlined menu as an opportunity to inject novelty into their work and keep things fresh for both staff and customers.
A smaller menu allows restaurants to stay nimble in their response to inventory availability and consumer demand, Minges noted. It also requires kitchen staff to think outside the box in the ways they present fewer options to diners.
“With smaller menus, they are certainly being more creative,” Minges said.
Jessica Cabo, executive chef at East Oceanfront Dining, listed menu streamlining as one of her intentions for the year. After making a clear-eyed assessment of which offerings are popular with guests, she and her staff intend to focus on fresh executions of those items.
As she plans a new spring menu for East, her back-of-house team is working to tweak a chicken sandwich from the brunch menu. The new iteration adorns a crispy fried chicken thigh (which Cabo said is more likely to stay juicy and flavorful compared to the traditional breast) with creamy hot sauce and a lime-y, spicy cabbage slaw inspired by curtido, a zippy dish common in Central America.
“It keeps it fried chicken, but that bright, acidic cabbage with lots of herbs makes it still feel very vibrant and fresh,” Cabo said.
Just as Cabo corroborated local interest in the National Restaurant Association’s predicted trend of fried chicken sandwiches, Junction 421 owner Jonathan O’Donnell said he’s noticed an increased craving for comfort food, another trend identified in the report.
“When it comes to comfort food, I think the trend will be that we’re looking to provide a bit of nostalgia, something that brings back fond memories from their past,” O’Donnell said.
He also noted the benefits of a smaller, more focused menu.
“Streamlining the menu is kind of fundamental if you’re going to be good at what you do,” O’Donnell said. “If you do many things, it’s hard to do many things well.”
On top of fostering creativity and better execution of dishes, a restrained menu also helps retain staff and prevent overwhelm in a profession historically characterized by intense working conditions. Parker Lewin, chef de cuisine at The Green House, described finding ways to simplify the kitchen’s approach without sacrificing a great experience for guests. For example, he decided to offer an a la carte menu for New Year’s Eve instead of a traditional tasting menu. This provided diners with their choice of dishes executed to the best of the staff’s ability, Lewin noted, and it also ensured a more sustainable workflow for the front- and back-of-house crews.
Lewin said that is increasingly a factor in the decisions he makes when planning the restaurant’s menu.
“All I have to do is make sure these people are happy and healthy and feel nourished by their work rather than feeling overworked and pissed off all the time,” Lewin said. “That’s a big part of the inspiration for the way I run the restaurant, the way dishes are constructed.”
Seabird owner Dean Neff identified smaller, more intentional concepts as a trend he’s observed lately as well. Neff said he sees this approach as a smart way to manage the dynamic demands of operating a restaurant.
“Good restaurants are challenging things to run because there’s a lot of moving parts and there’s a lot of areas where you could miss. By focusing, you can provide something that’s really delicious and have a really successful business,” Neff said.
He listed Salita Pizza, a new concept from Seabird pastry chef Jim Diecchio coming to the Cargo District, as an example of the trend. The restaurant will utilize a small space and a small menu of well-executed options, among them wood-fired pizza, bagels and ice cream.
“That’s the kind of place that I want to go eat,” Neff said.
Appetite for adventure
Menus may list fewer options than before, but that doesn’t mean the food will be boring. Local diners seem to be hungry for unique and experimental dishes, according to area chefs and restaurant owners.
Take fried duck livers, for example. Guests gobbled up the unusual offering when manna’s Carson Jewell recently added them to the restaurant’s menu.
“That’s not normally something people eat, fried livers, but they destroyed them,” said Jewell, the restaurant’s executive chef. “I mean, just ate them up.”
Junction 421’s O’Donnell has also observed a more refined appetite among his guests.
“Guests are a little more discerning, more educated. They have a better palate,” he said. To satisfy more discerning palates, kitchens have to stay fresh, he added.
“You’ve got to stay vigilant. You’ve got to innovate. You’ve got to keep it interesting,” said O’Donnell.
Rising to meet this challenge ensures a more detailed and conscientious approach and better food, according to The Green House’s Lewin.
“If you’re going to take the risk to put this weird combination [on the menu], or you’re going to do this interesting preparation of … an ingredient, a lot of work is put into that to make it really good,” Lewin said. “It’s always the hope that the diner will see that, past how intimidating it might be. This year especially, that’s paid off for a lot of people.”
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