What does the next generation of diners want out of a restaurant experience? Writer Carley Thornell explores the inner workings of today’s millennial diner — and how restaurants are responding.
The first thing you’ll notice about the re-energized Bambara isn’t the food — it’s what it’s on. Hefty ceramic oblong plates are each all slightly different, handcrafted by local potter Jeremy Ogusky, that caught the eye of executive chef David Bazirgan. “I just love it; to me it looks nicer and it gives it a much more natural feel than fine dining, [which is] all white and sterile,” says chef Baz. “I’ve been trying to appeal to a younger crowd, and it’s part of that shareable, small-plates concept. And I like using local artists, too, which really took off at Dirty Habit.” His former San Francisco restaurant — called a “food lovers’ bar” was re-launched from the white-napkin Fifth Floor in 2013.
Welcome to the era of millennial dining — it’s one of taking chances with more casual concepts, menus, and price points. For Bazirgan, it’s his own interpretation of what a “New American” menu is, and in the melting pot of Cambridge, Massachusetts, that means prix fixe is out and Middle Eastern spices and herbs shine through in delicious homemade breads.
“Prix-fixe menus seem to exist more in restaurants where the demographic skews older, and when there is a prix-fixe option there is almost always now a quick a la carte menu as well — either in the same dining room or in another, more casual environment,” says Jennifer Baum, founder of hospitality PR firm Bullfrog + Baum.
Chef Barbara Lynch is just one Michelin maven who’s gotten with the times and switched up a Brahmin mainstay with an expanded a la carte menu versus the prix fixe at No. 9 Park; the six-course chef’s tasting menu is still available, but the bar menu has gained just as much traction, where a revamped cocktail list appeals to those in their 20s just as much as the well-heeled from the nearby State House.
“Bars and bar areas are seen as a very legit side of the restaurant business now,” says designer Brian Miller of Washington, D.C. firm Streetsense. “At The Dabney, fully a third of the seating is at the bar area, and tall tables or bar seats offer better flexibility to patrons.”
Different from even just five years ago, Miller and his team are now laser-focused on incorporating design trends picture-perfect for Instagrammers, including Dabney, and a cool keyhole-shaped doorway at chef Michael Schlow’s The Riggsby, both in D.C. Schlow scores double points with Boston’s younger crowd at TICO, where he not only puts a global focus on Peruvian and Japanese fusion late-night eats after most Boomers have gone to bed but also offers up the dish that put him on the map, the Schlow Burger.
“Higher-end restaurants once loathed the idea of having a burger on their menu, but renegade chefs who confidently put expensive burgers on their menu changed that paradigm,” says Baum (Schlow’s is $19). “Now if a restaurant wants to attract more guests frequently, there’s a burger.” It’s all part of getting away from a once-a-year-kind of attitude for anniversaries and birthdays and offering lower price points for a place to unwind on a random Tuesday that doesn’t involve takeout on the couch, said Baum. “The definition of a ‘neighborhood restaurant’ has changed … Porter House in Time Warner Center is appropriate for a special night out but is also great for a quick jaunt for a burger or quick salad.”
In New York, Boucherie capitalizes on the open-kitchen concept, where the era of likes and shares takes sharing to a whole new level. The new West Village haunt features a butcher counter and open kitchen so guests can watch their entire meal preparation. And in Cambridge, there are no secrets behind the stove of chef Carl Dooley at The Table at Season to Taste, who first made a name for himself via reality TV on Bravo’s Top Chef. Now he’s sharing the spotlight in an intimate 20-seat open-concept restaurant where patrons get a real taste of how a well-oiled kitchen staff functions. “I think it’s really part of the whole experience — not only the food but you get to see things in action, get to see the seamless dance to the preparation of a beautiful meal, and meet the people who are cooking for you when they come out and interact with you,” explains marketing director and Instagrammer extraordinaire Stephanie Cornell.
The personalities behind the plates are just as powerful a sales tool as any dish, too, says Baum. “The idea of being so close that you can touch the chef – can almost consider them a ‘friend’ – is appealing to anyone interested in food, especially a younger, more millennial generation. They feel that they’re a part of the process, which is what it’s all about for them.” Cases in point are the wildly popular foraging classes taught by the staff at New York City’s Agern and Barbara Lynch’s Stir Boston, a combination classroom/bookstore/kitchen demo space.
Carley Thornell is a travel writer whose experiences eating street food in Japan, English peas in the UK, free-range steak in Argentina, and Brussels sprouts at Estragon tapas in her hometown of Boston have provided unforgettable culinary inspiration. Shout out at email@example.com.
Photo credits: Brent Herrig (Boucherie).