Last week OpenTable released our annual list of the 100 Best Restaurants in America for Foodies, based on more than five million reviews from verified diners in our network. Once the list was complete, our team combed through it looking for new themes and similarities between restaurants to see what restaurant experiences foodies are craving today.
Overall, casual dining experiences are increasingly favored by guests (it’s no secret the white tablecloth is out), and we’re seeing that evolution play out in a few different ways, with restaurants catering more to their neighborhoods and communities. Chefs are still partial to local ingredients, but flavors and techniques are inspired by Spain, Israel, Japan, France, and beyond. And many of these hot restaurants are the brainchilds of not just one star chef/owner, but two.
From menus to teams and dining styles, here are seven exciting trends we spotted.
Wood-fired cooking. Authentic, traditional cooking methods are on the rise, and wood-fired ovens are popping up in restaurant kitchens across the country. Smoky meats, charred vegetables, and blistered pizzas add plenty of interest to menus, but the ovens also create an inviting atmosphere and, in restaurants with open kitchens, become centerpieces of the dining room.
Seen at: Crudo, Phoenix; La Cuchara, Baltimore; Oakhart Social, Charlottesville; Odd Duck, Austin; Publico, St. Louis; Renata, Portland; Shaya, New Orleans.
Communal tables. As dining experiences become increasingly casual, restaurants are adding communal tables into their bars and dining rooms. It’s a space-saving solution, for one — restaurants can accommodate more guests at long, shared tables — but it also changes the mood, encouraging conversation and interaction between guests. Communal tables are one more way that restaurants encourage a neighborhood-friendly atmosphere, as they may seat walk-ins there and leave the dining room tables for reservations.
Seen at: Aatxe, San Francisco; Aviary, Portland; Beast, Portland; Fat Rice, Chicago; The Kitchen, Boulder.
Focus on vegetables. Unique vegetable dishes are more popular than ever among chefs, and guests can’t get enough, either. A couple of vegan and vegetarian restaurants made our list, as well as restaurants that offer vegetarian tasting menus in addition to their regular tasting experience. New concepts like Al’s Place are putting vegetables front and center and treating meat as a side dish. Finally, vegetables are getting the star treatment.
Seen at: Al’s Place, San Francisco; Tallulah’s, Seattle; Dirt Candy, New York; Modern Love, Omaha; Vedge, Philadelphia.
Family-run businesses. A surprisingly large number of restaurants on our list are owned and operated by married couples. Maybe guests feel the intimacy in the dining room; maybe they love the unexpected flavors on the menu caused by a creative, supportive environment. Maybe it’s just the passion of a shared, life-long dream come to fruition. Whatever the reason, diners are giving extra props to businesses led by partners in work and life.
Seen at: AQUAGRILL, New York; Bibou, Philadelphia; Foreign & Domestic, Austin; Joan’s in the Park, New York; La Vara, Brooklyn; Lenoir, Austin; Odys & Penelope, Los Angeles; Senti, Pittsburgh.
Chef’s counters and open kitchens. Those who live to dine tend to be curious about what’s happening behind the scenes. Chef’s counters and open kitchens provide access to chefs at work and insight to the process behind each dish. Plus, there’s more interaction than ever between the people cooking the food and the people enjoying it. Some restaurants are even crafting special menus and tasting options for guests who sit at the chef’s counter to introduce truly unique experiences. Counters aren’t for every guest, but adventurous diners see them as the best seats in the house.
Seen at: ink., Los Angeles; Luksus, Brooklyn; Park Kitchen, Portland; Posh, Scottsdale; Rebelle, New York.
A nod to history. Chefs aim to serve food that has a sense of place. Why wouldn’t they have the same priority for the space itself? Restaurants that embrace the histories of their neighborhoods and communities are hot, whether that means finding a location in a historic village or a landmark building. The space can become part of the brand story, lending character and charm.
Seen at: Local Roots, Roanoke, Virginia; mkt., Seattle; Ophelia’s, Denver; Republic, Detroit.
Craft cocktails. Restaurants are paying close attention to their cocktail menus, creating lists as dynamic as their dinner menus. Mezcal and rye are still on trend, in addition to drinks with a farm-to-table focus that mirrors the cuisine. We’re also seeing cocktails differentiated by alcohol level, so guests can choose from spirit-heavy, low-alcohol and booze-free drinks. Herbs and teas are popular in infusions, and so many restaurants are making their own bitters and infusions in house that they’re not even calling it out on the menu anymore.
Seen at: Dover, Brooklyn; Fat Rice, Chicago; Nostrano, Madison, Wisc.; The Populist, Denver; Sarma, Somerville, Mass.
Photo Credits (top to bottom): The Peached Tortilla, Centrolina, Al’s Place Sunchoke Curry by Molly DeCoudreaux, Valette, mkt.