Menu Trends: What You’ll See and What You Won’t

image via Deep South Sweets

image via Deep South Sweets

Menus are making way for upgraded oatmeal and turmeric everything.
Ricotta is the new Greek yogurtAncient grains are bumping sweet potatoes right off the plate. Iced tea is getting a makeover while iced coffee holds its ground.
So says a survey of 1,575 chefs-members of the American Culinary Federation. The National Restaurant Association asked the chefs to comment on a couple of hundred food items and identify the ingredients, influences, dishes, and techniques that are shaking things up on the nation’s menus.

Hot Trends:

  • chef-driven fast casual concepts
  • make it in-house (small-batch condiments, ice cream, pickles, and charcuterie)
  • DIY (brew your own beer, butcher your own meats, mill your own flours)
  • street food influences
  • heirloom apples
  • ancient (and inadvertently gluten-free) grains (teff, amaranth, millet)
  • new ethnic condiments (harissa, peri peri, chimichurri)
  • African flavors
  • regional gravy (red-eye, tasso, black pepper)
  • Southeast Asian cuisines
  • prix fixe brunch menus
  • specialty iced tea (Thai, matcha, Southern sweet tea)
  • grain bowls and porridges
  • native herbs (lovage, lemon balm, hyssop, angelica)
  • sustainable fish varieties

Yesterday’s News:

  • deviled eggs
  • tater tots
  • flatbread appetizers
  • wedge salads
  • vegetables in desserts
  • smoked salt
  • edible insects
  • bone marrow and organ meats
  • foams

There are the new movers and shakers, the trends that are hanging on past their prime, and then there are the perennials. Chefs identified the classic dishes that are enjoying a certain current popularity, but are eternally welcome at the table:

  • fried chicken
  • biscuits
  • barbecue
  • French toast
  • pulled pork
  • comfort foods
  • classic desserts (fruit cobblers, profiteroles)
  • bacon


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The World’s Most Expensive ____________(fill in the blank)

[image via]

[image via]

Who else is fed up with the world’s most expensive food’ trend?
I’m talking about the $450 pizza (topped with lobster thermidor and black cod) or the $295 hamburger (made with white truffle butter-infused Japanese Wagyu beef and black truffles served on a gold-dusted roll capped with creme fraiche and caviar).
What a waste. Such fine ingredients are assembled but the goal is not to offer a magnificent dining experience but merely a budget-busting one. It’s doubtful that the dishes even originated with a chef. These are shameless stunts perpetrated by restaurant publicists, and most don’t even taste good.

The restaurateur as P.T. Barnum.
The more gimmicky and outrageous the stunt, the more it’s re-posted, re-pinned, and re-tweeted. And not just by the hype-hungry Buzzfeeds of the world: last December’s Most Expensive Christmas Dinner (a gold leaf-wrapped turkey served with 100-year old wine decanted through a filter of diamond dust) got plenty of column inches from traditional media like Time, ABC News, and the Washington Post. This kind of fleeting fame propels ever more short-sighted restaurant owners into the fray of culinary one-upsmanship.

There’s no question that the world of the one-percenters can be a fascinating place of lavish spending and culinary indulgence that the rest of us can only dream of. But this current fascination is not about elite and refined dining; it’s meals for one percenters with 99-percent tastes. It’s pub food like a $760 Scotch egga $1,565 rendition of the peasant chicken stew coq au vin, and even a $17 ‘Diva’ corn dog made with sweetbreads, bone marrow, truffle, and foie gras. And it’s impossible to keep up with the high-stakes most expensive hamburger category where there seems to be a revolving door to the title from all the jostling for preeminence.

Let’s say you want to set a new world’s record.
To make it official you need to go through the ‘Set a Record’ service on the Guinness World Records website. Once the category and methodology have been approved, verification of the feat requires signed statements from two witnesses plus photographic evidence, or the record-setter can pay for the presence of an official Guinness adjudicator. You can see the appeal from the restaurant’s standpoint: it’s a small investment, a quick and easy process, and if they hit it just right it’s a public relations bonanza.

These stunts have worn out their welcome.
Even at their best they’re one-offs based in novelty. Now, absent the novelty we’re left with a joyless can-you-top-this desperation. That plus a bad taste in the mouth from the realization that the world’s most expensive kebab costs as much as the per capita income of a Ugandan.


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Food Tastes Different in Noisy Restaurants

image via Synergy Consultants


A widely circulated study reported in the journal Food Quality and Preference concluded that background noise affects the taste of food.
We didn’t need a study to tell us.

Drink a glass of wine in a crowded, noisy bar.
Now sit down in a quiet dining room and have another glass.
These are two entirely different experiences. In fact, you’ll swear you’re drinking two different wines.

The study found that loud ambient noise makes flavors lose their intensity. Sweet foods taste less sweet and salty foods taste less salty. The researchers attribute this to the distraction—the noise seems to overwhelm the senses, drowning out the taste of food in the same way as it drowns out conversation.

Bring in ‘da noise
Nothing says fun like clattering dishes, chattering diners, and a pounding bass line. Some restaurateurs will cultivate the noise level to signify that the place has a buzz; it’s busy and lively and happening. Sedate and quiet feels empty. Raucous draws in customers who will want to be there because so many other people feel the same way.

The up-sell of sound
Louder and faster music makes us eat and drink faster. One study found that when music is played at 72 decibels (equivalent to the background noise of a vacuum cleaner), people drink at a rate of one glass of beer or wine per 14.5 minutes. Crank the music up to 88 decibels (equivalent to the noise of busy street traffic) and 4 minutes is shaved off the time it takes to finish a drink. And they’re not just drinking faster to flee the ruckus; consumption increases from 2.6 to 3.4 drinks in the same period of time.

We also chew faster when the music is fast and loud, accelerating from 3.83 bites a minute to 4.4 bites a minute. Of course it’s difficult to talk over the volume, so there tends to be less conversation to slow us down, but it seems that the ambient energy works to energize us. Some restaurants, like Dick Clark’s American Bandstand Grill, have pre-programmed their sound systems to raise the tempo and volume of music at peak times, when people are waiting and they want to turn tables quicker.

Sound check
Loud background noise is stressful. It changes your heart rate, elevates blood pressure and increases breathing rates. The fallout can linger long after you’ve left a restaurant, intensifying the effects of alcohol and interfering with sleep. And audiologists agree that regular exposure to sound levels above 90 decibels—typical of a bustling bar/restaurant, which can hit brief peaks as high as 140 db—leads to permanent hearing loss.

When Zagat asked its survey respondents “What irritates you most about dining out?” restaurant noise ranked second, just after poor service—that’s more dissatisfaction than reported for food, prices, or any other aspect of ambiance. Restaurant reviewers from publications like the Washington Post and the San Francisco Chronicle now routinely carry sound meters into restaurants, and report decibels along with the stars.

Next time, I’ll have the steak frites and a side of earplugs, please.



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Let’s Put the ‘Men’ Back in Menu

image via Blushing Rose Too


Meatball subs. T-bone steaks. Chili.
Eggs should be runny; meats served rare. If there must be salad, blue cheese should be crumbled on top.
We all know what manly food looks like.

And for the ladies, it’s all about tuna melts, angel hair pasta, and cottage cheese.
Pinot grigio is sipped and chocolate is consumed in dainty portions with mascaraed eyes falling closed in feminine pleasure.

A recent study from Northwestern University shows that real men truly don’t eat quiche. At least not if they stop to think about it.

It seems that men, more than women, are sensitive to gender-driven food messaging, both from early socialization and of the sort promoted by the evil geniuses of Madison Avenue. When a quick, 10 second decision is made, taste and appetite prevail; men will freely choose yogurt, rice pilaf, white wine, and poached fish. Given time to consider the choice, they’ll almost always shun the girlie food for beer and pretzels, hamburgers and meatloaf. Women don’t waver, overwhelmingly choosing feminine options and sticking with them.

Of course the cultural meanings of food did not materialize out of the ether. Physiology and heredity first defined gendered eating—men as hunters, women as gatherers; the greater protein needs of men; the frequency of supertasters among women—but now, it’s almost all cultural. We all had the same caveman roots, but you don’t find women shunning red meat outside of the U.S.

It makes a certain sense that the male research subjects were more inclined to yield to the tyranny of gender stereotypes. Men are more likely to be penalized for gender transgressions. It’s learned early on when little girls play freely with dolls and toy trucks, but a Barbie-loving boy arouses parental concerns.
We see the same double standard in food choices.

Women can munch away on buffalo wings, but a pastel-frosted cupcake or anything labeled as ‘diet’ is seen as an affront to manly eating. Bro-worthy treats are labeled as mancakes or whipped up as confections like the Driller (maple cake with bacon) and the Jackhammer (chocolate and hazelnut) at places like New York City’s Butch Bakery, and Diet Coke has been made over as the man-friendly Coke Zero (known familiarly as ‘bloke coke’).

The Northwestern University study suggests that for men, hard-wiring has little to do with food preferences. The initial, impulsive choice made in the first 10 seconds is seen as a true reflection of a man’s intrinsic tastes. At that moment, there’s nothing masculine or feminine about it; it’s simply food. The gendered syntax of girlie foods and manly foods is just part of the cultural tale we tell when we sit down to dinner.

The Northwestern University study: Real Men Don’t Eat Quiche: Regulation of Gender-Expressive Choices by Men appeared in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science. You can download the complete study here.

What is America’s manliest restaurant?
Men’s Health magazine surveyed its readers to identify their favorites (think meat, meat, and more meat). See the nine regional finalists at the Guy Gourmet blog.

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Taste with your Ears

The fish tastes fishier when the background sounds are nautical.
We reach for Bordeaux wines when La Vie en Rose is on the soundtrack, and oompah bands have us craving Reisling.

The music playing, the swirl of conversation, the ambient noise in the background—they all have the power to affect our taste buds.

Drink a glass of wine in a noisy bar with the jukebox blaring.
Now sit down in a quiet room, queue up a little jazz and have another glass. It’s an entirely different experience. A British study found that the musical selections played while drinking wine can change the way the taste is perceived by up to 60 percent: a little 80’s New Wave pop makes white wine taste zingier, while ponderous German classical music gives heft to a Cabernet.

Another study, reported in the journal Food Quality and Preference, linked background noise to the taste of food. The study found that loud ambient noise makes flavors lose their intensity. Sweet foods taste less sweet and salty foods taste less salty. The researchers attribute this to the distraction—the noise seems to overwhelm the senses, drowning out the taste of food in the same way as it drowns out conversation.

Too much quiet, though, does nothing for the palate, and the solitary clink of cutlery becomes grating. The sweet spot for dining pleasure is found between 62 and 67 decibels, with a combination of muted classical music and a hint of background chatter (about as loud as the rinse cycle of a dishwasher at 10 paces).

When you want to be where the action is.
It’s not always just about the food. The smart restaurateur knows that nothing says fun like clattering dishes, chattering diners, and a pounding bass line. Some will cultivate the noise level to signify that the place has a buzz; it’s busy and lively and happening. Sedate and quiet feels empty. Raucous draws in customers who will want to be there because so many other people feel the same way. But if you want to really enjoy the meal, you’ll need a side of earplugs.


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Not Such Top Chefs: Who’s making the real dough?

Celebrity chefs are big business.
They syndicate their own TV shows, command seven figure cookbook advances, and lend their names to endorse everything from ovens mitts to spaghetti sauce. A speaking engagement or cooking demo might net them upward of $50,000 for a few hours’ time, and investors line up to partner with them as they expand their restaurant empires into vacation hot spots from the Bahamas to Las Vegas.

What about the guy behind the stove at your corner bistro?
There’s no legion of fans swooning over his cooking on the Food Network—he just wants to impress the restaurant critic in the local paper and get a few good plugs in Yelp. He lives and dies by the table turn on a Friday night and the wholesale price of hanger steak.

Away from the spotlight, most chefs toil away in their kitchen clogs and baseball caps in semi-anonymity. They’re paid better than teachers, not as well as doctors, and probably not enough to afford them dinners out at restaurants as nice as theirs.

Here’s the skinny on who makes what in the kitchen.
Data comes from the culinary arts salary guide at and the annual salary survey conducted by There can be significant differences between restaurant types and locations— salaries are all given as national averages.

Chef/Owner: $85,685
The dual role comes with the most creative freedom, but demands a double dose of pluck and fortitude and the ability to walk the line between craft and commerce, all while holding up both ends.

Executive Chef: $79,402
The kitchen’s top dog (absent an owner who cooks), the role tends to be more executive than chef, with hours spent on planning, costing, and ordering functions.

Sous Chef: $42,266
How’s that for a drop— little more than half their bosses’ salaries, and they’re the real workhorses. Sous chefs usually have the kitchen’s longest work day and its most brutal pace. See the one working through the staff meal? That would be the sous chef.

Pastry Chef: $48,861
Yeah, they don’t get the big bucks, or even their due, but then again, they only use their knives to cut through butter.

[image via MSN.


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Shoulder to Shoulder with Strangers: Dining at the communal table.

  image via The Publican


We tend to like our public dining experiences to be private.

The communal tables of school cafeterias and summer camps are in the past. As adults, we envelop the experience in an aura of privacy, seated with just our private party, at our own table, booth, or banquette. We seldom pay to eat a meal at a table alongside strangers. […]

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Dining and Decibels

 image via Synergy Consultants


A widely circulated study reported in this month’s journal Food Quality and Preference concluded that background noise affects the taste of food. We didn’t need a study to tell us.

Drink a glass of wine in a crowded, noisy bar.
Now sit down in a quiet dining room and have another glass. They are two entirely different experiences. […]

Posted in health + diet, restaurants | Tagged , | 2 Comments

How to Eat for Free

Is there any better flavor than the taste of free?

Everyone loves a bargain, but free is a whole other animal. Zero is not just another price. It’s an emotional hot button— push it, and we are irrationally, deliriously happy. […]

Posted in holidays, restaurants | 6 Comments

The Chef Really Does Hate You

Beastie Feastie mask via

And your waiter, the busboy, and probably even the guy who parked your car.
They read Yelp. They know what you’re saying about them. And they’re sick of getting dumped on by customers.

Turning the tables on you.
Servers have been having their say for years on blogs like Bitter Waitress and Waiter Rant; the bashing of bad tippers is an industry unto itself. But recently, the chefs have been speaking up. […]

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Kids Gone Wild (in restaurants)


Spawn of Satan—your table is ready.

A sign located in the window of a restaurant in North Carolina is grabbing national attention and reigniting a long-standing debate.

Screaming Children Will NOT Be Tolerated!

The gauntlet has been thrown down. Disciplinarians, libertarians, childless singles, stroller-pushers all seem to have an opinion, and the divide runs deep.

We have all been there. Even the most maternal, paternal, and child-loving among us have had an otherwise pleasant dining experience marred by food throwers, table wanderers, spoon bangers, booth kickers, toy tossers, water spillers, whiners, wailers, and weepers.

We grumble about the inappropriateness of bringing children to a restaurant of this caliber. We bemoan the current state of parenting, convinced that our parents would have never tolerated this disgraceful behavior. We recount travelers’ tales of meals spent observing the offspring of our European counterparts, with their hours of fidget-free behavior and adeptness with escargots tongs.

Defenders of the ban will point to the very underpinnings of a free society. The analogy has always been that the freedom to swing your fist should end where somebody else’s nose begins.

Then there’s the other side.

Parents and their defenders complain that they are being singled out. They gripe about the nasty looks they regularly receive, and sometimes even interference and criticisms.

They feel singled out, and consider a ban on children to be a form of discrimination. Would you outlaw people with Tourettes Syndrome because of their outbursts? Or seniors because they might have difficulty with hearing and tend to speak loudly? And let’s not forget their tendency to tell lame jokes to waitresses. How about the too-heavily perfumed, people who talk with their mouths full or tuck napkins in their shirts? The point, they say, is that accommodation and tolerance work both ways, and are a part of social intercourse. If you don’t like it, stay home.

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Small Indulgences: bite-sized desserts

image via Show and Tell

Forget about ordering one dessert with four forks.

What’s big in desserts right now is small. We’re scooping itty bitty spoons into tiny tureens of tiramisu and downing shot glass shooters of passion fruit soufflé. Already precious cupcakes have morphed into the cake ball trend, and little pies are appearing atop lollipop sticks.

Restaurants are happy to accommodate the baby sweet tooth. They find that average checks are higher when small desserts are on the menu; customers that wouldn’t typically indulge are lured by the novelty and smaller commitment of the miniatures, and while they’re at it, they’ll order a coffee, a tea, maybe an after-dinner drink.

We are more adventurous with tiny desserts. We want a big taste in the small package and are willing to experiment with unfamiliar ingredients and preparations. The stakes are low– we’re committing to just a few bites at a lower price point than for standard desserts. […]

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Daily Deals for Dining: Groupon and its many imitators


Everyone loves a bargain.

Just 21 months old, the online social shopping service Groupon has signed up 12 million subscribers, adding nearly two million more each month. It’s grown to more than 1,000 employees, has been profitable since June 2009, and recently attracted a $135 million dollar round of investment from the venture capital group behind Facebook. (Gigabiting first looked at the Groupon phenomenon when it reached the one million subscriber mark) […]

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Tipping Karma: Your Tipping Habits Made Public


Do you tip a straight 15%? Do you bump it up to 20% or more for really good service? Not to worry; you should be in the clear.

Bad tippers take note. They’re naming names.

If you are rude, if you are demanding, if you totally stiff your server, you just might find your name making the rounds in cyberspace on a list of bad tippers. Waiters, bartenders, even pizza delivery guys all have their go-to websites for rants and revenge, pulling transaction details from credit card receipts and posting them anonymously. The tweets could be flying before you get your car back from the valet parker (and yes, they have their own site).

Find out what your servers really think of you.

Waiter Rant has made an industry of tipping tales with a popular blog and a best-selling book, Waiter Rant: Thanks for the Tip – Confessions of a Cynical Waiter. Here you’ll learn how the car you drive tells the world what kind of tipper you are, and why the check for your table of 6 included a gratuity charge.

Bitter Waitress pulls no punches with posts like Man and Fat Wife’s Anniversary, and Stop Coddling the Whiny, Bitchy People.

Is your name among the thousands of entries in the Lousy Tippers Database? With the ominous subtitle ‘There is a Consequence,’ let’s hope not.

Another place that servers go to share is the Facebook page Bad Tippers Suck! where they like to remind you that there is no such things as over-tipping.

Celebrity Tipping: the stuff of legend.

All eyes are on them as they stride in with entourage and attitude. They are fully aware of the scrutiny, the flash of cell phone cameras, the gossip that moves at the speed of light. But still, they engage in heinous acts of tip stiffing. Such hubris! Of course their servers are only too happy to share sordid tales of rude behavior and lousy tips.

Sullen, petulant Russell Crowe appears on the list of the 10 best celebrity tippers while perpetually cheery Rachael Ray is one of the 10 worst. Go figure.

Stained Apron identifies celebrities as ‘Saints’ and ‘Scum,’ claiming that tipping habits are the true test of inner peace and civility. We could have guessed about Uma Thurman, but it’s nice to know that the former members of the Village People wear the halo. It seems that most members of Congress are going to hell, but we already knew that.

Here’s a tip: don’t wait until you see your name on a bad tippers’ database to give a jolt to your conscience. From sommeliers to tattoo artists, find out the appropriate gratuity for all the service workers in your life with these tipping guidelines.


Posted in cyberculture, restaurants | Tagged , , , | 11 Comments
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