Menus Embrace Americana

More and more menus are waving the American flag when it comes to culinary inspiration. Traditional American food is on the rise—up 26% from Q3 2008 to Q3 2011—and more regional American references are coming into focus. Also on the rise: old-fashioned food that evokes Americana, from apple pie to fried chicken, and even dishes that accentuate the country goodness of certain meals.

There are several factors fueling this trend. First, the “locavore” movement of the last decade has brought attention to local, regional and seasonal food sourcing, and this has inevitably led chefs and diners to knowing more about what states and regions have the best crops and some unique dishes. Now, consumers are interested in seeing how even basic things, like chowder or a steak sandwich, can have different meanings from state to state and even from city to city.

Interest in regional American food also got a boost from the way New Orleans chefs worked to retain the culinary culture and food sources of that city post-Katrina and in the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. These events brought attention to New Orleans and Louisiana, which rippled out to an interest in Southern cuisine, which continues to build interest throughout other regions.

Emerging American Hot Spots

This trend continues to build because, over the past decade, the foodservice industry has circled the globe in terms of culinary inspiration. Chefs and diners have learned a lot about Mediterranean, Asian and Latin cuisines. Now the food world is turning inward and looking at America’s rich culinary heritage. Often, culinary interests follow wider cultural concerns, and with a presidential election quickly approaching, the economy still in limbo and many troops returning from the Middle East, Americans are focused on domestic issues.

Interest in the regional cuisines of the United States will most likely evolve much like interest in global cuisines, moving from broad regions to smaller areas, more refined ingredients, more specific pockets of influence and increasingly authentic ingredients. Menus are already narrowing the focus from broader regions like the Northeast to finer points of these regions, with citations narrowing from New England to Maine to Bar Harbor, Maine.

Fine Dining and Independents

In fine dining and among independent chefs, there’s a very academic component to discovering more about American culinary history. Many New York City chefs are taking inspiration from both American regional foods and local restaurant nostalgia. Chefs Mario Carbone and Rich Torrisi serve upscale Italian-American food at Torrisi Italian Specialties, but the two chefs researched old menus collected at the Brooke Russell Astor Reading Room of New York Public Library for their newer Parm restaurant. The ever-evolving retro menu pays homage to all five boroughs of the city with sophisticated updates on everything from Jewish deli food to Chinatown’s takeout.

In Chicago, Big Jones is one of many thriving independents serving Southern food. The menu is “coastal southern cooking with a focus on locally grown, sustainably farmed food, and progressive American kitchen techniques.

Casual and Family-Midscale Dining

In casual and family-midscale settings, some well-established brands have built their reputations on good, old comfort cooking. More and more, Southern accents go with the country goodness, as was seen in the chicken-waffle LTOs run both at IHOP and Shari's in 2011.

For other regional tastes, fish-focused concepts like Red Lobster and Legal Sea Foods take much of their inspiration from the East, but the West and Northwest are also well-represented in casual dining. Focusing on the flavors of Big Sky country, Ted’s Montana Grill is built around beef and bison. This past May, the chain revamped the menu to include a new batch of burgers named after different parts of the West. The Montana Breakfast Burger includes American cheese, grilled ham, a fried egg and spicy house-made tomato jam. The Canyon Creek Burger is “topped with melted cheddar cheese, bacon, diced jalapeños, blackberry jam, and a fried egg over-easy, and served on a corn-dusted Kaiser roll. New Mexico is represented with pepper Jack cheese, roasted Anaheim pepper, fresh guacamole and Ted’s spicy tomato jam.

The casual, full-service segment is also a place where menus often cut-and-paste from a variety of global and regional influences; the trend is not to focus on one region, but rather to represent some greatest hits from across the nation (and sometimes the globe).

Quick Serve and Fast Casual

Quick service (QSR) and fast-casual restaurants are also borrowing an array of regional flavors to bring new interest to familiar favorites like hamburgers, sandwiches and fried chicken.

Sonic has made news with its Coney and city-inspired hot dogs. The Chicago dog is embellished with pickles, sports peppers and celery salt, and the New York version has sauerkraut and spicy brown mustard.

Other chains adjust menus based on regional tastes. At Smashburger, “every Smashburger menu is specially crafted to reflect the tastes and flavors of your city or state.” Regional burgers include the Spicy Baja with pepper Jack cheese, guacamole, lettuce, tomato, onion, spicy chipotle mayo and fresh jalapeños on a spicy chipotle bun.

The Windy City burger layers melted cheddar cheese, haystack onions, lettuce, tomato and Gulden’s spicy mustard on a hand-cut pretzel roll. Smashburger launched its sweet potato “smash fries” as a Southern regional special, but expanded them nationally based on customer demand.

Source: ConAgra Foodservice