Appetizers are the most playful and experimental part of the menu, where chefs can give their creativity free rein. Smaller portions mean that strongly flavored or premium ingredients can star. It’s no surprise that trends pop up fastest on the starters’ list. Appetizers are gaining prominence as consumers’ notions about dining occasions evolve. Starters are a perfect fit with today’s most important lifestyle trends: downsizing of portions and prices; sharing and sampling; on-the-go eating; and around-the-clock grazing.
If you want your menu to stand out, consider wowing your customers with your appetizers. To help you reevaluate and update your menu, here’s a look at today’s key trends.
1. Street foods
Thanks in part to the taco-truck craze, humble snacks sold by street vendors in cities around the world suddenly have an honored place indoors — on the appetizer menus of some of the trendiest restaurants. Dishes inspired by street foods from the Far East, the Middle East, the Caribbean and Latin America are showing up in restaurants at all price levels. The brightest street-food star is the street taco — a smaller, spicier version of the familiar Mexican snack. Typical versions include the Street Tacos at Rubio’s Fresh Mexican Grill — mini tacos filled with carnitas, chicken or steak topped with guacamole and cilantro — and Leo’s Street Tacos at Z’Tejas Southwestern Grill, which are filled with seared beef tenderloin, diced cucumbers, avocado, Cotija cheese and a drizzle of chipotle cream sauce.
A hearty spaghetti topping for previous generations, the venerable meatball is rolling onto a surprising number of appetizer menus this year. Palomino serves a Sicilian Meatballs appetizer; Canyon Creek Chophouse recently offered Moroccan Meatballs on its “5 for $5” appetizer list; and Applebee’s promoted Stuffed Meatballs & Mozzarella Scoops — fried mozzarella scoops and provolone-stuffed meatballs.
Although sliders have been around for a while, they’re now diversifying, with petite ground-beef burgers joined by other types of mini sandwiches, even wraps. Whiskey Creek Wood Fire Grill introduced sliders in prime rib and pulled-pork versions; Gordon Biersch Brewery Restaurant offered seasonal Bison Sliders on its appetizer menu; and Islands Fine Burgers & Drinks menued Beachside Turkey Sliders. Sliders may appear as trios (sometimes with three different fillings) or paired with other bite-size appetizers, offering consumers the appeal of variety.
4. It’s toast
Bruschetta, a toasted garlic bread with toppings, is part of a larger trend of appetizers with toast or flatbread. Sauce offered limited-time bruschetta appetizers in two versions (caprese and roasted portobello with artichoke), and Pasta Pomodoro introduced Bruschetta ai Insalata di Mare, a grilled baguette topped with shrimp, calamari, oil-cured black olives, tomatoes, red onion and capers in lemon juice and extra-virgin olive oil, drizzled with salsa verde.
As the most obvious expression of a more general trend toward Mediterranean-style appetizers and dips, hummus is often seen by consumers as more healthful. Cosi serves Hummus & Fresh Veggies — tomatoes, cucumbers, red onions and basil. Le Pain Quotidien pairs hummus with other traditional fare of the Eastern Mediterranean on its Mediterranean Platter, which offers hummus, baba ghanoush (a roasted eggplant dip), tabbouleh (a cold salad of bulghur wheat and chopped veggies) and assorted organic breads.
6. The big dipper
Restaurants have discovered that an easy way to add variety and excitement to an appetizer is to serve it with a selection of dips. Dip trios have escalated to as many as five served with a single appetizer. Some of the trendiest include aioli (a garlic mayonnaise) and Greek tzatziki (a yogurt-and-cucumber sauce). Aquaknox’s Chef’s Trio of Dips includes sweet shrimp hummus, Mediterranean roasted eggplant puree and roasted vegetables salsa.
7. All-star trios
Diners crave variety, and operators are putting more thought into their appetizer combos, and offering more of them. Particularly prominent are trios of complementary but differentiated items, like Mellow Mushroom’s Hippie Dippy Trio — a platter of hummus, tomato bruschetta drizzled with balsamic glaze, and three-olive tapenade with feta cheese, served with baked garlic toast.
8. Stacked creations
Applebee’s defined its new menu section with the label Stacked, Stuffed & Topped, but appetizer architecture is being erected all over the casual-dining landscape. Bahama Breeze unveiled a Crab, Shrimp, Mango and Avocado Stack appetizer, and Chili’s introduced a Crispy Onion String & Jalapeño Stack.
9. Asian appetizers
Wontons, pot stickers, lettuce wraps and other Asian appetizers beyond egg rolls are showing up in greater variety, even in nonethnic restaurants. An example of a concept emphasizing Asian appetizers is CRAVE in Minneapolis, which menus tuna tataki, edamame (steamed soybeans), chicken satay and beef eggrolls.
10. Bar menus
Steakhouses and other upscale concepts have discovered that they can draw
diners by offering more playful fare in the bar or during specific times such as happy hour or late night. One of the most successful examples of this strategy is the 5 for $6 ‘Til 7 Bar Menu at Fleming’s Prime. Until 7 p.m., guests can choose from five appetizers plus a signature burger, five wines and five cocktails — all priced at $6 each and served at the bar.