Dining Dynamics

Bringing you the latest news on the restaurant front

In today’s dining scene, operators want to be sure they’re making the right moves to encourage diners to come — and return — to their restaurants. Below are highlights of some recent dining-related news and menu trends, and what their bottom-line impact signifies for your establishment.
Healthy eating figures prominently in recent news. Scientific research shows that restaurant chains are proving to be fairly accurate with their calorie counts as they prepare to comply with upcoming government legislation mandating the posting of nutritional information. Also, a group of 19 leading chain restaurants has agreed to offer more healthful kids’ meals that comply with criteria set out as part of a National Restaurant Association initiative.

Calorie counts in restaurants are mostly — but not always — accurate

A Tufts University study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association concludes that restaurants are generally posting accurate calorie counts, but there are some errors. Researchers tested 269 menu items from 242 restaurants in Arkansas, Indiana and Massachusetts using bomb calorimetry, which measures calories released when the food is burned. The majority of menu items tested from chain restaurants were within 10 calories of the number posted by the restaurant, and 81% of food items tested had calorie counts within a 20% margin of error. However, the tests revealed large inconsistencies in a few items, particularly at casual-dining restaurants and in the menu categories of low-calorie items and side dishes. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which is in the process of drawing up implementation rules for the new national menu labeling law, has indicated that it will allow items containing 80% to 120% of the posted calorie count.

Healthier kids’ meals are on order

Burger King, Denny’s, IHOP, Chili’s, Friendly’s, Chevy’s, Joe’s Crab Shack and El Pollo Loco are among a group of 19 restaurant companies that have pledged to offer more healthful menu options for children as part of the National Restaurant Association’s Kids LiveWell initiative. To meet the program’s criteria, participating restaurants must offer at least one kids’ meal that has fewer than 600 calories, has at least two fruit, vegetable, whole-grain, lean-protein and/or lowfat-dairy components, and does not feature a soft drink. A healthful side must be available as well. Healthful kids’ meals that meet the program’s requirements will be listed on HealthyDiningFinder.com.

Menu trends have gone retro with soda fountains making a comeback, food being served in Mason jars and pimento cheese spread turning up in places other than ladies’ lunches. Also of note, romesco sauce and rhubarb are punctuating plates across the United States with flavor and color alike.

Blast from the past: Soda Fountains

Retro diners are revitalizing the tradition of soda fountains. Modern-day soda jerks are merging current culinary trends — rare and exotic fruits, seasonal flavors, housemade beverages — with old-fashioned recipes for ice-cream sodas and egg creams with housemade syrups. Blueplate in Portland, Ore., offers more than 20 made-to-order house sodas, floats and shakes — such as the Eastern Connection, housemade orange syrup mixed with ginger, lemongrass and lime leaf, or the Hawaiian Sunset, with pineapple, coconut and strawberry flavorings. The Franklin Fountain in Philadelphia offers 25 flavors of soda by the glass as well as specialty phosphates such as the Japanese Thirst Killer, with almond, grape juice and Angostura bitters.

A jarring presentation: food in Mason jars

Hearkening back to an earlier era of food production, cutting-edge restaurants have begun serving food in wide-mouth glass jars, reports the Chicago Tribune. Once used for preservation and storage, old-fashioned Mason jars are increasingly taking a place of honor on dining tables. In Chicago, upscale French bistro Bistronomic serves several dishes in jars, including tuna tartare, green and black olives, and signature housemade country pate. In San Francisco, hotspot Marlowe offers two desserts in 6-ounce Mason jars: graham-cracker chocolate-chip cookie crisp and an upside-down pear crisp.

Romesco sauce, which originates from the Catalonia region of Spain, is appearing on independent restaurant menus across the country
A traditional romesco sauce consists of tomatoes, red bell pepper, onion, garlic, almonds and olive oil. It can be paired with a variety of meats and seafood as well as vegetables. In New York City, celebrity chef Daniel Boulud’s Boulud Sud concept pairs romesco sauce with daurade (a Mediterranean fish), and the lunch menu at Boqueria Tapas Bar and Restaurant offers a grilled-chicken sandwich seasoned with romesco. At Zuzu in Napa, Calif., romesco sauce is used to garnish roasted potatoes and onions.

Pimento cheese spread is being upscaled as chefs look to reinterpret this Southern spread
In Brooklyn, New York, Van Horn Sandwich Shop offers a BLP (bacon, lettuce and pimento) sandwich; the pimento cheese spread is made with sharp yellow and white cheddar, parmesan, mayonnaise, roasted red peppers and chipotle peppers. At the Bobby’s Burger Palace chain in the Northeast, created by celebrity chef Bobby Flay, the pimento cheese spread is a blend of roasted red peppers, white and yellow cheddar, mayonnaise and cayenne pepper, served as a burger topping on a brioche roll. In San Francisco, Hogs & Rocks serves a four-ounce Mason jar of pimento cheese spread made with piquillo peppers, aged Mahon cheese, mayonnaise and cheddar.

Rhubarb is being featured on more restaurant menus as chefs realize its versatility
The Mansion Restaurant in Dallas serves seared foie gras, rhubarb, caramelized pistachio and pickled strawberry, and Chicago’s Bistrot Zinc offers duck confit with bacon-polenta cake and rhubarb compote. On the East Coast, Neil Jordan’s in Mount Pleasant, S.C., serves a teriyaki pork chop with pineapple and rhubarb chutney and sweet-potato mousse. In New York City, Nice Matin restaurant menus duck magret, shredded Brussels sprouts, fingerling potatoes, pancetta, pignoli nuts and rhubarb gastric.

All data provided courtesy of Technomic, Inc.