This is my third 2010 wrap-up piece: new or continuing trends for 2011. (See previously: NYC’s Top Ten New Restaurants of 2010 and NYC’s Ten Most Disappointing New Restaurants of 2010.)
1. Spend, spend, spend. Get ready to spend more money. Restaurant prices will rise beyond the pace of inflation. During the recession, chefs and restaurateurs held back, either by reducing their profit margins, or by using less expensive ingredients. As New York begins to recover, restaurants will raise prices. Entrées will test the $40 mark (and at some places, already have).
2. Eleven Madison Park/Del Posto copycats. During the recession, Eleven Madison Park and Del Posto bucked the economy, and actually got fancier. Eleven Madison is busier than ever, while Del Posto was rewarded with four stars. Restaurant owners will notice that this ploy worked, and will seek to copy it—not necessarily to four-star heights, which can happen only rarely, but at all levels of the dining spectrum.
3. Long-format fixed menus proliferate. Brooklyn Fare and Torrisi Italian Specialties have thrived with long-format menus that practically eliminate customer choice. Compose, which just opened in Tribeca, is another in this format. The idea isn’t new (Per Se, Masa, and Momofuku Ko had done the same) but at these newer places, the chefs had no track record that suggested they could get away with it. Given the success at Brooklyn Fare and Torrisi—Compose is too new to assess—we expect to see more of the same.
4. The small-plates format begins its overdue decline. The small-plates format is one of the many tricks that restaurants use to make themselves appear to be less expensive than they are. You might see a menu on which no individual dish is over $20, but you need to order four of them, so you wind up with a $60–80 food bill in the end. Although it will take more than a year to kill this format, you’ll see less of it in 2011, as chefs will not be tempted to make their menus seem cheaper.
5. Expect more “menus for many.” In his year-end rant, the Post’s Steve Cuozzo complained about “silly feasts,” like Má Pêche’s beef seven ways ($85pp; 6–10 people) and the Breslin’s suckling pig dinner ($65pp; 8–12 people). Get used to it, Steve: you’re going to see more of these. We disagree with Cuozzo that these feasts “exist mainly to feed chefs’ egos”: we loved the Bo Ssäm at Momofuku Ssäm Bar, and most reviews of “beef seven ways” have been positive. But I lament that the format is so inflexible. I would love to try the fried chicken dinner at Momofuku Noodle Bar, but you need to coordinate schedules with half-a-dozen other people, and then if someone cancels you could be left holding the bag.
6. Wine lists become more elaborate. Wine has the widest price range of any product sold in restaurants. A bottle could cost as little $20 or as much as $20,000. Restaurant wine lists were understandably cautious during the recession: there is no reason to stock bottles in three figures if people aren’t buying them. As the economy recovers, wine lists will become more adventurous, but also more expensive. More restaurants will go the Bar Henry/Ciano route, and offer large sections of their wine lists by the half-bottle, a move that encourages diners to order more adventurously. Web gurus like Feast’s Gary Vaynerchuk and Eater/Winechap’s Talia Biaocchi will continue to bring wine education to a wider market. Oh, and we’ll probably see more iPad wine lists (of which we are not fans).
7. Burger craze is not over. Are you tired of seeing a $16–25 burger on every menu? Too bad: the designer burger craze isn’t over. Exhibit A: the heavy breathing for the recently introduced “White Label” burger at Michael White’s Ai Fiori. These burgers are like catnip for influential bloggers, and they’re a no-risk proposition for the restaurants. We strongly disagree with Feast’s Ben Leventhal that a burger can add a whole star to a restaurant’s Times rating; but they certainly can’t hurt. (For the record, we find this trend unobjectionable: Don’t like ’em? Don’t order ’em.)
8. The Italian segment consolidates. The Italian segment is overdue for consolidation. The last half of 2010 saw a slew of fancy new Italian restaurants, such as Lincoln, Ai Fiori, Ciano, Manzo, and Villa Pacri. In a perverse way, it was a flight to safety. The Zagat Guide lists more Italian restaurants in New York than any other ethnic cuisine, and the standard four-course format (antipasti, primi, secondi, dolci) tends to plump up the bill. But at this point, the market for upscale Italian is beyond saturation. There will be some losers, and chefs (if they have a choice) won’t choose Italian cuisine quite as readily. It’s perhaps notable that Ai Fiori, despite retaining its Italian name, is now described as Mediterranean cuisine, and we strongly suspect that Lincoln’s Jonathan Benno might be wishing he had done the same.
9. Chefs trade up. During the recession, classically-trained chefs opened things like meatball shops and hot dog stands. In 2011, chefs will trade up again. An early example is Zak Pellacio, who told the Times that he’s closing his casual goat-themed restaurant Cabrito, in favor of something “a little more studied” and “with a slightly more grown-up menu and service style.” Pelaccio is unlikely to open anything resembling a fine-dining restaurant, but when was the last time anyone actually closed a place so that he could make it “more grown-up”? As the recession eases, chefs will itch to return to the “more studied” food they were trained to cook, but have been avoiding.
10. The luxury segment is NOT back. If our trends have a theme, it’s that restaurants in 2011 will get fancier, more audacious, and more expensive. Despite those trends, there will be no new balls-to-the-walls luxury restaurants next year. I’m talking about places that are consensus four-star (or at least, “high three-star”) restaurants from the day they open, the way Per Se and Masa were in 2003–04. It’s not that there is no longer demand for those that already exist: just try getting a last-minute table at Le Bernardin, which is always full, despite its $112 sticker price. Bloomberg’s Ryan Sutton reported this week that Masa’s menu is back up to $450 (it had gone down to $400), and that reservations at Per Se are becoming harder to come by. But that kind of restaurant has a much longer planning cycle. Investors will require confirmation that the economy has truly rebounded, and that when such a place comes along, there are critics capable of understanding them.
Overall, we expect 2011 to be a better year for dining out, but one in which we’ll have to be more selective. The fact that restaurants can get away with charging more, doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll be better.