The Casualization of the U.S. Restaurant
We've seen metropolises like San Francisco downshift from high profile to low-key. Informal dining plays out in wine bars, lounges and communal tables. Even high-end dining has loosened its tie (literally). You can leave the jacket home now at The Mansion Restaurant at Rosewood Mansion on Turtle Creek. Chefs with high-end pedigrees have fled fussier institutions for free-and-easy spaces, taking their skills and experience with them. Some chefs have opted out of high-end cuisine altogether, preferring concepts that translate across the board: David Chang of New York's Momofuku Ssäm Bar, Graham Elliot Bowles of his namesake restaurant graham elliot and Chicago's Bill Kim of Urbanbelly.
Casual does not mean fast and loose. Rather, the idea behind casual is a return to traditional and civilized manners. Casual in 2008 has transformed the social environment of the restaurant into more friendly, community-spirited places—fueled also by friendlier prices.
Different Shades of Green
Last year, restaurants couldn't sign up fast enough to brand themselves as organic, GMO-free, sustainable, all-natural or carbon neutral. Rather than a trend this year, we've seen an important shift in restaurants defining "green" for themselves, taking more of a proactive response and supporting their causes and values. Brasa Premium Rotisserie in Minneapolis, Minnesota, gives back to the Midwest Organic & Sustainable Education Service; Rosso Pizzeria & Wine Bar in Santa Rosa, California supports local soccer clubs. The list of restaurants that support worthwhile causes is long.
Musical Chefs and the Migration to the Midwest
Chefs are trying on other cities for size, hoping their brand translates elsewhere. There's been a migration of name chefs to the Midwest: Laurent Gras (L2O), David Burke (David Burke's Primehouse) and Marcus Samuelsson (C-House), all last seen in New York, have put down stakes in Chicago. The Atlanta invasion hits New York with Joël Antunes (The Plaza), and Sotohiro Kosugi opened his Japanese joint, Soto. Chris Yeo of San Francisco's Straits Restaurant opened another one in Atlanta, while New York chefs have eyed San Francisco, including Tyler Florence, who will open Bar Florence in the Hotel Vertigo in December of 2008. And we've witnessed a restaurant resurgence in smaller cities like Pittsburgh, Indianapolis and Milwaukee, after Jean-Georges Vongerichten expanded his empire with Chambers Kitchen in Minneapolis.
Business Plans Adjusted
The vulnerability of our economy has rocked the restaurant landscape. In these uncertain times, this has been a year of survival of the fittest. Restaurants have adjusted their business models to whatever mindset their customers are in. 2008 has been a year for creative solutions and new-fangled ideas. Dim sum carts added to steakhouse service, the all-dessert tasting menu at Campton Place Restaurant (no savory menu necessary) and at Payard Pâtisserie & Bistro, special value tasting lunches, industry dinners at Aureole, themed dinners, wine dinners and even fashion shows accompanying dinners. In addition to the troubled economy, San Franciscans are now seeing surcharges and/or higher prices on some restaurant checks due to a new law governing healthcare. In New York, restaurateurs and diners are trying to figure out if Tablexchange, the website that buys and sells hard-to-get reservations, is a welcome addition to the dining scene or not.
Pushing Protégés to the Forefront; New Roles for Mentors
Even with such shaky economic ground, restaurants have continued to open and many, we are pleased to report, have celebrated milestones. Patrick O'Connell's The Inn at Little Washington has been open 30 years, while Top 40 restaurants Everest and Arrows Restaurant as well as Roy Yamaguchi's first Roy's have been pleasing palates for twenty. Excellence breeds competition as these "mentor" figures have spawned a generation of new talent. While their offspring open competing eateries, their mentors are far from finished, toiling and tweaking their latest endeavors. Charlie Trotter's has been around 21 years, long enough for him to see his former protégé Grant Achatz of Alinea join him on our Top 40. Other Trotter alums Graham Elliot Bowles of graham elliot and Curtis Duffy of Avenues, as well as Kuntz disciple Douglas Keane of Cyrus and Bouley grad Shea Gallante of Cru continue to challenge their former teachers, causing the old guard to stay on their toes. Rather than rest on his laurels, David Bouley has made big changes, finally realizing his ultimate dream of owning his corner of TriBeCa, moving all of his operations around and closing Danube to open Secession. Intuitive restaurateur Danny Meyer’s restaurants continue to sense and serve the current wants of the public. He may be best known for Union Square Café and Gramercy Tavern, but he's stirred up a loyal following with his good-value Shake Shack concept. So much so, he's on the fast track to expansion, bringing his Shack-cago Dogs and ShackBurgers to the Upper West Side. Michel Richard has never been "happier in the kitchen," bringing his California-French concepts back to California with Citrus at Social. In these tough times, there’s no rest even for the best.