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From gourmet fast food to at-table entertainment, Ben McCormack takes a bite out of the tastiest food and drink trends for 2024
Consumers the world over might have re-discovered their appetite for post-pandemic dining-out with a greed that would make Mr Creosote blush, but the headwinds of war, food-price inflation and climate change mean that there’s never been a more challenging time to operate a hospitality business. Here are five trends for the year ahead to ensure that chefs and restaurateurs can ride out the storm…
Big spenders vs little treats
New York has long been the city that built upwards but the cost of its most lauded menus has been heading to skyscraping heights since the pandemic eased and the cost of ingredients rocketed. The surge in food prices, of course, is a global phenomenon, but what is striking is how the city that never sleeps doesn’t seem to have lost a wink of shut-eye over the likes of the thousand-dollar restaurant bill at Masa, where a single seat at the chef’s counter costs $950 without drinks or tax, up $300 from pre-pandemic prices. It is, of course, one of the hardest-to-book tables in town.
Now London is catching up. Last July, Sushi Kanesaka opened within The Dorchester’s boutique 45 Park Lane hotel, offering a £420 menu that was briefly the city’s dearest. Three months later, another Japanese import, Aragawa, also opened in Mayfair, offering steak from £500 to £900, with an average spend per diner of £750 without wine or service. Holy cow!
For those that can afford it, the arrival of such restaurants is a bonus: Aragawa, for instance, serves the sort of ultra-premium beef rarely seen outside Japan. But what does this mean for diners who might once have saved up for such meals but now could not hope to do so, not least because the perfect storm of worldwide crises – Russia’s war against Ukraine, an unreliable international supply chain, extreme weather – shows no sign of abating any time soon to bring restaurant bills down?
The answer might lie in the Gen Z concept of the #littletreat, the TikTok tag that has 99.1 million views on the social media platform. Get ready for diners ordering two starters rather than three courses, a single glass of Champagne instead of a full bottle of wine and restaurants offering a bitesize taste of luxury in the likes of caviar bumps or white truffle toasted-cheese sandwiches. Afterall, a cost-of-living crisis is no reason to forego the high life.
What’s new on the menu?
The time was when all a restaurant menu told you was what to order. Then it started displaying calories. Now carbon labelling is beginning to appear on menus to enable diners to make more sustainable food choices. The UK’s Climate Change Committee has recommended a 20 per cent reduction in meat and dairy consumption by 2030, rising to 35 per cent by 2050 for meat. Eco-labelling on menus is one way to help achieve this; swapping a beef burger for the veggie equivalent can reduce CO2 emissions by a third.
Then there’s carbon offsetting. Climate tech platform Skoot’s eco-contribution solution plants a tree in return for diners agreeing to pay a small cover charge advertised on the menu; Mayfair restaurants Amazonico, Isabel and Coya are among the restaurants to have signed up and 800,000 trees have been planted.
But what else might we find on a restaurant menu? In September, plant-based protein company Beyond Meat announced the launch of its latest product for the food service sector, Beyond Steak, made with plant-based ingredients including fava bean and wheat.
Whole Foods Market’s Top 10 Food Trends for 2024 highlighted a resurgence of plants in plant-based cuisine, simplifying ingredient lists so that a veggie burger pretty much only contains veggies and highlighting a move towards healthier, plant-based foods based on protein-heavy mushrooms, walnuts, tempeh and legumes. The report also drew attention to vegan versions of plant-based seafood brands using carrot instead of smoked salmon and substituting trumpet mushrooms for scallops. Sounds a bit fishy…
Still, it’s important to remember that going out for dinner for most people is meant to be something fun. Vibe dining – where the restaurant and nightclub experience merge – has been a big trend in London for the past 12 months. This month, Blue Marlin Ibiza launches a private members’ club within the Mondrian Shoreditch hotel, offering a sushi bar, lounge, swimming pool and nightclub across three floors.
True, dining out has always incorporated a level of theatre, whether that’s seafood towers, cheese trolleys, or crêpe suzette being flamed tableside. But, it’s safe to say, dinner accompanied by a live wrestling match is definitely something new. At the recently opened Sinners y Santos in Downtown LA, lucha libre wrestling matches play out on a stage suspended over the bar. In Vegas – where else? – entertainment specialist Spiegelworld operates Superfrico at The Cosmopolitan. Its eight themed rooms feature variety shows and entertainers dressed as, among other things, dancing penguins wandering through the restaurant.
It might all sound ridiculous, but restaurateurs the world over would do well to take note. A recent report by Lumina Intelligence found that 63 per cent of 18-24-year-olds are experience-led when they eat out, ahead of the market average.
Of course, those diners something quieter when they hit their 30s, but if going down the all-singing, all-dancing road seems a bit much, there are other interactive elements to consider, from chef’s tables and wine tastings to cocktail classes and cooking demos.
Who needs to book dinner and a show? Now, dinner is the show.
Fast food goes fine dining
It has been a rocky 12 months for the most famous names in gastronomy. The year began with René Redzepi announcing he would close his Copenhagen restaurant Noma because fine dining is “unsustainable.” In summer, Michel Roux Jr announced that Le Gavroche, the Mayfair legend founded in 1967 by his father Albert and uncle Michel, will close in January, citing the post-pandemic pressures of running a restaurant.
But is the definition of what constitutes fine dining changing? In the movie The Menu, Ralph Fiennes’ egomaniac chef only achieves fulfilment cooking a cheeseburger. Now many chefs are sneaking their favourite guilty pleasures onto Michelin-starred menus as fast food goes fine dining.
The 30-course menu at Gareth Ward’s two-Michelin-starred Ynyshir in Wales serves the chef’s homage to a Big Mac, only this one is made from A5 wagyu and spritzed with toasted sesame and gherkin pickle spray. At Bar Antoine, the more casual alternative to multi-Michelin-starred French chef Yannick Alléno’s Pavyllon at the Four Seasons on London’s Park Lane, the signature dish is a deep-fried steamed bun filled with rib of beef, shisho and teriyaki-style sauce.
But it’s not just burgers getting the gourmet treatment. Lisa Goodwin-Allen of Michelin-starred Northcote in Lancashire recently put a cheese toastie on the menu. A pair of chefs who met at Dinner by Heston Blumenthal before launching their sustainably minded restaurant Fallow have opened a “beak to feet’ pop-up chicken shop in St James’s called Fowl, offering triple-crisp wings and tenders. At Uzuki in Brooklyn, Shuichi Kotani serves a bowl of matcha soba noodles soaked in a dashi broth and topped with a fishmongers’ counter of sashimi. At $72, it costs rather more than Wagamama.
In 2024, the message for chefs who don’t want be skewered by a spot-on satire like The Menu is: provide food that customers can relate to.
Teetotallers get the total package
A recent report by the Drinkaware charity revealed that a fifth of young adults in the UK are teetotal and that under-25s are less likely to drink alcohol than any other generation. While this may be good for the long-term health of the planet, it is potentially bad news for the bottom line in restaurants. Research by the KAM consultancy suggests that £800m of revenue is lost each year by restaurants failing to upgrade customers from tap to bottled water; the figure for not guiding teetotallers to something interesting to drink can’t be too far behind.
The beer industry has long offered low and no-alcohol alternatives to the real thing; now big-name winemakers are getting involved, too. Weingut Dr Loosen has a non-alcoholic wine made with riseling, a grape that is traditionally used to make wines that are lower in alcohol. Other non-alcoholic wine names to look out for include Bolle, Noughty, Wednesday’s Domaine and Zeno.
But while the quality of alcohol-free wine is fast increasing — sales of non-alcoholic wine grew by 20 per cent in the first quarter of 2023 in the UK — the suspicion remains in some circles that one is merely drinking the equivalent of grape juice.
Step forward, then, drinks that stand on their own merits rather than mimic the alcoholic equivalent. Botivo, for instance, is a bittersweet, booze-free aperitif with the complex flavour profile to rival a glass of whisky.
But what about those drinkers who can’t give up the physical sensation of alcohol? Sentia describes itself as ‘a new generation of mood-enhancing spirits’. Its key ingredient is GABA, or gamma-aminobutyric acid, a neurotransmitter that delivers a natural sense of relaxation. Sentia’s founder, Professor David Nutt, is an Imperial College neuropharmacist who is working on a synthetic alternative to ethanol to allow consumers to enjoy the buzz of alcohol without losing control and waking up with a hangover.
Getting drunk without feeling bad about it the next morning? That’s definitely something to raise a glass to.
Ben McCormack is a London-based journalist who writes about restaurants, food and drink for publications including the Daily Telegraph and Evening Standard. Follow him on Instagram at @mrbenmccormack
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