Trends frequently pop-up in the food industry only to be kicked to the curb by the next new and exciting thing. But some have a greater staying power. Here’s a look back at some of what was seen in the Bay Area food scene this year and what may stick around for awhile.
Food Trucks: Not really a new trend, but the proliferation of food trucks not only in San Francisco, but throughout the entire Bay Area, truly hit a high point this past year. Off the Grid has expanded to the East Bay, North Bay and the Peninsula. Food truck gatherings are also taking place nearly every week in the South Bay. Honestly, food trucks aren’t for everyone. It is a great option for those in a hurry who might be looking for something different. But you’re not taking your important business client to a food truck gathering (at least I wouldn’t think you would). The real question for 2012 is not whether the trend will continue. I think most people like the options they have with food trucks. But will brick and mortar restaurants fight back over a perceived loss of business? What other creative treats are in store for the coming year? And will they all be able to survive? Questions to ponder in 2012.
Comfort Food: I really thought that this was the year that showcased down-home comfort food at many restaurants. Whether it was mac and cheese, grilled cheese sandwiches, burgers, ramen or other menu items, it seemed like there was a real focus on getting back to their roots. I think a lot of this has to do with the economy. Steak or seafood dinners are becoming more of a luxury as people try to better handle their finances. That’s not to say that pricier, more upscale restaurants aren’t having success; it’s just much easier to rationalize a night out where you’re getting a meal that is both well-portioned and fits the price tag a bit better. The idea of comfort food is part of the bigger picture as restaurants have once again become gathering places for individuals and groups to get that personal, face-to-face connection. It could be with a group of friends, total strangers or even the kitchen staff itself. Diners want to go out to have food that reminds them of family and home, something that they might not have if they are not from the Bay Area.
Technology: I think the technological wave is just starting to hit the dining scene in the Bay Area. Several restaurants are already going to iPads replacing paper seating charts and cash registers. If a restaurant or chef is not on Twitter, it seems like they are losing out. For good or bad, plenty of restaurants are signed up with daily deal sites, offering discounts to customers. And the consumer can now become the instant critic, either through Yelp or other websites. They can check in, snap photos and give instant feedback on their dining experience. Some sites are even offering single foodies the chance to mingle with others who love to eat and try new restaurants. In 2012, I expect Twitter to remain a strong part of “free advertising” for restaurants and chefs and a way for them to communicate on any number of topics. It is so much easier to announce nightly specials or changes in hours on Twitter to your thousands of followers than to post a sign on the window of your restaurant. I think there will be more in the way of social gatherings planned online through companies as well.
The Return of Brunch: I love brunch. It might be my favorite meal of the day on the rare occasions that I do grab something to eat. In 2011, I really thought the brunch scene in San Francisco took off, with plenty of restaurants introducing it for the first time, starting it anew, or others making their debut into the brunch foray. And this did not only include restaurants; there was the Brunch Box food truck (now called Fogcutter) and bars like Bruno’s and 15 Romolo both began offering brunch and plenty of drinks on weekends. This goes along with my theme of comfort food. Brunch is a time when you get together with friends or family, grab a bloody mary or mimosa and eat some delicious food. It is a social event, but usually, nothing too fancy. Although it adds another shift for restaurants to cover, if you have ever read Anthony Bourdain’s “Kitchen Confidential,” it’s easy to see why a lot of restaurants are doing it.
The Restaurant Revamp: Restaurants are changing on the fly in San Francisco. They have to make adjustments as the landscape, both culinary and economic, change seach day and month. Many of the big changes happened at upscale restaurants, including Fifth Floor (new chef David Bazirgan took over in late 2010), The Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton (now Parallel 37), Michael Mina (new menu and new digs in late 2010) and Saison. This seems to be especially important in higher-end restaurants. I see it as a sign of the times. I don’t believe these restaurants are necessarily struggling but more so adjusting to the changing dynamics of high-end dining. These restaurants now understand that dining out is meant to be a truly special experience and want to show their best hands each night. Not sure if there will be more major changes upcoming, but I expect restaurants to continue to look at ways to improve.
It was a tremendous year for food in the Bay Area and I’m expecting plenty of the same in 2012.