The 10 Biggest Restaurant Trends We Saw In 2019

We saw the rise of vegan cuisine, an increase in ghost kitchens and so much more.

As the holidays approach and the end of the year draws closer, it makes sense to reflect on the popular trends that defined the past 12 months: how they rose to popularity, how they changed the status quo and whether we can expect the greatest hits of 2019 to carry their influence into 2020.

The world of restaurants, which constantly changes and evolves by nature, provides a fascinating microcosm through which to look at the effect of trends and how they reflect the priorities of guests, chefs, front-of-house and back-of-house employees and investors alike. We had the chance to catch up with a group of restaurateurs, chefs and restaurant business analysts from both sides of the Atlantic who shared their picks for the 10 most significant restaurant trends of 2019.

The Rise Of Vegan Cuisine

In past decades, restaurants that focused on vegan cuisine rarely received the same accolades as more omnivorous spots, finding themselves pigeonholed into new-age hippie stereotypes. However, 2019 witnessed a massive growth in plant-based dishes with flavors and health benefits equalling (and, in many cases, surpassing) those of their counterparts that include animal products.

San Francisco-based hospitality consultant Andrew Freeman of af&co summed up the trend like this: “Vegan cuisine has entered the mainstream without the austerity of yesterday; even the name has changed from ‘vegan cuisine’ to ‘plant-based cuisine’ to reflect this [shift]. It isn’t just about animal welfare, but about what’s good for the environment [as a whole] and what’s good for us [nutritionally], without sacrificing flavor or presentation. Chefs are devoting more attention to vegetable preparation, so even though not every dish on the menu may be vegan, there are many more plant-based options which are more delicious than ever before.”

Even Burger King began selling the meatless Impossible Whopper in 2019.
Drew Angerer via Getty Images
Even Burger King began selling the meatless Impossible Whopper in 2019.

Yelp trend expert Tara Lewis also noted the major role played by plant-based “meat substitutes” in vegan cuisine’s growing popularity. “Impossible Burgers were nearly nonexistent as recently as 2016, but now they’re on every menu from Burger King to Little Caesars. Increasingly, we’re seeing Yelpers look for plant-based alternatives for their favorite meals. Plant-based meat alternatives are [also] great for meat eaters who want to consider healthier, more environmentally conscious food options,” Lewis told HuffPost.

Keto- And Paleo-Friendly Menus

Consumers in 2019 exhibited a keen interest in health and overall wellness, leading to the increased demand for both vegan cuisine and dishes with high protein content. Reflecting on her own restaurant’s development over the past year, co-owner Andrea Anthony of The Lobster Roll in Amagansett, New York, mentioned that “many customers are now following either a keto or a paleo diet, which has put extra pressure on restaurant owners to cater to these restricted, protein-based diets. Being able to identify your customer’s needs and responding to them in innovative ways keeps your business on the cutting edge. In order to stay current, restaurants need to respond to these [health-related] market trends while still maintaining their brands.”

High-Quality Grains

Vegetables and proteins may have had a big year in 2019, but carbs certainly didn’t disappear ― particularly not those involving well-sourced and carefully selected artisanal grains. CEO and baker Apollonia Poilâne of the legendary Maison Poilâne in Paris, France, considers excellent grain a cornerstone of 2019’s dining trends, telling HuffPost that “grains are so vital and important. I have seen a rise in the exploration and uses of grains in 2019, and I see this continuing to grow in 2020. It is about looking at the grains that feed us, rather than categorizing them as gluten/non-gluten. For me, it has been at the heart of Poilâne to work on our craft as the cross-roads between grains and fermentation to bake breads that bolster the varieties of flavor and taste.”

‘Izakaya-Style’ And ‘Omakase-Style’ Dining

Japanese dishes and ingredients have become longtime staples of innumerable restaurant menus outside of their motherland. But 2019 introduced many diners to Japanese menu formats and hospitality styles, which provide guests with different methods of enjoying both the food and the atmosphere of the restaurant.

Sushi chef Hiro Ishii of Benkay in Portland, Maine, puts the final touches on omakase, a sushi platter that roughly translates to chef's choice.
Portland Press Herald via Getty Images
Sushi chef Hiro Ishii of Benkay in Portland, Maine, puts the final touches on omakase, a sushi platter that roughly translates to chef's choice.

Executive chef Joaquin Baca of būmu in New York City noticed a particular rise in izakaya dining, a Japanese restaurant model centered around laid-back surroundings and shareable “pub grub.” “The continued rise in popularity of izakaya-style dining (and yaki skewers in particular) is the biggest restaurant trend of 2019,” Baca told HuffPost. ”[This is] in part because of the increased interest in Asian-inspired dining; we’re hoping to see restaurants in New York continue to embrace shareable plates and provide diners with the ability to experiment with new flavors and mix and match dishes, rather than feeling confined to one entree choice. It also creates a more communal and shared experience when dining out.”

Another widely spreading restaurant type with a foundation in Japan is omakase, a dining room or chef’s counter featuring a tasting menu specially chosen and prepared by the chef in question. Chefs in Europe and North America loved omakase in 2019, using this model for both sushi restaurants (where it’s traditionally applied in Japan) and for other cuisines that can benefit from “chef’s choice” menus. “Omakase has surged and is more popular than ever before,” executive chef B.K. Park of Mako in Chicago told HuffPost. “The most interesting part is seeing how restaurants across the country are reinventing the experience in different ways for modern diners. Chefs are still drawing inspiration from classic Japanese technique, but they are getting creative.”

Extravagant Restaurant Build-Outs

The years following the 2008 recession saw a move away from elaborately designed dining spaces, with restaurateurs instead favoring low-key design and, subsequently, lower prices on their menus. But in 2019, many restaurant markets experienced a swing of the pendulum back toward intricately devised and lavish dining rooms, expensive dishware and cutlery and higher check averages.

Founder/owner Eric Silverstein of The Peached Tortilla and Bar Peached in Austin, Texas, offered a full breakdown of this trend: “I think the biggest restaurant trend I have seen this year is the exact opposite of what we saw in 2007-2008, when very low-budget, thrifty restaurants were popping up and taking over second-generation spaces that went belly-up. Now, we’re seeing extremely large, expensive restaurant build-outs with top tier architects and designers involved in projects. Everything is heavily curated and throughout, from the plates and glassware down to the types of faucets in the bathrooms. I thought the trend would end in 2019, but it didn’t, and I don’t see it changing in 2020.”

‘Ghost’ Kitchens And The Delivery Boom

Delivery apps proved hugely influential in the 2019 restaurant scene. Restaurant and hospitality consultant Mary King of told HuffPost that “delivery is not just for pizza anymore. In 2019, huge numbers of diners chose to order delivery from their favorite restaurants ― even small, local ones ― rather than dine in them. The sales for apps like Doordash, UberEats and Postmates have tripled in the past three years and are up 40% compared to this time last year. We’re starting to see a shift in restaurant service style to match. In the same way that streaming video platforms changed the way we watch movies, delivery apps are changing the way we eat. In 2019, ordering in became the new going out.”

The year 2019 also saw the mass arrival of “ghost” kitchens, or delivery-only “restaurants” without a physical location for dining in or picking up takeout. Rick Camac, the dean of restaurant and hospitality management at the Institute of Culinary Education, told HuffPost that “the biggest trend by far, both for 2019 and going into 2020, is ‘ghost kitchens’ (aka delivery-only, virtual kitchens, ‘cloud kitchens’, etc.). The economic model makes more sense than traditional brick and mortar [restaurants], so many food businesses are moving in this direction. Occupancy costs may be 60-70% less than [those of] a traditional restaurant, and payroll could be 33-50% less. Even the costs associated with sales may go down, as the ghost kitchen typically has a smaller, more manageable menu.”

Non-alcoholic Cocktails

The low-ABV tend that conquered just about every cocktail bar in 2018 continued in full force throughout 2019, but plenty of bartenders and beverage directors decided to take things a step further this year, designing full-fledged beverage menus with no ABV to speak of.

Bartender Dan Purcell mixes up a pineapple-rosemary shrub mocktail at Vena's Fizz House in Portland, Maine.
Portland Press Herald via Getty Images
Bartender Dan Purcell mixes up a pineapple-rosemary shrub mocktail at Vena's Fizz House in Portland, Maine.

“Mocktails” became a serious force in the bar industry in 2019, a development fully verified by bartender Bruno Prado of Yvonne’s in Boston who recently launched a mocktail menu at his own workplace: “Every now and then, I take a month off from drinking, and at most restaurants that I visit during this time, I’m unable to find any interesting mocktails. When I asked the bartenders to come up with something different for me [in the past], their creations were always super-sweet or [mostly] soda water. Because of these experiences, I decided to create [beverages] that we could offer to guests who don’t drink alcohol or are taking a break in that moment. We always try to come up with drinks that are refreshing and well-balanced for our guests, but mocktails don’t have to be sweet and fruity. They can be bitter, dry, sour, and so on.”

Sustainable And Socially Conscious Restaurant Practices

Growing public awareness of the negative environmental impact of food waste, single-use plastics and other problematic issues related to the restaurant industry encouraged many restaurants around the world to adopt more eco-friendly, sustainable and charitable practices in 2019.

Executive chef Kevin Templeton of barleymash in San Diego explained that “in 2019, there has been a big trend in sustainability and waste reduction within the restaurant industry. Some cities will begin and have already begun to charge restaurants for excessive product waste. This is leading chefs to develop well-rounded and efficient menus, strengthening the sustainability trend year after year.”

Chef/partner Travis Strickland of Baltaire in Los Angeles and FLINT By Baltaire in Phoenix expanded on this idea by telling us that “I would submit that operators being socially conscientious is a growing trend industrywide. From plastic straw bans to more eco-friendly packaging, coming up with creative ways to reduce waste and having a philanthropic mission are becoming more and more important to consumers when they are deciding where to spend their dining dollars.”

Improvements To Internal Restaurant Culture

The #MeToo movement hugely defined restaurant culture in 2018, and intolerance for sexist, harassing and abusive behaviors happily continued to hold a position of top priority in 2019. In fact, 2019 saw restaurant owners, chefs and management reevaluating many of the prevalent industry practices that adversely affected employees.

“Internal restaurant culture is evolving,” executive director of culinary operations John Castro of Bottle & Bond Kitchen & Bar in Bardstown, Kentucky, said of his choice for the biggest restaurant trend of the year. “The employee base is going through some turbulent times, so everyone is evaluating and recalibrating. Customer needs and wants are changing, and the skill set of current and future staff is, too. We are evaluating restaurant hours of operation for maximizing staff and profit margins, all while trying to maintain a work-life balance.”

Food Halls And Markets

Diners around the world flocked to “one-stop shop” food halls and markets, where they could sample numerous different dishes and cuisines all within the same building or plot of land. “The option to eat ‘grazing-style’ gives diners not only diversity in types of cuisines, but also manages to tick all the boxes in terms of choice and dietary requirements that would otherwise be difficult to do in one restaurant. And the best part: you do not need to book [reservations ahead of time],” said food market fan Simon Young of The Rosewood London in England.

Chicago's Revival Food Hall bustles with diners.
Chicago Tribune via Getty Images
Chicago's Revival Food Hall bustles with diners.

Of course, the food hall craze also made a big impression stateside, for reasons best explained by managing partner Bruce Finkelman of Chicago’s 16” on Center, the company that conceived of the Revival Food Hall in the Windy City: “When we opened in 2016, we never expected how immensely popular the food hall format would become across so many markets,” Finkelman told HuffPost. “We’ve been inundated with consultant requests to bring the food hall formula to the most unexpected of places. I think that’s because there’s universal appeal to providing a unique fast-casual experience that offers a bit more quality than what we’ve come to expect from the old-fashioned food courts, and it also allows the diner to experience offerings from some of their favorite chefs in an entirely new and more casual way.”

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