Although long considered only a little taste to make restaurant guests even hungrier for their main meal, appetizers are enjoying an upswing in prominence — and popularity. In fact, according to DataSsential, a leading market research team for the food industry, more than 85 percent of restaurants nationwide — and more than 97 percent of casual and fine dining restaurants — now offer appetizers. And it’s one trend restaurant goers are definitely eating up.
So, what starters have moved from humble beginnings to mind-blowing (almost) meals? Below, we share just a few:
1. Revamping an old favorite.
The traditional “tailgate favorites” seen on appetizer menus everywhere are still going strong, but that doesn’t mean restaurants are resting on their laurels. Great Scotts Eatery in Denver and Broomfield, Colo., for example, offers up a plate of French fries on their starters menu — but these potatoes are anything but plain. Guests can opt for a plate of green chili cheese French fries, have their spuds smothered in cheese and bacon, or even top sweet potato waffle fries with marshmallow cream. We never thought we’d say it, but these appetizer options might just make ketchup obsolete.
2. Taking a cue from dinner.
Just because the menu says “starters” doesn’t mean restaurants can’t steal a few ideas from popular dinner delights — and The Dish in Boise, Idaho, is doing just that. They’re serving up a whole host of delicious appetizers — including pork belly lettuce cups and an ale-inspired charcuterie and cheese plate — but the real star of their starter menu is something you might not expect: a sage grilled cheese sandwich served with prosciutto, gruyere cheese, arugula, and pickled grapes. That makes The Dish one of the only places we can think of where you can have grilled cheese before you even get your dinner — and we’re definitely down with that.
3. Trying a new protein.
According to DataSsential, the trend of adding unique proteins to your appetizer offerings is on the rise. That makes this the perfect time to get ahead of the pack by experimenting with new meats on the menu, like the unique offerings available at West Café in Portland, Ore. Typically found only on a dinner menu, Dungeness crab is the prime protein in not one, but two of West Café’s starters. At dinner, it’s served alongside shrimp over a bed of organic greens with a chipotle aioli drizzle. And at lunch, this savory shellfish is paired with shrimp and tostadas and topped off with lemon garlic sauce and a manga salsa. Now, we’re not saying you have to use the undisputed king of West Coast crustaceans. But if you want to amp up the start of your meal, there’s nothing like an unexpected, and utterly delicious, helping of meat to do it.
4. Offering options from across the globe.
From pho to pakora, ethnic cuisine is becoming increasingly popular — especially as foodies clamor to try all new flavors — and the appetizer menu at Chicago restaurant Red Door is definitely catering to this craving. Offering everything from classic Canadian poutine to Dakgangjeong; grilled Spanish Octopus; and a ricotta gnocchi featuring baby squash, pesto, sungold tomato mostarda, and smoked caciocavera, Red Door proves that with an amazing appetizer menu, you can travel around the world without ever leaving the comfort of your seat.
5. Capitalizing on seasonal flavors.
Seasonal produce and sustainable operations are increasing in popularity throughout the restaurant industry. So why not take a cue from Mother Nature and watch out for starters with seasonal favorites that are sure to surprise. Crossroads in Los Angeles is doing just that by peppering their menu with local and seasonal produce used in truly unique ways — such as in their artichoke oysters appetizer. Rather than showcasing this fall favorite in a cheesy dip, Crossroads purees it and serves it up with crispy oyster mushrooms, yellow tomato béarnaise, and kelp caviar. That’s what we call a win-win situation: You’re not only getting produce when it’s at its peak, you’re also experiencing a surprising starter that’s sure to leave everyone smiling.
Are you a restaurateur wondering about appetizer trends? We have the low-down on the big business of small plates: