As one year ticks into the next, the desire to prognosticate is strong. What will the food world look like in 2024? Alas, reality is not a movie franchise, with fresh new plotlines for each blockbuster. It is a continuum, which is ultimately more elegant — a story that keeps telling itself over time, with themes that echo, deepen, and evolve.
Perhaps the theme for 2024 is: more.
More development. More restaurant openings. More people making reservations at those hot new restaurants. And more geographic spread. Out-of-town properties like Blue Ribbon Restaurants (Blue Ribbon Brasserie, Blue Ribbon Sushi, and Pescador), Raffles (home to Amar, the upcoming La Padrona, and other concepts), and Szechuan Mountain House are looking toward Boston to expand, and Boston restaurateurs are looking to the suburbs and beyond.
“The one trend I continue to see is the sprawl of the city,” says Matt Starr, president of restaurant equipment and design specialist Boston Showcase Company. Areas like Chestnut Hill and Newton Centre continue to attract new restaurants. “Allston-Brighton used to be the edge of the city. Now Newton is almost part of it. Brookline certainly. There are so many great restaurants in the suburbs. A lot of people don’t like to fight traffic or have the headache and expense of parking.”
In the city itself, the Seaport isn’t slowing down. But it is starting to settle in as a neighborhood, with more diverse restaurants and more local operators behind establishments like Grace by Nia, Hook + Line, the upcoming Yume Ga Arukara, and ZaZiBar.
Grace by Nia restaurateur Nia Grace, who partnered with Big Night Entertainment to open the restaurant and nightclub last spring, sees the development as a reflection of the city itself: a place where every neighborhood welcomes everybody. “In 2024, I think what you’re going to see is a more awakened Boston,” she says, one where “all the rooms we’re in and walk into feel like a whole Boston. It feels like a makeup of what makes our city so beautiful and gracious and lovable. That’s what I think people are really going to see. Let us show you the Boston we know.”
Grace, who is also cofounder of the Boston Black Hospitality Coalition, notes that as many Black-owned restaurants have opened recently (Fete, Hue) or will soon (the Mix, a second location of the Pearl), the landscape has also seen losses. Soleil announced its closure in Nubian Square; the Coast Cafe in Cambridge is for sale. “The goal in 2024 is still to rally around businesses that might need a little extra support and a little extra exposure.”
Grace by Nia, where the live music is as much of an attraction as the food, reflects another trend that continues from 2023: experiential dining. Customers don’t just want dinner. They want a show. They want intimate omakase meals, as at South End sushi specialist 311. They want secret spots, like the speakeasy-within-a-taqueria at Borrachito. They want cookbook clubs (as at Chickadee) and themed dinners (like Vincent’s upcoming six-course meal inspired by Jacques Pepin). And they want it all to be over the top.
“People don’t even want regular cocktails anymore. We want it smoking, on fire, in a vessel. When you come out, could you flambe the food in front of me?,” Grace says. “It’s not that we’re bored, but we’ve gotten to a generation that’s more adventurous. … 2024 will be a year of what else can we do, what limit can we push, what surprises can we drop? ‘I know this restaurant’s got to have a magic trick with their meal.’ Do I have to show my team how to do magic? Yes.”
If those cocktails are on fire and in an elaborate vessel, they won’t necessarily contain alcohol. The nonalcoholic drinks movement continues to be a significant trend in the beverage world in 2024. “It is still a huge, growing category,” says Patrick Gaggiano, manager of spirits education and development at distributor Horizon Beverage. Between the rising cost of cocktails, movements like Dry January, and the growth of the recreational marijuana industry, consumers are seeking alternatives when they go out. Gaggiano expects a continued leap in the quality of nonalcoholic products, from fresh bottled cocktails that can be mixed with alcohol or not, such as locally made Simple Sips; to de-alcoholized spirits like gin and rum; to a nonalcoholic blanc de blanc that “if I’m tasting blind, I would never know,” he says.
Those who do drink alcohol are increasingly turning to agave spirits like tequila. At the beginning of 2023, tequila sales overtook whiskey’s, and alcoholic beverage tracker IWSR Drinks Market Analysis said they were on pace to do the same with vodka in 2024. “If you go to high-volume places in young areas, Southie especially, everyone is drinking tequila, because it’s quote-unquote plant-based and the caloric intake is less,” Gaggiano says. “People care a lot more about: Where does it come from, how is it processed, what is used on it, what is used in the fields? If you look at whiskey, it’s a lot cleaner when you look at something like mezcal or tequila.”
On menus, we’ll see more snacks — a continuation of Tik-Tok’s “girl dinner” trend, predicts Melanie Zanoza Bartelme, associate director at Mintel Food & Drink, which specializes in market research. “I really want to see what goes on with ‘girl dinner,’ this idea of giving yourself permission to do what you want and not feel you have to do something super-formal every night, and how that’s going to affect restaurants,” she says. “I’m so interested to see what the next board is after butter boards and hummus boards. Move over charcuterie boards, here’s the meatball board! What could we not put on a board?”
She also expects to see more upscale convenience products — like the brown butter from Black & Bolyard, produced by two former Eleven Madison Park chefs — that let home cooks make food that tastes luxurious even when they don’t have time or energy to spare. Spice blends, like those from Burlap & Barrel, will provide low-effort ways to explore the flavors of the world. Up-and-coming flavors and ingredients include sweet-sour chamoy and Tajín with fruit, as well as caviar she says.
It’s also possible this will be the year that many people try lab-grown meat. “It’s not mainstream yet, but it uses so much less energy and so much less land,” says Michael Oshman, CEO of the Green Restaurant Association. “The reports we’re seeing are that the environmental impact is significantly less. If it all comes to be true, and it matches meat’s taste and texture, then all of a sudden it could be the type of thing that tips very quickly. This could be the beginning of that story, the year of ‘I tasted my first.’”
There is plenty happening right now in the sustainable dining space, says Oshman: green restaurants in airports; vegan and vegetarian options on menus everywhere, even steakhouses, with such dishes clearly marked; more recycling, more composting, and more restaurants embracing reusable and greener packaging.
Unfortunately for restaurants, one thing there doesn’t seem to be more of on the horizon is labor. It’s a key pain point for the hospitality industry, and it isn’t likely to change. “I tell people often that you think it’s bad now, it’s going to get worse,” says workforce development expert Jerry Rubin, a visiting fellow at the Project on the Workforce at Harvard and coauthor of a report addressing the labor shortage in Massachusetts. “We’re an older state, and getting older fast. We have far fewer people coming in. When you have more people moving out than in, and fewer being born than dying, that’s a bad combination. The one silver lining, particularly for the service industry, is immigration.” But that is a complicated story, too. For instance, many migrants face long waits for the permits that will allow them to work. “There is no question that the labor market, as tight as it is now, is going to get tighter,” Rubin says.