Food is always a reaction. What we want to eat reflects what is happening in the world around us. This past year, it was no accident to find restaurant culture embracing diversity and individuality, to find people interested in discovering one another through the dishes we consume and the stories behind them. Appetite is also highly suggestible. When we see someone else eating something delicious, we want it immediately. Instagram is one vast visual craving, and ideas travel from coast to coast and continent to continent faster than ever before. At the start of this new year, it’s time to look ahead. What’s in store for the world of food and restaurants? Here are 19 predictions for 2019, from the sweeping to the granular.
1. The plate, more than ever, is political. What are the forces behind our food? How does its production affect the planet? How are the people creating it compensated and treated? Should we protest politicians eating at restaurants? We will increasingly interrogate what goes into the production of the food we eat, and its repercussions. As US Repesentative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said in an interview with Bon Appetit magazine: “The food industry is the nexus of almost all of the major forces in our politics today. It’s super closely linked with climate change and ethics. It’s the nexus of minimum wage fights, of immigration law, of criminal justice reform, of health care debates, of education. You’d be hard-pressed to find a political issue that doesn’t have food implications.”
2. Restaurants will keep going out of business. The past weeks have brought news of closures of some of Boston’s best-known restaurants, from L’Espalier to Durgin-Park. Rents and costs are high; competition is fierce; skilled labor is scarce. We will see more places shut down in 2019. Expect the unexpected to be among them.
3. CBD is just the start. We’ll see more of it, and as the cannabis industry establishes itself and attitudes shift, marijuana and its derivatives will increasingly infuse the food on our plates. Pot dinners will proliferate, and edibles will be everywhere. Too, quality will improve, as top chefs take their talents to this growing market. Move over, mignardises. Make way for gummies.
4. Eye appeal will be as important as ever, and the good old ’gram will continue unabated with filters, sparkles, and impeccably adorned toast. But we’ll also see a countervailing aesthetic — the embrace of ugly deliciousness, the recognition that sometimes what looks worst tastes best, and the deliberate creation of plates that fly in the face of what we consider “beautiful” presentation.
5. Tahini will continue to adorn everything, drizzled over vegetables and folded into desserts. We will see the availability of more artisanal brands on the market. And halva, its sweet, dense, crumbly cousin, will join the party.
6. Japanese sandwiches will be a thing. The katsu sando — a pork or chicken cutlet on fluffy, crustless white bread — has arrived in the United States. Other fillings have followed; you may have seen the golden yolks of Los Angeles Japanese sandwich shop Konbi glowing on your Instagram feed. Konbi was inspired by Lawson’s, the Japanese convenience stores that sell these sandwiches; soon, we all will be Lawson’s fans, whether we know it or not. Also expect other staples of yoshoku, Japanese versions of Western fare, from curry to spaghetti.
7. We’ll see more women in positions of power. Conversations around the #metoo movement raised awareness of how challenging it can be to work in the restaurant industry while female. Enough already: More women will create their own thing, opening restaurants, starting businesses, and hiring other women to help run the show. And men, increasingly on board (or at least aware they should be), will have an eye toward boosting the women within their organizations. Now about that equal pay . . .
8. Local bars will feature more low-ABV (alcohol by volume) cocktails on their lists, in recognition of the fact that many patrons drink for enjoyment, not to get wasted as quickly as possible. We’ll see more no-alcohol cocktails, too.
9. Chairs optional? Fool’s Errand, a tiny Fenway bar serving fancy snacks, is standing room only. So is Spoken English in D.C. They are modeled after Japanese tachinomiya — literally, standing drinking stores. We’ll see more of these trendy nooks that make mingling easy.
10. All restaurants serve food. But do they also have pinball, or ax throwing, or board games? Fun will continue to be a selling point, and a way for new businesses to differentiate themselves. Expect more heartfelt and earnest versions, such as Yume Wo Katare, a ramen shop where people share their dreams with fellow diners.
11. We did the whole roast chicken for two. We did the whole roast pig for a crowd. Now we’ll start seeing more whole roast ducks, often Chinese-style, served with pancakes, herbs and vegetables, and house-made sauces.
12. First immigrants opened restaurants serving the food of their homelands tweaked for the American palate. Then Americans opened restaurants serving the food of other people’s homelands, which they discovered and fell in love with while traveling. Now we will see more restaurants opened by third-generation kids, featuring remixes of the food they grew up eating at home (and were probably teased for at school). They’ll cook their food the way they see, experience, and love it, confident that diners will understand. They will be right.
13. Boston’s food scene used to be most immediately affected by New York’s. San Francisco had a good run, although California trends once took a few years to trickle East. This year, the American city we’ll be taking our cues from the most is LA. Sqirl knockoff arriving in 1 . . . 2 . . .
14. We will continue to be culture vultures. Sourdough, kombucha, cultured butter, miso: Menus will be colonized by ingredients involving bacteria, fungi, and complex flavors. Cultured butter will be particularly popular, served in impressive pompadours and swoops with crusty bread.
15. Speaking of bread: We’ll see it in forms from all over the world, particularly flatbreads such as man’oushe and pide. Elsewhere, the Georgian cheese bread khachapuri is having a bit of a moment, as is Georgian food in general. It’s not here yet in 2019; staying tuned for 2020.
16. Fast-casual concepts give way to the all-day restaurant and bakery. These have more quirky personality than the pat muffin-and-coffee shop of yore, specializing in topped toasts, or gorgeous pies, or fancy porridge, or onigiri. Then at night they break out the natural wine and serve dinner.
17. More restaurants will focus on accommodating dietary needs. We’ll see more gluten-free options, as well as dishes featuring meat and milk alternatives.
18. This won’t be the year we understand sake. But it will be the year that, finally, after ongoing effort from spirits professionals, we start drinking and enjoying sake in earnest.
19. In 2018, a restaurant called Spyce opened in Downtown Crossing, serving the kind of bowls one finds everywhere these days. What made it notable was who made the food. Or what, I should say: a robotic kitchen designed by MIT grads. I don’t think robots will replace humans in restaurants any time soon, much less in 2019. But I do think we’ll see more robotization where possible in an ongoing way.