The Restaurant Trends That Defined 2023

The Restaurant Trends That Defined 2023

This year we drank pickletinis and MSG martinis and dirty pasta water martinis and, for good measure, about three dozen espresso martinis. We ate dinner at 1 a.m. and stepped into restaurants that looked more like amusement parks than neighborhood pizza spots. It was a fun, wild, exciting year for restaurant culture, shaped as much by TikTok food influencers as restaurant critics. As the industry continues to bounce back from the pandemic, it feels for the first time like many restaurants have been able to get out from under the heavy weight of the past few years and have some fun—or at least try new things.

Of course, it’s not all cheese pulls and Technicolor dining rooms: Soaring inflation means that restaurants are contending with even-thinner-than-usual margins, and ordering a salad can be like putting down first month’s rent. Plus, people are still arguing about when—and how much—to tip, and scoring a reservation at a buzzy restaurant can feel like a contact sport. From good to bad and all that’s in between, these were the most persistent restaurant trends of 2023.

The Hottest New Restaurant Aesthetic? Overwhelming Funhouse

My favorite bit of restaurant decor is a lamp that sits at the entryway of the tropically inspired Lil’ Deb’s Oasis in Hudson, New York. Inside the glass column, two dancing jellyfish pulse and flash, filling the room—already a sensory overload of color and sound—with neon light. Though Lil’ Deb’s has been leaning into all-out maximalism since it opened in 2016, it’s now joined by a wave of over-the-top, wonderfully overwhelming restaurants. At Shuggie’s, the San Francisco restaurant dedicated to food waste prevention and natural wine, one room is entirely green and the other is painted an almost headache-inducing yellow. Even as I dug into an excellent pan pizza, my attention-deficit brain strained to focus. There was so much to absorb! I left the restaurant very full and feeling like I’d just spent the night at a rave.

I can see how plenty of diners might turn their noses up at the proliferation of maximalist restaurants, but I love it. After a soul-draining pandemic, restaurants are here for us in new ways. In tandem with the recent revival of theme restaurants, these sensory overload funhouses aren’t trafficking in white tablecloths and stuffy decor. With disco balls spinning above and animal print rugs underfoot, spots like Oakland’s Daytrip and Mister Mao in New Orleans provide a welcome reminder that great food doesn’t have to be so serious. —Elazar Sontag, restaurant editor

Inflation Has Come for Your Salad

If you’ve dined out recently and spent over $20 on a pile of greens, I’m sorry to say you’re not alone. Lettuce prices have been soaring for over a year because of both inflation and an insect-borne virus that destroyed acres of the crop in California’s Salinas Valley, which supplies nearly half of lettuce in the US. Don’t get me wrong, a heaping mound of leafy greens in a vinaigrette can be divine. Take New York’s iconic Italian restaurant Via Carota, where the beloved insalata verde tops off at $21—it was $16 in 2016, which isn’t cheap by any means, but elicits a bit less sticker shock. But these days, when you tack on supplemental charges for protein like grilled shrimp or salmon, salads can top out at a whopping $40 or even $50.

All of this means that, somehow, in 2023, it’s sometimes cheaper to just order a burger with fries or a half roast chicken. As the price of nearly all ingredients continues to skyrocket, I know the cost of a humble salad will rise too—especially one featuring high-quality straight-from-the-farm produce. But if I’m going to spend the same on a salad as I am for a hunk of meat, I might just have to get my greens at home. —Kate Kassin, editorial operations manager

Anything Can Be a Martini, Actually

In 2023, you can order a dirty pasta water martini. A squid ink martini. A breakfast martini. A campfire martini. As it turns out, a martini can be anything—and anything can be a martini. The offbeat martini renaissance started in 2021, when the now ubiquitous espresso martini made its vibey, Gen Z comeback. Then, out of the murky, highly caffeinated waters emerged the MSG martini at Calvin Eng’s Cantonese restaurant Bonnie’s in Brooklyn. The cocktail was a smash hit and opened the doors for all the inventive martinis of 2023.

Since then it’s been a race for cocktail creators to out-martini each other. Tomato martinis popped up around New York City at buzzy spots like Jac’s on Bond, Sartiano’s, and Swan Room. A chicken soup martini—an innovation that laughs in the face of God—was invented on TikTok. Miami’s Pastis now does a pickletini, and in Austin, the Mexican seafood restaurant Este is making martinis with muscadet and kombu. Of course, martinis aren’t new, but martini madness is distinctly of our time. A simple ingredient list means you can get a martini almost anywhere, and the minimalist aesthetic is the perfect accompaniment to your newfound “quiet luxury.” Could any drink be more 2023? I don’t think so. —Sam Stone, staff writer

Scoring a Reservation Is Still a Contact Sport

If you’re trying to get a walk-in table at almost any buzzy New York restaurant on a Friday night, your best bet might be to hop across the river and try your luck in Jersey. Restaurant reservation culture has reached such peak insanity that even lightning-fast fingers and multiple Resy notifications might not be enough to score a table at one of your city’s most in demand restaurants. Why? Some of our new supercharged reservation culture can be attributed to a shift in the way restaurants operate in a post-COVID-19 era. Still, I wonder if we aren’t also doing this to ourselves.

We now have “innovations” like Appointment Trader, where you can spend hundreds of dollars on a reservation (not including the cost of your actual meal!), and membership-based restaurants that charge annual membership fees just for the privilege of spending your money to eat there. What about walk-in-only restaurants, you might ask? Well, the most popular ones have lines. Is the constant need to chase social media clout by posting photos from the same 10 or 20 restaurants “everyone is going to” causing restaurants to become unattainable status symbols? In 2024, instead of chasing hot new tables, you’ll find me spending my time and money at the low-key neighborhood spots where the food brings me more joy than caviar-topped fried chicken and an impossible-to-get reservation ever could. —Carina Finn, commerce editor

Late Night Craving? Your Favorite Restaurant Is Open

Do you remember the early days of the pandemic when it was hard to find a restaurant open past 9 p.m.? (Miami, I’m not talking about you.) At the time, of course, this made sense: In many cities, people were ordering takeout and eating in the safety of their dining rooms. There was no great case for keeping pre-pandemic hours and closing earlier also allowed restaurant workers to head home. Even as restaurants reopened to the public, many just didn’t have a large enough staff to stay open deep into the night. Even in New York—which, allegedly, doesn’t sleep—it felt as if the entire city went down with the sun.

If you happen to be up past 10 p.m. these days and get a little peckish, you’ll notice a slow but sure shift is underway. As business kicks up and diners reacclimate to the idea of, you know, staying awake, late-night dining is back. In New York’s East Village, the reopened cult favorite Superiority Burger is open several nights a week until 2 a.m. Luxe Korean barbecue restaurant Cote recently launched an entire late-night menu to fuel those who stay past midnight. And it’s not just New York: At Warlord, a buzzy Chicago restaurant that opened earlier this year, the kitchen closes at 1 a.m., and you can stick around and drink for another hour before the lights go down. In LA, the newcomer pizza and tapas spot Bar Monette keeps things bumping until midnight, and though Seattle’s Ba Bar didn’t keep its 4 a.m. pre-pandemic closing time, you can still scarf down fried chicken wings and pho until midnight. Even for the sleepiest among us, these restaurants make a very strong case for staying awake for just a few more hours. —Elazar Sontag, restaurant editor

Tipping Is Confusing Everyone…Still

It seems like no one knows exactly how much to tip after their meal—or picking up their coffee order—anymore. We’ve been debating tipping for decades, and yet somehow we’ve entered a kind of tipping purgatory in 2023. During the pandemic, tipping percentages shot up as service workers risked their lives to keep the hospitality industry running and diners sought to show gratitude. Some restaurants began adding automatic service fees, while others prompted diners to tip on everything from a cup of coffee to to-go tacos. Nothing lasts forever, though, and what came next was a whole lot of tipping-related complaining, deemed tipping fatigue.

What we’re left with are a bunch of diners who feel resentful about how much and how often they’re being asked to tip, and restaurant workers who still rely heavily on those tips to make a living. We can all agree (I hope) that service workers deserve a fair wage, but who exactly bears the weight of providing that wage remains murky. It’s going to take more than the calming of inflation to put an end to the tipping discourse and confusion, and it’s safe to say we’ll probably still be talking about tipping this time next year. Whatever happens—after years of working in restaurants—I’m a 20 percent tipper for life. —Sam Stone, staff writer

Restaurant Water Cups Are Simply Too Small

Anyone who’s dined with me in the past calendar year has heard my spiel: Restaurant water cups are too damn small. (I’m very fun at parties.) I’m talking about glasses like this one, the 7.5-ounce “Stackable Bodega Glass,” which seems to be the darling of every trendy, sort of casual, “everything is designed to be shared,” kind of place. Even at restaurants I otherwise adore, these glasses have left a lasting, parched impression.

My issues with them are multifold. First, if I’ve ordered food with even a whisper of heat or chili, I find myself anxiously sweating for a solid five to 10 minutes, waiting for my server to make their way back to refill my glass. Second, as a notorious lightweight, if I’ve ordered a cocktail or glass of wine, I simply need more robust hydration than a 3.5-ounce swig of hydration. Third, they’re so tiny that chilled water turns tepid in a flash. Was there a national sale? Are they easier to stack and store? Are they a better fit for the industrial dishwasher? Do they compel diners to purchase more drinks? Whatever the reason, I am still thirsty. And I’m about to flag my server down for a refill. —Antara Sinha, associate cooking editor

TikTok Food Influencers Are Our New Restaurant Critics

A new guard of restaurant critics has arrived—on TikTok. Content creators like Keith Lee and the two fast-talking, ruthless women behind the VIP List are ushering in a new era of food criticism, sharing short, quippy takes that can change a restaurant’s patronage—for better or worse—in as little as 20 seconds. The oft-scathing reviews dropped by the VIP List, for instance, can reach over a million views, and Keith Lee’s visit to a slate of Atlanta restaurants recently brought a national spotlight (and a firestorm of drama) to the city.

TikTok food reviewers are often written off as unqualified to do the job of a critic, but nevertheless they wield enormous influence over their followers. Restaurants, meanwhile, are bending both toward and away from the trend, with some cashing in on Instagram-friendly, maximalist branding and others banning influencers altogether. Love them or hate them, it’s in everyone’s interest to take TikTok reviews seriously: If the restaurant-goers of the next generation are digital natives, there’s no doubt they’ll continue to gravitate toward reviews spoken in their language. —Li Goldstein, digital production assistant

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