6 Restaurant Trends We Loved In 2021 feature image


6 Restaurant Trends We Loved In 2021

From sustainable seafood to cheaper tasting menus, here are some trends we spotted this year.

The Infatuation writers and editors had over 3,500 meals in 2021. They included truck-procured tacos that dripped down our faces as we ate them on the street, as well as multi-course fine dining meals—at least one of which also took place in the street (or, more specifically, an alleyway). Fortunately, our team ate far fewer meals in our cars than we did in 2020, but other than that, they really did run the gamut.

In so many ways, 2021 has been an evolution of 2020: we saw pandemic pop-ups settle into permanent spaces, new restaurants reinvent shuttered spaces, and the entire hospitality industry begin to rethink its role in both local communities and the planet at large. As the year ends with many restaurants being forced to temporarily shut their doors due to the omicron variant, we’re also seeing restaurants once again demonstrate their resilience. With that in mind, it’s a strange time to make predictions for what’s to come in 2022. But we can take a look back at the bumpy, exciting, delicious experiences we had in 2021 and tell you about some of the trends we saw emerge after those thousands of meals.

For another look back at the year, check out our Best New Restaurants of 2021 guides

Pop Ups Gone Brick and Mortar

6 Restaurant Trends We Loved In 2021 feature image

photo credit: Zitz Sum / Cleveland Jennings

If 2020 was the year of the pop-up, 2021 was the year when those pop-ups signed leases. Rather than DMing to order, we now found ourselves refreshing reservation systems at midnight to see if we could actually score coveted seats at places that started out in home kitchens. Two of our favorite examples we tried this year: 1) LA’s Kinkan, which started by serving beautiful uni and toro-laden chirashi takeout boxes and now offers several in-person dining experiences, including an unbelievable Thai-Japanese tasting menu. 2) Miami’s Zitz Sum, whose South Florida take on dim sum started as a pandemic takeout operation before blooming into a really fun space with one of Miami’s most interesting menus.

Sustainable and Local Seafood at the Forefront

6 Restaurant Trends We Loved In 2021 feature image

photo credit: Rosella / David Lee

Grass-fed beef and pasture-raised chicken have been menu buzzwords for many years at this point—the Portlandia episode where they go to the farm where their chicken was raised aired a decade ago. But this year, more and more restaurants began touting the sustainability of their seafood. The sustainable seafood movement, which has been gaining steam since the '90s, considers the futures of fish species, the communities doing the fishing, and the future of the planet’s marine environments at large. There’s even a James Beard initiative for restaurants that serve sustainably-sourced seafood. But in 2021, we saw several new restaurants make sustainable fish and crustaceans a key feature of their restaurants. Sushi spot Rosella in the East Village gets all their fish from within the U.S., with shrimp from Louisiana and bluefin tuna from Massachusetts. The menu of Santa Monica’s Crudo e Nudo mentions that “our sustainability initiatives are included in the pricing of our menu.” And Anajak Thai, a 39-year-old Thai restaurant in LA, is blowing minds with the fish they serve in their new-as-of-the-pandemic Thai omakase and Thai Taco Tuesday. During a meal there, you can expect Chef Justin Pichetrungsi to tell you, for example, about the zero-chemical shrimp he’s serving and how they were raised completely indoors in Downey, CA, by Transparent Sea Farms.

A Queer Food Movement

6 Restaurant Trends We Loved In 2021 feature image

photo credit: Dacha 46 / Teddy Wolff

At the end of 2020, we wrote about the unfortunate closure of MeMe’s Diner in Brooklyn, mourning its loss as the only NYC restaurant that actively identified itself as a queer space. But its legacy more than lives on. The MeMe’s space became KIT, which hosted rotating queer pop-ups and launched businesses like Dacha 46, which we called a “queer love letter to Eastern European cuisine” in our profile on them. Our team also tried the food from Ediciones, a queer collective that did a residency at Winona’s, and covered the queer pop-up dinner series that took place at Ursula. Although there were a lot of pop-ups, we also wrote about HAGS, which its owners call an “intimate restaurant by queer people for all people.” They’re opening in the original Momofuku Ko space in the East Village in early 2022.

Regional Cuisines as Focus

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photo credit: Shiku / Jakob Layman

Various forms of the phrase “regional specialties you won’t find elsewhere in the city” appeared on reviews across The Infatuation this year. More and more new restaurants focused their menus around specific regions, and several of them ended up being our favorites of the year. Two NYC Indian restaurants from the same owner, Dhamaka and Semma, serve “provincial Indian cuisine” from “the forgotten side of India” and “heritage Southern Indian cuisine that has rarely been seen outside of local homes and neighborhoods”, respectively. At Dhamaka, people are clamoring to reserve the one 48-hour-marinated rabbit that’s served per night, while at Semma our team raved about everything from goat intestines to venison shank. Also in New York, Che Li has had lines out the door for its Shanghainese specialties, while Shiku’s “hyper-specific regional banchan” was one of our top LA picks. Regional cooking certainly isn’t new, but we’re excited to see it more front and center, with some of the restaurants mentioned bove actively choosing to exclude Americanized dishes. That said, American regionality was a thing too: we did love a “tri-state area” sandwich shop in LA.

Tasting Menus Under $100

6 Restaurant Trends We Loved In 2021 feature image

photo credit: Ernest / Erin Ng

We did thoroughly enjoy quite a few new tasting menus this year, and we could fortunately afford to, since a bunch were priced under $100 a head. In Seattle, the former executive chef at the city’s most revered fine dining spot, Canlis (where dinner costs $165 per person), opened his own place called Tomo. There, the two menu options (one is vegetarian) cost just $78 per person. Other places offer fewer choices: at Fradei in Brooklyn, a $90 five-course meal that changes every three weeks is the only option, and the restaurant only posts pictures of its menu to Instagram once they’ve moved on to new dishes. Then there's San Francisco’s Ernest, where you can order a la carte, but a tasting menu is an option, at $95. Approaches varied greatly, but many of them at two-digit price points.

Good Tacos Have Finally Traveled East

6 Restaurant Trends We Loved In 2021 feature image

photo credit: Taqueria Ramirez / David Lee

This one’s simple: there are so many legitimately good tacos now. In so many places. Even. In. New York. Mind-blowing tacos are a given in cities like LA and Austin, but with new spots like Mexico City-inspired Taqueria Ramirez in New York and Jalisco-style Mi Pueblito in Philadelphia, the eastern seaboard is taco-rich now too. In terms of style, birria tacos started popping up everywhere, but we were also excited to see crowds line up for morcilla tacos at Chicago’s Chingón and tripe tacos at Brooklyn’s Ramirez. Our Miami editor, however, notes that Florida still lacks great tacos.

Suggested Reading

The Infatuation’s Most Exciting New Restaurants Of 2021 guide image
The Infatuation’s Most Exciting New Restaurants Of 2021

The 15 greatest restaurants that opened in 2021, from LA to London.

LA’s Best New Restaurants Of 2021 guide image

15 places that are redefining dining in LA in 2021.

New York City’s Best New Restaurants Of 2021 guide image

16 places that are redefining dining in NYC.

Chicago’s Best New Restaurants Of 2021 guide image

We spent the year looking for the best new restaurants across Chicago. This is where you’ll find them.

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