In 2016, a number of promising full-service concepts joined the restaurant landscape—here are a handful of FSR favorites.
When weighing whether to open a restaurant, many operators will say the decision lands somewhere between a strategic calculation and running on blind faith.
But despite the risks, restaurants continue to launch, with almost 10,000 opening their doors in 2015, according to the National Restaurant Association. At press time final numbers were still being tallied for 2016, but restaurant sales in the full-service segment were predicted to increase 4.9 percent over the prior year—with the NRA noting that the inflation-adjusted real change would represent a 2.1 percent increase.
And operators are continuing to ante up for continued growth: Last fall the NRA reported 64 percent of operators planned to make capital expenditures for expansion, remodeling, or equipment in the six month–period ending in March.
To counter the increasing costs of real estate, development, and operations, restaurant owners are getting things to do double duty. “Everything’s melding—menus, ingredients, dayparts,” says Steve Zagor, dean of culinary business and industry studies at the Institute of Culinary Education in New York City.
Nowhere can this be seen better than at New York City’s Union Fare, which opened in May, and where customers can get just about anything edible between 11 a.m. and 9 p.m. in the week. “The idea was to make the space as productive as possible throughout the entire day,” says owner Will Kim.
“Union Square was losing restaurants at a fast pace to a rising real estate environment, and the challenge was to address the need to service a quick in-and-out lunch while creating both a casual and a full-service dinner program.”
That kind of flexible hybrid business model is just as applicable in smaller cities around the country—like the opening of three synergistic restaurant concepts last spring by Charleston, South Carolina’s Scarecrow & Co. Restaurant Group. This ambitious project serves its three concepts—Scarecrow, Feathertop, and Wise-Buck Smoked Meats—with one kitchen. Scarecrow is an upscale restaurant; Feathertop is more casual; and Wise-Buck is a fast-casual restaurant serving smoked meats.
A similar melding can also be seen in Denver’s Lucky Cat, which launched in May and is the sixth restaurant concept by Troy Guard. The menu is inspired by Guard’s time living in Asia and features Chinese food with a shot of Japanese and Singaporean influence. There’s sushi and sashimi as well as dim sum.
And for those seeking for a melding of everything culinary, look no further than In Situ, the recently opened restaurant in the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, which premiered in June. In Situ rests on the laurels of other chefs and other restaurants, from which each of the dishes on its menu are curated.
“Each [dish] represents a different perspective and illustrates modern cooking in a different way,” says In Situ’s executive chef, Brandon Rodgers. “We want to have a variety of cooking styles, types of ingredients, and cultures. Having that type of range is what makes In Situ less like a traditional restaurant and more like an exhibition.”
That’s becoming a norm rather than a novelty in the industry as restaurants today have “this idea of a mashup and an eclectic mix of food with more sophisticated experimentation by chefs,” says Danny Bendas, managing partner of Synergy Restaurant Consultants, Newport Beach, California.
“In general, the buzzword is simplicity—with a better execution of a smaller menu,” says Bendas. He expects this trend to continue, given the pressures on restaurant operators’ food, labor, and operations costs.
Witness to this ongoing trend is the In Situ menu, which has just 15 items on the dining menu and 10 in the lounge. Likewise, Little Donkey, a small-plate restaurant in Cambridge, Massachusetts, has just 25 menu items. This was deliberate, says co-owner and chef Jamie Bissonnette, because he and his co-owner/chef, Ken Oringer, like to experiment. “It made sense for us to offer a more streamlined menu so we can take things out and add them in as we want.”
FSR pays tribute to eight of the best new restaurants that opened across the U.S. in 2016: