From guilty pleasures to indulge in after a night out with friends to composed dishes to catch solo after a 12-hour workday, full-service late-night menus capture a diverse audience of dark-hour diners. “It’s knowing what the clientele looks for and basing the menu off your location,” says Tony Messina, executive chef and partner of Boston-based UNI. “What will your area clientele spend money on?” 

Melding the must-haves and the meals of the moment, midnight menus cater to the expanding audience of refined tastes. These days, plates served after 10 p.m. include reinterpretations of retro cuisine, Asian favorites, and—believe it or not—healthy, balanced meal options. 

Sophisticated snacks

“Consumers are more open-minded than ever, and, even when drunk, they have better palates than five years ago,” says Jeremy Fall, cofounder of J. Fall Group which includes restaurants such as Nighthawk: Breakfast Bar in Venice, California, and Nighthawk AM in Chicago, among others. “[Menus have] become more sophisticated. Even food trucks have crazy takes on traditional late-night items like burritos.”

Andrew Curren, executive chef and partner of Austin, Texas’ Elm Restaurant Group which includes 24 Diner, says the key to getting late-night menus right is focusing on variety, value, quality, and finding what fits your community’s late-night needs. “Our cheeseburger is 10 ounces on a house-made bun with a million things you can add. It provides that variety and value with opportunities to have restaurant-awesome food relatively cheap.” 

Minneapolis’ 112 Eatery’s late-night menu follows these rules. Executive chef and owner Isaac Becker sticks to fun-to-eat staples like bacon sandwiches and burgers paired with the more-refined options of foie gras, oysters, and frog legs. 

Bites of nostalgia

Reinterpretations play on classic comfort, while tapping into trends of quality, value, and diversity. “We’re doing our take on redefined classics. It’s different, better iterations of what we know, and an excuse to eat your guilty pleasure,” Fall says. “Nighthawk does breakfast for dinner. We have made-from-scratch gravy with maple habanero sausage and cheddar chive biscuits for our chicken and biscuits.” Benedict fries and drunken French toast also play well with Nighthawk’s customers.

At 24 Diner, Curren does tri-annual menu changes for increased variety, plus specials like chicken and dumplings. “We serve our menu 24 hours a day, but during late night, you never know what customers will order,” he says, “Some want breakfast sandwiches or waffles, eggs, and bacon, and others want burgers or steak with fries. Our chili cheese fries, though, are one of our best late-night sellers.” 

Curren says old-school classics like boozy milkshakes and homemade Pop-Tarts are trends they’ve jumped on recently. After a successful limited-time release, 24 Diner is considering adding house-made Pop-Tarts permanently to its late-night repertoire. “Diners want comforts on late-night menus,” Curren says. “Food [that] is emotional and brings back good memories or makes you feel good is perfect for late night.” 

Reaching for ramen

An on-trend option that has found its sweet spot on late-night menus is ramen and other Asian-inspired bites. “We have a good late-night ramen business, and we’re seeing diners requesting brothless ramen like mazemen,” Messina says. “Additionally, consumers want untraditional sushi, so we’ve been selling more out-of-the-box rolls like burger or lobster BLT.” He also serves Korean-style scallion pancakes with seafood. 

“The market that understands late-night better than anyone are the Asian markets,” Fall says. “There’s a huge scene in L.A. with Koreatown and Japanese restaurants as the go-to late-night food.”

A good, square meal

Healthier, complete meals are coinciding with diners’ desire for variety as well as better value in food and pricing. Customers are eating later, but want healthy food in whole meals, says Daniel England, corporate chef for OMG Hospitality Group including Union Kitchen & Tap in California. His entrée-sized, nutritious plates like salads with a grilled steak, grilled chicken, or a fried egg and steak frites meet that thriving need. Flatbreads are a great option, too, England says, as they’re less dense than pizza and allow for creativity with seasonal ingredients.  

Feature, Menu Innovations