Not as cute or aspirational as breakfast and not as elaborate or luxurious as dinner, lunch often gets the short end of the stick when it comes to dining glory. Memes featuring the “sad desk lunch” exist for a reason; many people view the meal purely in terms of sustenance, not as something to be savored. But over the last few years, full-service restaurants have been putting increasing importance on lunch in order to compete with the lure of fast casuals that promise fast turnaround and bountiful choices. It looks as though the most underrated meal of the day is finally getting its due.
Sit-down restaurants that are looking to boost their lunch credentials need to think first and foremost about what their guests need at that time of day. “Lunch options need to be accessible and quick to hit the table, while still being high-quality offerings,” says Tara Zavagnin, director of operations at Maddon’s Post in Chicago. The restaurant, which puts an Italian and Polish slant on classic items like the Cobb salad, tries to make it easy for guests to enjoy creative food within a limited time frame by keeping ticket times low and service quick, Zavagnin says.
Andreanna G. Liguore, owner of Bettolino Kitchen in Redondo Beach, California, echoes this opinion. “Lunch service needs to be at an accelerated rate,” she says. “This is not the time to course meals and let people dine; save the coursing for your dinner service and expedite all food and drink once they have been ordered.” If people can get in and out of the restaurant within 45 minutes, they’ll be more likely to choose it over a limited-service restaurant.
But fast ticket times can’t come at the expense of service. At Outlier in Seattle, the focus is on both speed and consistency, says chef Anthony Sinsay. The restaurant’s lunch menu offers Pacific Northwest–inflected spins on dishes like the Washington pizza, made with local market vegetables and cheeses. These dishes are packed with flavor and simple for the chefs to execute but still quick to turn around and get on the table in time to be back for an important meeting or phone call.
The Outlier, located in Seattle’s Kimpton Hotel Monaco, also has another type of midday guest: those who have the time to spend on a long lunch. That’s why the property opened its exclusive noodle bar, which is only available on weekdays for two guests at either 11:30 a.m. or 1 p.m. The multi-course meal allows the guests to have one-on-one interaction with Sinsay, creating an intimacy rarely experienced at lunchtime. “Not only am I able to create and serve some of my favorite Filipino dishes that I grew up eating, but I also get to share stories of my past and why this food is so special to me,” Sinsay explains.
Switching up the format isn’t the only way restaurants are trying to make their lunch menus stand out. In Savannah, Georgia, the chef-restaurateur team of Mashama Bailey and Johno Morisano recently spun off their award-winning, fine-dining restaurant The Grey to a counter-service concept called The Grey Market, which is open for lunch. To adapt the upscale dishes from The Grey for the new restaurant, the duo focused on Savannah’s unusual culinary heritage. “Because we’re in a port city, we get to use all of the food and favors that came into this port,” Morisano says. “So the NYC, with bacon, egg, and cheese on a house-made Kaiser roll, sits right next to the Birmingham, with middle-Eastern spiced lamb on a house-made roti bread.”
In New York City, executive chef Yurum Nam is also using less-familiar flavors to differentiate his restaurant, Zusik, in a crowded market. While Zusik’s dinner fare takes a fusion approach, its lunch menu focuses on traditional Korean dishes like bibimbap and boodae—a sausage stew often served in army barracks.
“We hope to attract customers that may be looking for our Korean flavors outside of Koreatown or foodies that are looking for new experiences,” Nam says. Zusik has also tapped into another lunch trend with its menu: shareability. Lunch items are served in traditional Korean dishes that provide the perfect backdrop to take and share photos on social media.
Bettolino also uses creative plating at lunchtime. Its Betto Box is a play on the Japanese bento box and has four compartments for a homemade pasta, protein, soup, and salad. The box appeals to regulars, Liguore says, because the dishes change daily and provide variety.
Outlier’s Sinsay also thinks social media is a vital part of the modern lunch menu. People want to find stories to connect to, he says. “They want the same quick, informative, educational, and personal experiences to share themselves.”
Teach an Old Dish New Tricks Using unusual and unexpected ingredients in classic dishes is an easy way to shake things up at lunch. At Dusek’s in Chicago, the Reuben skips the corned beef and stacks fried trout, sauerkraut aioli, and kohlrabi slaw on marble rye bread, rounding things out with a serving of beef-fat fries.
Break All the Rules Who says lunch is only served in the afternoon? At Lunch. in Richmond, Virginia, guests can get sandwiches, salads, and more from 9 a.m. until 10 p.m. The restaurant’s success has even led to the opening of a dinner restaurant called, you guessed it, Supper!
Have a Drink “Start your happy hour early,” advises Andreanna G. Liguore of Bettolino Kitchen. “This will help bring in a plethora of different types of people. Everyone loves a deal.” Martinis are a favorite: In Philadelphia, Royal Boucherie charges $2 for lunchtime martinis. At Don’s Diner in Milwaukee, they’re 10 cents apiece up to three orders—with a promise to send coffee when guests hit 30 cents.