With a single bite, comfort foods bring back warm memories of dishes from our childhoods. This transportable quality is still reflected in full-service restaurants, but with a modern twist that fits the more sophisticated palates of modern-day diners.
Today’s contemporary comfort-food menus redefine plates through presentation, purveyors, and processes, yet still evoke those feelings of nostalgia.
“It’s bringing people back to things they ate at home and flavors they know,” says Alex Harrell, chef and owner of Angeline in New Orleans. “But you’re seeing the ideas of tacos, hot pockets, and fried bologna sandwiches being elevated. There’s more care and craft going into them, yet there are elements people can recognize.”
Those return-to-home classics with touches of originality and innovation deliver the wow factor while showing respect for history and tradition, from Southern specials to Asian adobo. Just like with more modern cuisines, seasonal, local, natural, and completely from-scratch foods reign, whether it’s homegrown produce, house-made pickles, or meats smoked and cured in-house.
“Restaurants are a conversation with your guests that needs to stay vibrant and vital,” says Linton Hopkins, executive chef and CEO of Atlanta-based Resurgens Hospitality Group. “Engage, but stick to your guns that certain fundamentals will never leave, like knowing where your food is from. Customers are getting smarter and demanding more transparency.”
What connects with customers? Relaying family traditions in ways that keep up with prevailing demands while also staying true to the ingredients and original recipes. Straddling the line between familiar and fresh, contemporary comfort-food menus are mixing a back-to-our-roots approach with new techniques to present dishes in a unique light.
“Consumers are eating differently these days. About 15 years ago, kids weren’t raised on pork chops with mushroom gravy and squash casserole,” says Jason Alley, executive chef and partner at Richmond, Virginia’s Comfort. “Try to incorporate some of the traditional ideas of what comfort food is in a way that’s more approachable for this different demographic.”
At Angeline, Harrell combines his Alabama upbringing with his professional fine-dining experience to make comfort foods contemporary. He also changes the menu often and is very particular about sourcing high-quality ingredients to give comfort foods a boost, like with his gnocchi and oxtail recipe.
“This dish, composed of braised oxtail, rye-flour gnocchi, pickled onion, and marinated cabbage, shows well-known Reuben flavors, but it’s nothing like the original inspiration,” he says. “Technique can also make comfort foods more sophisticated, and we refine them through slow-cooking with immersion circulators and sous vide for marinating.”
Presenting common foods in intriguing ways can turn regular standbys into state-of-the-art innovations. Cooking in real time allows Ross Pangilinan, chef and owner of Santa Ana, California’s Mix Mix Kitchen Bar, to transform traditional Filipino adobo into something trendy with a twist.
“Our pork cheek adobo uses a different cut of meat than the usual chicken or pork belly, and the pork cheek works because it has good texture, the right amount of fat, and holds up in the braising liquid,” he says. “We top it with chimichurri for brightness and crispy shallots for texture and flavor.”
As there’s nothing more comforting to him than french fries, Pangilinan’s menu also includes reinvented fries with Asian barbecue short rib, homemade grilled kimchi, and a whipped cheese sauce. It’s home-style, but refreshed in a way that simultaneously honors the ingredients and reimagines them.
As for other comfort-food trends in the full-service restaurant space, mixing different cuisines, authenticity, in-house curing and pickling, revamped staples, and vegetable-forward dishes are a few of the things that chefs point to.
In particular, as chefs and restaurateurs renew their connections to their heritage and as diners’ willingness to try new things increases, throwback ethnic dishes with modern angles, like with Latin American and Asian street foods, are popping up on menus.
“We had a Korean-Southern dish: ketchup fried rice with squid ink spaetzle, which blended a lot of things,” says Stephanie Wilson, executive chef at Vintage in New Market, Maryland. “It’s not all American anymore; it’s encompassing various cuisines. It’s tying to something you know, but with different components you’re not used to.”
Wilson serves a play on conventional chicken and waffles in her Frosted Flake–infused hushpuppy waffle alongside smoked chili syrup. Pangilinan also gets creative with this familiar recipe by switching the major components to duck confit and French toast.
Foods made in-house are also taking off with comfort foods, especially curing, pickling, fermentation, and smoking. “Using things that are recognizable, as opposed to more processed products, is huge now,” Alley says. “If it’s processed, guests want to see that process happening in the restaurant in a way that feels wholesome.”
Coinciding with the healthy eating trend, portion sizes are dropping, and contemporary comfort-food menus starring whole vegetables are shining. Customers are looking for more tastes, experiences, and wellness over leaving with tomorrow’s lunch, and plates showcasing root vegetables and greens like kale, turnip greens, and fried Brussels sprouts are crowd-pleasers.
While food is ever-changing, authenticity is here to stay. Modernizing menus and chasing new food trends are critical aspects to staying relevant to today’s guests, but chefs say it’s also imperative to stay true to ingredient integrity, the original recipe, and your establishment’s genuine identity.
“You always need a cuisine relevant to the now, even if you’re doing something that’s considered traditional,” Hopkins says. “People don’t go to restaurants to eat in a museum. Restaurant foods must be alive, fresh, and of the moment. Then it never feels out of date; that’s the ultimate trend.”