As we close out the first decade of eating in the 21st century, here’s a look at the most notable trends of 2009:
1. Food Activism (above)
First Lady Michelle Obama started a vegetable garden at the White House. The documentary Food Inc. showed us how the industrialized food industry has become more dangerous than the tobacco industry. Alice Waters, one of the most prominent figures in the “slow food” movement, went primetime on 60 Minutes to show how changing our eating habits can improve our lives. And at restaurants across New York City, menus reflected a localized focus, listing the farms, butchers, and artisans who supply the chef’s kitchens. Changing the way we eat became a rallying cry for many, and let’s hope it continues even louder in the next decade.
2. Twittering Food Carts
A food cart was just a food cart until it became the carrier for gourmet waffles, artisanal ice cream, and authentic carne asada. With the rapid spread of Twitter, food carts became a cult unto themselves; if you’re following the carts that tweet about food, you will be one of the first to know where they’re parking and what specials they’re serving. The movement has become so big that SeriousEats.com did a list of twitter-using food vendors across the country. A few NYC-based vendors are below:
Calexico Truck: @CalexicoCart
Wafels & Dinges: @waffletruck
Cupcake Stop: @CupcakeStop
The Big Gay Ice Cream Truck: @biggayicecream
Cravings Truck: @nyccravings
Dessert Truck: @desserttruck
Le Gamin Truck: @legamintruck
Rickshaw Dumplings: @Rickshawtruck
Treats Truck: @TheTreatsTruck
Van Leeuwen Ice Cream: @VLAIC
LCB Burger Truck: @LCBBurgerTruck
3. Recession Specials
In a post-bailout world, restaurants found it hard to attract the same level of free-spenders. So they adjusted, and in 2009, we enjoyed more prix-fixes, happy hours, and specialty nights than ever before. Tom Colicchio started Frugal Fridays, Anthos turned their second floor into an affordable tapas joint, and Bobo introduced a “den menu” where everything is under $20. Go to any of the top restaurants in the city and most likely they still offer an affordable prix-fixe for lunch and/or dinner. If there was one bright spot about the recession, it was the increased affordability of dining out.
4. Health Food of the Year: Acai
Move over, pomegranate. Acai took top honors for biggest superfood trend of 2009. This little berry, picked from an Amazon palm tree, apparently has lots to offer in the way of anti-aging and detoxifying benefits. It’s one of those antioxidant wonders that has become uber-prevalent in health bars, juices, infused chocolates, and even skincare (Dr. Perricone loves it).
5. Most Indulgent Menu Item: Pork Belly
Everyone, and I mean, everyone, had pork belly on their menu. It’s like the juicier, softer, more self-indulgent sibling to bacon. You’ve most likely had pork belly in one of Momofuku‘s heavenly pork buns (above). The decadent cut of meat and fat is rich and comforting, which is probably why you’ve seen it on almost every menu you’ve perused in the last year. But the obsession won’t last; like the cosmo or tuna tartare, the pork belly will soon be replaced by the new food in town, and it will take its place in food cult history.
6. Old-Fashioned Restaurants
Modernity is so ’90s. The formula for opening a successful restaurant in New York City these days seems to be: find a menu from the 1920s, hike up the prices 20 or 30 times, find a space and make it look super old, and mix good drinks of course. Hotel Griffou, in all its bordello-chicness, offers lobster thermidor and steak diane. Minetta Tavern is the newest restaurant from Keith McNally, who is a master of taking an old classic (Minetta Tavern originally opened in 1937) and making it feel, well, authentically old.
7. The End of the Institution
The new economy of 2009 just couldn’t carry some of our oldest food institutions. Restaurants with high-operating costs and high rents were forced to close doors. Magazines saw ad sales fall off a cliff. It’s easy to rationalize and say the economy forced us to trim the fat, but that is hard to accept when a magazine as beautiful as Gourmet ceases to exist, fine-dining experiences like Chanterelle and Vong close down, and even kitschy classics like Tavern on the Green head to the afterlife.
8. Big Name Chefs Downscale
Maybe they all look at Rachael Ray’s phenomenal success and think, “I can do that.” If they did, they were smart and probably enjoyed some bright spot of success in an otherwise abysmal year. Danny Meyer (pictured above) of Union Square Caf, Eleven Madison Park, Gramercy Tavern, and the Modern, busily expanded the Shake Shack concept to the Upper West Side, a baseball stadium, and its upcoming opening in Miami Beach next spring. Daniel Boulud, arguably one of our most accomplished chefs, went way downtown and opened DBGB on the Bowery with a menu that pays homage to meat: sausage, hot dogs, and burgers galore. For dessert? Souffl or an ice cream sundae.
9. Comfort Food of the Year: Fried Chicken
Although we’ve always loved fried chicken (thank you Blue Ribbon Bakery), this year marked an incredible year for excellent bird. Andrew Carmellini introduced his take at Locanda Verde, Momofuku offers a reservations-only fried chicken dinner, and the Redhead in the East Village boasts a cult following for the dish. For a full listing, read the Fried Chicken Roundup posted by Seriouseats.com a few months ago.
10. The Special Dinner
In an effort to lure customers and build some buzz, restaurants are increasingly offering diners group feasts. Meaning, there’s something for everyone. On Sundays at Boqueria, it’s suckling pig night. Momofuku has Bo Ssam dinners in addition to the fried chicken dinner. Resto (pictured above) offers a large-format feast–you tell them what you want to eat (maybe a goat? Pig? Fish?) and they’ll organize a special meal for you and your friends. But perhaps the most popular special dinner came courtesy of Tom Colicchio and his bi-weekly Tom Tuesday dinner series. For about $200, you get ten courses whipped up by Colicchio himself. If you’re lucky enough to score a reservation, you get a level of personal cooking unmatched by other restaurants. Plus, it’s Tom Colicchio. Since when do celebrity chefs actually cook?
Noria Morales is a food-addicted fashion editor at Lucky Magazine. When not shopping, she publishes her food blog, At First Bite, which highlights eating, drinking, and cooking in the city.