NEW YORK (MainStreet) -- Twenty years ago, the idea of a shop that sold only cupcakes was virtually unheard of (remember "bakeries"?), and when you looked at a menu, there was no way it would tell you where the cow was raised or what it had for lunch. Today, locally sourced ingredients are all the rage and cupcake shops have become so trendy people are already saying they're passe.
Restaurants have changed a lot in the past few years, but not all of the trends are going to last. We spoke to food experts and bloggers to find out which restaurant trends they can't get enough of -- and which they can definitely do without.
The cupcake-only specialty shops popping up all over urban areas are just one food trend starting to grate on some people.
Love: Local sourcing
These days it's not enough to tell diners what ingredients are used in a dish. More and more restaurants are also telling us where the ingredients came from, and often it's not that far from home.
"As far as restaurants go, the trend is to source what they can locally and tell you what farm their meats and produce are coming from," says Jay Ducote, who runs the food blog
. "People now are starting to demand to know where their food is coming from, and a lot of restaurants are getting ingredients from local farmers markets or straight from the farmer."
This trend has quite a bit to do with political and ethical concerns. Locally sourced ingredients are supportive of the local economy and generally regarded as being better for the environment (transporting food over long distances takes a lot of fossil fuel, though some studies
the importance of transportation when assessing food's carbon footprint). And while we're generally wary of mixing food and politics, Ducote says he's a fan of anything that brings farm-fresh ingredients to the table and helps local farmers in the process.
Still, we can definitely see this trend being taken too far -- the last thing we want to see is a restaurant choosing inferior ingredients in the name of getting everything locally. But for now we're on board with this one.
Hate: Marketing language on menus
There's one thing Ducote doesn't like to see on a menu: the phrase, "cooked to perfection."
"Any time I read a steak is 'seared to perfection,' my attitude is, who the hell are you to tell me it's perfect?" he rants. "He's cooking it to perfection every time?"
Ducote says that he'd much rather the menu communicate actual information about how an item is cooked and leave the marketing language at home.
"Tell me what it actually is," he says. "At some point, if somebody is already sitting in your restaurant, you don't need to market to them anymore."
Love: Better lettuce
The leafy greens in your salad are getting leafier.
"I've seen a switch in salads, from iceberg and romaine to baby spinach and arugula," Ducote says. "Arugula is the trendiest green out there right now ... I think because it's fun to say."
It's also healthier. While a wedge of iceberg lettuce covered in ranch dressing and bacon bits may be a guilty pleasure, it's not bringing a whole lot of nutrition to the table. Whether spinach and arugula are tastier is a matter of, well, taste, but there's no denying that such mixed greens give you
than some of the traditional varieties.
Hate: Communal tables
Going out to dinner isn't always an intimate experience. Danielle Turner, a chef and cooking instructor based in Washington, D.C., says she's seen an increasing number of restaurants using communal seating -- that is, seating you at a long table with strangers instead of at your own table.
"I don't mind family style, but I don't like it when you have to sit with strangers," she says. "When I see that
a restaurant does that, I tend not to go ... I hate the feeling of forced conversation."
Depending on the type of establishment, we think it can be fun to sit with strangers and make new friends. But as a general rule we're with Turner: We'd like to have a table to ourselves.
Love: Food and beer pairings
The days when a restaurant could get away with passing off Heineken as its premium beer are long gone. Today it's difficult to find a bar or restaurant without at least one
on the menu, and many establishments are taking the logical next step and adding recommended food and beer pairings to the traditional wine pairings.
"One of the trends that I like is the continued emergence of the craft beer scene and pairing food with beer," Ducote says. Turner likewise says she's seen more food and beer pairings on D.C.-area menus. We're certainly on board with this one.
Hate: Cupcake shops
Once upon a time, if you wanted a cupcake you went to a bakery or just made a batch yourself. Nowadays there are cupcake-only specialty shops popping up all over urban areas, and it's starting to grate on some people.
"Cupcakes are taking over the world -- there are more cupcakeries
in D.C. than I have fingers," Turner says. "It's a cupcake. You could make a bunch of them for the $4 that some of these places charge for one. I've had enough with cupcakes."
She also notes that the cupcake craze has given rise to another annoying trend: anointing every other baked good "the next cupcakes."
"I've heard everything from pies to macaroons," she says.
Love: Pop-up restaurants
Every chef dreams of opening his or her own restaurant, but the startup costs are huge and it can be a one-way ticket to bankruptcy if the restaurant fails. It's no wonder, then, that many chefs prefer to go the pop-up route, opening establishments on a temporary or part-time basis in underutilized spaces. Because the financial risk is lower, such restaurants tend to take more risks.
"It's a low-commitment way to experiment," says Epicurious.com's Lauren Salkeld, who counts herself as a fan of the model. "You end up creating these unique food experiences."
Salkeld points to Ludo Lefebvre as one of the pioneers of the concept in the U.S. The Los Angeles-based chef serves dinner for limited times at restaurants that are normally only open for
, using the time to experiment with new dishes.
Hate: "Checking in"
Many tech-savvy diners like to "check in" to restaurants with social networking applications such as FourSquare or
, and some restaurant owners have happily taken advantage of the free publicity that comes with this trend, offering special deals to customers who check in on a regular basis.
Unfortunately, that means a lot of diners pulling out their smartphones during dinner even more than they already do, a trend Salkeld says she can do without.
"I don't love the tweeting and checking in on FourSquare," she says. "I'd rather people just sit and enjoy the meal and not worry about the social networking aspect of it."
Jury's Out: Grass-fed beef
Much like locally sourced ingredients, grass-fed beef is another instance where political and ethical concerns are driving the trend. A free-range cow roaming a pasture and munching on grass is generally viewed as more ethical and more environmentally friendly than a cooped-up cow being stuffed full of corn. To this end, "grass-fed" has become a badge of honor for many restaurants and high-end grocery stores such as Whole Foods. But not all diners are in agreement grass is better.
"What a lot of people look for in beef is the fat content, because that's where you get the flavor," Ducote says. "You're going to get so much more of that with corn-fed beef, because feeding them corn is going to fatten them up."
Salkeld, meanwhile, says she prefers her beef to come from cows that eat grass all day.
"I am very pro-grass-fed," she says. "I like the way it tastes, and from an environmental perspective, it's better and more ethical."
At the end of the day it comes down to personal taste, with some preferring nicely marbled beef and others preferring a leaner cut and the distinct taste grass imparts to the meat. And as Salkeld notes, many people will always prefer corn-fed because that's what they grew up with.
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