Originality is one of the most valued attributes of a talented chef; creating a new dish or using familiar ingredients in new ways is a time-honored path to recognition. So why is it that so many kitchens simply repeat what's been done before, or jump on bandwagons that are moving so slowly that they've already become a road hazard?
We get it: Restaurants need to sell food, and bestsellers are what keep customers coming back. But trends can become tiring to regular diners who often prefer to see a little innovation; copying someone else's formula for success can turn into a turnoff.
Here are five restaurant trends from the past year that crossed the line from popular to played-out. But since imitation is the most sincere form of flattery, we've also included examples of trailblazers who were ahead of their time as well as kitchen magicians who are offering excellent exemplars of these trends right now.
There are foods that should definitely come in a bowl: cereal, soup, stew, Chex Mix. And then there are things that should never, ever be served on anything but a plate. For example, any menu item that requires the use of a knife and fork should not be served in a bowl. And one-bite appetizers should not be served in a bowl so large that you feel like you're looking at your food down the wrong end of a telescope. Still, bowls are fun! And they often signify a healthy meal filled with the superfood fad of the moment. That's why so many pretty people in yoga pants are posing for Instagram shots with their chia-seed bowls, their pitaya bowls, their grain bowls.
We're not asking for an all-out ban on the bowl, but we shouldn't have to chase food around on the slippery sides of a bowl, or set our fork down for a moment only to have it slide handle-first into the sauce. At their best, bowls are signs that you're about to dig into something hearty, homey and comforting, like the breakfast congee with pork at Naked Bowl. Pork rinds for breakfast? Pass the bowl!
Cocktails With Clever Names
You were so metal in high school that you memorized the names and lyrics of every Anthrax song on every album, and now that you're a bartender, you're creating clever cocktails with even cleverer names. But we're tired of asking for a Sabbath Bloody Mary Sabbath or an I Am the Laws Whiskey Sour. We just want a good stiff drink. So no more puns, double entendres or dad jokes built into each order, please. We're also not impressed if you've thumbed through every vintage cocktail book on the shelf (which is simply part of the job these days) and are now riffing on the names of pre-Prohibition drinks, especially if there's sexual innuendo included. We'll say yes to another round of French 75s, but we don't want to know what's in your French 69.
If you must go down the road of groan-inducing names, at least take a lesson from the bar team at Beast + Bottle, who've been wordsmithing such ridiculous cocktail monikers for the past five years that you can't help but laugh, even as you roll your eyes. We'll drop the attitude and just enjoy the moment as we ask for a Live and Let Rye, Your Own Pear-sonal Jesus or Apricot About Dre. Consider it a game of musical trivia — with the prize being an expertly crafted cocktail.
And if you simply can't bear the thought of uttering another silly drink name, pull up a stool at Bar Fausto, where the cocktails go only by numbers.
Poke, Crudo and Other Raw Fish
Sitting at a sushi bar and watching a master sushi chef slice perfect jewels of raw fish is a mesmerizing experience and a delicious way to experience the subtle textures and flavors of uncooked seafood. Being handed a bowl of poorly diced, low-grade salmon or tuna scooped from a six pan by a kid in a T-shirt is the raw-fish equivalent of ordering a Filet-O-Fish. Poke joints are this year's frozen yogurt or cupcake shops; they're cheap to set up and easy to franchise, and employees require minimal skill and training. But there are only so many fish in the sea, and the proliferation of poke can only lead to more overfishing or unsustainable farming.
Crudo is the Italian equivalent of sashimi, and in the right hands it can be a bright and bold burst of flavor at the beginning of a meal. But the trend has spread far beyond Italian eateries, and today overdressed, mushy crudo can be found even at national bar-and-grill franchises, much to the dismay of the poor yellowtail or salmon that gave its life to end up on a mediocre small plate. Similarly, ceviche, seafood carpaccio, fusion sushi and other raw-dish presentations are popping up at too many kitchens that don't know what they're doing.
For poke done right, skip the food-court counters and grab lunch at Ohana Island Kitchen, where the spirit of Hawaii is alive and well. When it comes to crudo, top-notch Italian eateries and seafood specialists are your best bet, especially Tavernetta, Jax Fish House, Stoic & Genuine and Mister Tuna.
You can go through the line at a burrito joint and point to everything you want wrapped in a tortilla; the whole process takes under a minute, and by the time you pay, you've got a meal in hand. That's the fast-casual model, which goes a step above fast food by presenting quality ingredients without the wait or higher price of a sit-down restaurant. The "fine-casual" hybrid that recently sprang up seeks to give you fine-dining plating while maintaining the convenience and speed of counter service.
But there are a few problems with this model, the first of which is that if you have to sit down and wait for food to be brought out, you're already investing more time than you would for that burrito. And if you're staying for a while, you might as well get appetizers, drinks and dessert, too. But then you have to get up and pay for another round of drinks or something else to eat, or wait for someone who's not a tipped employee to come by with a mobile pad to take your order and swipe your card again, and things can get a little frustrating. Or if the menu is complicated, you're going to be under the gun to decide on your order while you wait in line without the benefit of having a trained server explain your options. In either case, you end up feeling like you're getting shorted on service, rushed to decide on a meal and left to fend for yourself if you drop your silverware or need more water. Spending upwards of $20 on one entree shouldn't be a self-service proposition.
Just about the only place doing fine-casual right is Chop Shop Casual Urban Eatery, with two east Denver locations. Part of the success comes from Chop Shop being early to the game, so it's perfected streamlined food and service over the past four and a half years. Food, even chef-y dishes like 48-hour short ribs or a bistro steak with sauce and a side, come quickly, and servers prowling the dining area seem to materialize out of nowhere to help you out if you need anything after your initial order. Budding fine-casual restaurateurs should pay a visit and pay attention if they don't want to end up confusing or annoying future customers.
Wood-Burning Grills and Ovens
There's nothing more satisfying than a flame-kissed steak or pizza hot from a wood-burning oven that carries just a hint of smoke and char. But not every restaurant needs to add more carbon to Denver's brown cloud, and not every dish benefits from oak, mesquite or hickory. We're eating indoors, for God's sake, so we don't need every meal to taste like a campfire. You can easily roast those Brussels sprouts, cauliflower or precious farmers' market carrots (another overpriced trend) in a regular oven or broiler without turning them into burnt offerings at 900 degrees Fahrenheit. Put down the kindling, Smoky, and pick up the sauté pan before you burn the place down.
Sometimes glowing embers and a little flame are required to give a pizza some old-world flavor, though, which is why you'll want to sample a slice at Cart-Driver, Pizzeria Lui or Marco's Coal Fired. For grilled meats with the perfect charred crust, Citizen Rail has what you need. And Safta and Ash'Kara are both turning out pillowy hearth-baked pita.
Keep Westword Free... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Denver with no paywalls.