We like what we like when it comes to dining out, but sometimes we're faced by a little too much of what someone else likes. Restaurant trends spread quickly based on what will bring in the cash, the customers and the thumbs-up reviews, but restaurateurs often don't know when to let go of a good thing that's past its prime — or to skip it entirely when an idea or a dish will do little other than annoy guests. Here are a few of our biggest peeves when it comes to restaurant trends. But we're not just naysayers; we're happy to point out the outliers who can still do the trendy things right.
1. Kale and Brussels Sprouts
Do you know why restaurants serve kale and Brussels sprouts? No, not because they're channeling your parents and want you to eat your greens. It's because these cruciferous (how's that for an unappetizing culinary term?) veggies are nearly as cheap as the dirt they grow in.
As you're chewing (and chewing) away at the fibrous leaves of either, consider why you just paid $8 or more for a handful of mulch. Baby kale in a salad? Perhaps, but don't even think of eating raw Brussels sprouts if you want your friends to stick around for the rest of the night. Deep-fried Brussels sprouts are an improvement, but show me a food substance that can't be improved from a good deep-fry and I'll show you...kale. Kale chips are the worst hoax perpetrated on diners in recent memory; they're nothing more than oil-soaked bits of charred paper with so little substance that the price per ounce generally approaches that of shaved truffles or saffron. And drinking kale? Green juices and smoothies have all the appeal of a backed-up garbage disposal. Plus, kale is a goitrogenic vegetable, according to some nutritionists, which means it can inhibit the intake of iodine by the thyroid gland — and it can also inhibit the absorption of other key nutrients like calcium and magnesium.
The exceptions: Believe it or not, kale is delicious when treated with respect and care instead of being masked by sweet salad dressings or blended raw into tastier juices. For a decadent brunch, try the oeufs Bénédicte at Bistro Vendome, a twist on classic eggs Benedict that balances the richness of duck confit and Hollandaise with the earthy bitterness of kale braised in tomato sauce. As the cooler months approach, more restaurants will offer cooked kale dishes, so be on the lookout for kale and white-bean soup, a staple at many Italian eateries, like the verdi e bianchi zuppa at Parisi Italian Market & Deli, which you can actually order year-round.
And for Brussels sprouts, head to Lowry and dig your chopsticks into a mound of the fried mini-cabbages anointed with Red Boat fish sauce at Masterpiece Kitchen. A dunk in the kitchen's own chili sauce adds sweet fire to the umami-laden sprouts.
2. Community Tables
Remember your junior-high cafeteria and the days of circling tables with your brown bag or plastic tray, looking for a seat where you could eat lunch without being subjected to the inane conversations of the jocks or popular kids? That's the restaurant community table, where notions of neighborliness quickly give way to resentment over the foodie who wants to photograph your food, the squawking toddler or the tipsy group that keeps encroaching deeper and deeper into your personal space. Couple that with industrial chic, DIY chairs or stools that are as comfortable as jump seats in a prisoner-transport van, and you can understand why we'd rather eat out on the curb than join in this misplaced form of "community-building."
The exceptions: Sometimes a community table is really just a second bar, like the lively community bar-rail at Hudson Hill, where you can grab a stool and chat with your neighbors without giving up elbow room for tipping back cocktails or tucking into a tasty slice of bacon-wrapped pork terrine. And at Kline's Beer Hall in Arvada, all of the tables are community tables — which is just fine for clinking pints and sharing the house-specialty sausages.
3. Spiced Rims on Cocktails
Whoever invented the salted rim on a margarita should be given a place in the Best-Things-Ever Hall of Fame. Salt-rimmed margaritas are essentially the original sports drink, with all the electrolytes, vitamin C and hydration you need for an afternoon of sweating it out in the hot sun on some of Denver's finest patios. But then someone decided to mix in some chile powder and ruined the party. Leave the Chile P for Jesse Pinkman; when combined with salt, lime and tequila, it's just an annoying lip-burner. And honestly, no other beverages should have a salted or seasoned rim; they're only pretenders. Any Bloody Mary seasonings should be in the glass, not all over it. As for all that other stuff — pumpkin-pie spice, doughnut sprinkles, dried orange peel: Just make it stop.
The exceptions: Micheladas and Clamatos preparados had their beginnings as timid beer-and-tomato mixes, but these Mexican imports have erupted into outlandish constructions heaped with shrimp, beef jerky and pickled veggies; they're often rimmed with chile-salt, lime juice, chamoy sauce and other lip-blistering ingredients. Just bring your lip balm and enjoy, because the wild combos of salty, tangy and spicy flavors are too good to pass up. Check out the roster of micheladas at Mariscos El Picudo on South Sheridan Boulevard or sip a booze-free Clamato preparado at La Changada on Federal Boulevard. If the salt is too much, just use a straw.
Keep reading for the rest of the list...
4. Mason Jars
Mason jars are rustic and homey — the glassy embodiment of the DIY, farm-to-table theme so popular in restaurant design over the past few years. What belongs in Mason jars? Pickles and preserves. Otherwise, kitchens need to can it with the layered salads, desserts and — God forbid — dinner items being stuffed into jars. The short containers are cute and make a pretty presentation, but ultimately we'd rather just have a nice slice of pie with a well-made crust than a reinvented version in a jar where half of the filling remains stuck to the sides. And Grandma wants her jars back so she can get back to preserving her garden harvest for the winter months.
The exception: The Fort has been serving Colorado's original cocktail, the Hailstorm, in Mason jars for decades. It's a version of a mint julep made in a container that acts as both cocktail shaker and serving vessel. The Fort Cookbook, penned by the restaurant's original owner, Samuel P. Arnold, claims that the Hailstorm was enjoyed by trappers and fur traders at Bent's Fort (the inspiration for the restaurant's design) as far back as 1830. At any other bar in town, beers and mixed drinks served in jars are just part of a tired trend that needs to go.
Octopus isn't exactly an overblown trend right now — and we'd like to keep it that way. Octopus is a difficult protein to prepare and cook, and should be left in the hands of those who have plenty of experience coaxing great flavor and texture from the often rubbery seafood. But a Spanish company recently figured out how to pre-tenderize raw octopus, and the product has hit U.S. seafood distributors with a bang. That's great for chefs and restaurants who can now create octopus dishes in a fraction of the time, since the sea creature no longer needs hours of bashing, boiling or braising to soften it up. The result, though, is that octopus is in danger of becoming the next calamari or shrimp, two seafood items that have been tortured over the years with every manner of culinary abomination.
The exceptions: Short of asking every time you order octopus, it's not easy to discover who's using pre-tenderized octopus and who's not. The problem isn't the product itself (the process involves only tumbling, sea salt, ice and water), it's the preparation. Pre-tenderized octopus can easily become mushy and mealy when overcooked — a distinct possibility when cooks are expecting the usual labor-intensive slog. That's not the case at Bar Dough, which adds a tantalizing char to its octopus dish and pairs it with an eggplant caponata, a natural considering the Mediterranean origins. And at Blackbelly in Boulder, the be-tentacled beast gets a simple sear before being presented with marcona almonds atop lightly dressed seasonal veggies.