COVID-19 has forever changed the landscape of Connecticut’s restaurant scene. But as the industry works toward a new “normal,” guests will see more innovation and a shift to new technologies as owners and chefs adapt to post-pandemic dining habits. Here, chefs, owners and consultants from around the state preview what we can expect when dining out in 2022.
Also: take a deep dive into this year’s Expert’s Picks for the 25 Best New Restaurants, and see the rest of this year’s Best Restaurant Awards, including lots more Experts’ Picks and the results of our Readers’ Choice survey.
Trend #1 — GRAB A BYTE
Restaurants are getting increasingly tech-savvy
Restaurants continue to face staff shortages, which several local industry professionals believe may be long term, or even permanent, as workers exit the industry for a variety of reasons.
One answer to fill the gap? An investment in more technology. “The restaurant industry has kind of been in the Dark Ages for many years when it comes to technology,” says Robert Marcarelli, the director of operations for Liv’s Oyster Bar in Old Saybrook, who also works as an independent restaurant consultant. The pandemic forced owners to embrace new technological options, he says. Online ordering “was a lifesaver for many people during COVID-19,” he says, especially restaurants that had yet to implement it.
Restaurants and breweries have also implemented on-site online ordering, with methods like QR codes that allow guests to access menus and order food and drinks from their smartphones. The Place 2 Be, a casual breakfast, brunch and lunch concept with locations in Hartford and West Hartford, is geared toward a millennial audience and encourages QR-code orders at its three restaurants. “I believe right now, with the continued shortage in employees across the industry, that more and more restaurants will lean toward ‘order and pay,’ ” says The Place 2 Be owner Gina Luari. “This is something that has allowed us to function and meet customer volume demands even with shortages.”
The Place 2 Be doesn’t have designated “servers” to bring the food and drinks to tables. Everyone on the team is classified as support staff, rotating out different positions. Luari says this has helped attract employees, because she offers minimum-wage pay, plus pooled tips, to everyone on staff, including dishwashers and other back-of-the-house roles. “It really leans into a team mentality and has changed the work culture in our restaurants,” she says.
The technology also accelerates the time it takes for diners to receive their food. Regulars will put in their orders as soon as they sit at the table, she says, and the food arrives in an average of 15 minutes. Even new customers can quickly locate an item they may have seen on the restaurant’s Instagram by searching The Place 2 Be’s online ordering function, which has photos of every dish. — LG
TREND #2 — TO-GO TO STAY
Takeout and delivery remain critical
When the first pandemic shutdown went into effect, even restaurants that weren’t accustomed to takeout had to think quickly and get food into to-go containers.
That isn’t going away, Marcarelli says, and he’s noticed restaurants are even rethinking their interior design to reflect the shift in business. “Traditionally, you’d have a much bigger dining room and as small of a kitchen as possible,” he says. “Restaurant owners are now taking a look at developing bigger kitchens than normal, so they can accommodate more takeout or delivery.”
While delivery was “a lifesaver” during COVID, Marcarelli says, restaurants remain frustrated by the fees associated with national third-party services like UberEats, DoorDash and GrubHub. He thinks they may gravitate more toward Connecticut-owned delivery services or take on the task with their own employees.
Support your local restaurants by ordering through one of these Connecticut-based delivery services:
Dine In Connecticut (Greater Hartford area)
Shoreline Menus (Branford to New London)
Waiter Wheels (Greater Hartford area)
TREND #3 — FORK IT OVER
Your wallet may take more of a hit
It’s no secret that restaurants are facing rising costs at every turn. Supply-chain disruptions have caused problems with product availability, and prices have spiked for proteins like chicken wings and beef, along with cooking oil and paper products.
Liv’s Shack and Liv’s Dockside, seasonal summer restaurants in Old Saybrook and Clinton known for lobster rolls, also had to “go up significantly” in price for that item as the cost of lobster rose precipitously, Marcarelli says. But that didn’t slow the demand for the summer tradition. “We have an eight-ounce lobster roll on the menu, and it was in the [$40 range],” he says. “And people [were] still lining up to get it.”
Chef-owner Tyler Anderson, whose restaurants include Millwright’s in Simsbury, thinks restaurateurs will be raising prices across the board in the near future. He says the Millwright’s menu pricing hasn’t changed much from its opening day in July 2012. “What’s happened with restaurants is that we’ve just competed with each other to the point now that the margin is razor-thin,” he says.
At The Place 2 Be, where the menu focuses on lower-priced breakfast and lunch items, culinary director Xavier Santiago says it would be especially difficult to raise prices. “I don’t want to start charging astronomical prices for breakfast, because that’s just not fair for the guests,” he says. “But at the end of the day, we’re also a business. So we’re going to go up what we can, but also keep it as low [as possible] so our guest doesn’t suffer.” — LG
Trend #4 — A TASTE OF THE WORLD
International flavors are hot
The National Restaurant Association’s 2022 culinary forecast report identified Southeast Asia, South America and the Caribbean as the top three regions influencing menus over the next year. In addition, the top three trends in condiments, spices and seasonings include gochujang (Korean fermented red chili paste), Tajín (a Mexican chile-lime salt) and harissa (a hot chili pepper paste, originally from Tunisia).
“I think the American dining public becomes more and more savvy every year,” Anderson says. “You’ll see more interesting things on the shelves of average Americans, and restaurants need to stay ahead of that. Our job is to provide something that people can’t or don’t want to cook at home.”
Anderson says Southeast Asian cuisine will “definitely” be a factor in 2022. “It’s delicious, it’s relatively inexpensive to prepare, and you have a lot of fixed costs with that, that won’t be affected by inflation. I think you’ll see a lot of menus go that way.”
Carlos Perez, executive chef at @ the Corner in Litchfield, says he thinks “trendy, intercontinental fresh food” will be big in the next year, with contemporary Mexican and Korean cuisine taking off. He also thinks restaurants will continue to explore different cuisines and themes through pop-up events, like one he hosted in September 2020 that fused Mexican and Japanese sushi and tacos. That pop-up helped inspire @ the Corner’s new restaurant, ATC South St., featuring tacos, small plates like ceviche and tamales, and tropical drinks with tequila, mezcal and rum. Perez pointed to the success of similar creative Mexican and taco concepts, like Don Memo in Westport and Toro Loco in Farmington. “I think that [style is] going to stick around for a while,” he says.
Santiago thinks Latin-American flavors are primed to “pop.” He’s hoping to bring tastes of Puerto Rico, Colombia, Venezuela and the Dominican Republic to future concepts within The Place 2 Be’s ownership. He and The Place 2 Be’s culinary team have started experimenting a bit already on the brunch menu, with a new churro French toast. — LG
A Korean fermented red chili paste, gochujang is spicy, savory and even a touch sweet. It’s used as a base for Korean stews and as a marinade for meats, and it kicks up dipping sauces. In early 2021, Shake Shack ran a limited-time fried chicken sandwich with gochujang glaze and kimchi coleslaw, along with a gochujang mayo sauce for fries and chicken bites.
The Mexican chile-lime salt — tangy and citrusy with a slight pop of heat — traditionally livens up fruit salads, vegetables and elote (Mexican corn slathered in mayo and topped with cotija cheese.) The National Restaurant Association’s 2022 forecast report suggested Tajín might also become a go-to seasoning for spiced cocktail rims.
The hot, smoky red chili pepper paste hails from Tunisia and it’s a natural fit for grilled meats, shakshuka (eggs poached in a spiced tomato sauce) and sauces. At Zohara Mediterranean Kitchen in West Hartford, harissa enhances grilled chicken skewers and a dish of Prince Edward Island mussels, and a charred octopus plate is prepared with harissa vinaigrette and sweet peppers.
TRENDS #5 & #6 — MEAT: THE CANDIDATES
“Cheaper” protein choices, plant-based foods …
The National Restaurant Association’s forecast predicts a shift toward less-expensive cuts of meat (chicken thighs versus wings; beef chuck versus loin). Plant-based burgers and sandwiches are also expected to be popular.
But Anderson doesn’t think it’s as simple as just choosing a lower-priced meat. Cuts like hanger steak and short ribs used to be considered “deals,” he says, but as they’ve grown more popular with chefs over the years, they can be increasingly expensive. “I don’t think there’s such a thing as a ‘cheap’ cut of protein anymore, unfortunately. Us chefs have kind of sabotaged all that,” he says.
“People these days aren’t going to pay $70 for a ribeye, or whatever it would be,” Perez says. “I don’t think we’ve even hit the peak of it right now. I think things are going to get a lot worse as we head into winter. [Our purveyors] are saying we’re not out of the woods.”
At @ the Corner, which has a build-your-own burger option, Perez offers a plant-based Impossible burger for guests to customize with their choice of toppings. “They started taking off, now that people know we have them,” he says.
As far as plant-based foods, Anderson says he believes in vegetarian items, making a point to carry meatless options on his menus (like a recent mushroom Bolognese with herb ricotta at Millwright’s). He also suspects vegetables will play a larger role in entrées.
… and new cuts of meat
As restaurants get creative with menu swaps, introducing less-expensive or more readily available proteins, new items may become more than a temporary replacement.
Wingstop, a national chicken-wing chain, introduced “Thighstop,” a virtual brand, last summer as wing prices spiked and supply suffered. The company took advantage of the lower-priced cut to offer crispy, bone-in chicken thighs and “thigh bites” in its 11 different sauce and dry rub flavors.
Local restaurants like Stratford’s Windsock Inn and Little Pub successfully crafted new dishes that may stay on the menu once supply concerns have stabilized. The Windsock Inn reimagined its beef stew with pork instead, and Little Pub introduced “sticky nuggets,” chicken breast pieces coated in General Tso’s sauce, to replace wings. “If we took the sticky nuggets off of our menu, a lot of people would be disappointed,” owner Douglas Grabe says. “So those are there to stay.” — LG
Trend #7 — GREAT OUTDOOR DINING
Expanded outdoor dining is here to stay (hopefully!)
In the spring of 2020, during the first few months of the pandemic, Gov. Ned Lamont signed executive orders helping loosen town and city zoning requirements so that restaurants could more easily expand outdoor dining options. Connecticut lawmakers agreed to extend the relaxed outdoor dining rules through March 2022. So for a second summer, cities and towns like New Haven and West Hartford carved out corrals for restaurant tables in street parking spaces and sidewalks. Owners who invested in plastic igloos, greenhouses, cabanas and other heated, ventilated spaces brought them back again in the fall of 2021, presenting them as desirable amenities offering enjoyable cold-weather experiences.
But restaurateurs like Anderson, who made dramatic changes to their outdoor spaces, are hoping for more clarity on the matter so they can plan for the future. “I would hope it goes forward in some way,” Anderson says. He and his Millwright’s team created individual dining spaces on the bridge that stretches over a picturesque waterfall outside the restaurant. And for the second consecutive winter, he’s also offering private heated “greenhouse” structures as an outdoor dining option.
But once that executive order expires, he doesn’t know what the future looks like for his outdoor spaces. He’s hoping lawmakers and officials will continue to be flexible. “If we’re given permission to move forward [permanently] on some of these, we can do them even better, make them nicer, make them safer,” he says. “But the process should start now, or soon, so we’re not wondering what we’re going to do next year.”