It’s happening gradually, so you may not have noticed. Food sensibilities are undergoing a transformation.
Have you been to SweetGreen, the salad café that opened a few weeks ago at the Market Street mall in Lynnfield, with older units in Boston and Chestnut Hill? This just may offer an insight into fine dining of the future – with ambience and service that are decidedly casual, but offering food that is in every way fine.
The format of SweetGreen recalls an old-fashioned cafeteria-style restaurant. Walk up to the counter, order your salad, and follow it to the register as it’s pushed along by the young, upbeat staff, then carry it over to a table. The treat is in the quality and the novelty of the merger between fast food convenience and high quality food, and it comes steeped in the social values of the moment.
Remember French restaurants – those stuffy, hyper-expensive and overly serious places that were, in the Mad Men era, the standard for fine dining, even if no one could afford to eat at them? I’ve always thought this approach got food all wrong. The French chef approaches his craft as if he’s cooking for the king and failure means the guillotine. The Italian chef, by contrast, works from the heart.
As we’ve been learning that great food doesn’t have to be pompous, new influences have been added to the mix. Sushi, which would have scared many Americans out of their recliners a generation ago, is now served everywhere from supermarkets to Chinese restaurants. Like Italian chefs, the Japanese take their food seriously without treating you like an imbecile if you can’t order in their native tongue.
Shifts in taste can be seen everywhere. We’ve let go of Wonder Bread and begun to learn the difference between ciabatta, sourdough and brioche.
McDonald’s now struggles to attract customers as chains like 5 Guys and Shake Shack offer a unique concept – better burgers, cooked to order. And people search for the best fresh produce. Farm to Table carries more panache today than a flambé.
While we still have lots to learn in our march toward culinary sophistication, we are also becoming a world leader in food. We are taking the lessons we’ve learned from the rest of the world and are doing what America does best – we are innovating!
Many cultures don’t reward creativity, being too concerned with holding on to their traditions to allow experimentation. Tell an Italian chef to make his pesto with walnuts instead of pine nuts and he might shriek “You No Can Do!”
But America has no food history in particular, as driven by pop culture and built on an always-shifting foundation of immigrants as we are, we embrace tacos and tapas with an open-mindedness that allows us to absorb an influence and then reinvent it. Fusion is our game. Why not make pizza on a flattened bagel as is famously done at Katz Bagel Bakery in Chelsea? Why can’t bacon be a dessert topping? A deep fried “Cronut,” a donut made with croissant dough, created instant lines and trademark fights when it launched in New York in 2013 - and it sells for $5.
We love “premium” items, foods that up the anti on quality and cool, and we happily pay more for them. It started perhaps with ice cream, when Haagen Dasz and Ben & Jerry created a market for richer, adult flavored ice creams in place of Brighams or Hoods, but now, premium is everywhere. If you’re going to put a couple of hundred gratuitous calories or more into your body, shouldn’t they provide as much pleasure as possible?
The hottest food trends today generally connect to health and climate issues, unless they do the opposite. Young folks in particular gravitate to anything that can credibly be called sustainable, and everyone seems to be worried about their weight, cholesterol or food sensitivity. But other times we say “forget the planet, forget my waistline!”
We’ve become a more casual culture that has trouble stepping away from the smartphone for long enough to enjoy a two hour dinner. So the concept of “dining” is moving away from table cloths and fabric napkins and more toward comfort and a different kind of self-indulgence.
The old self-indulgence was based in treating ourselves like Kings and Queens, delighting in luxury because we could. Today, self-indulgence is a daily affair, and we seek the personalized indulgence of product adjusted to accommodate our idiosyncrasies.
Whether you are vegan, lactose intolerant, multicultural or in the mood to save the planet, restaurants are meeting your demands.
At SweetGreen, we can treat ourselves to salads like “Rad Thai,” listed at 375 calories and made with “organic arugula and organic mesclun,” greens that large swaths of the country couldn’t identify by sight. Other salads have names like Apples, Pears + Cheddar and Curry Cauliflower + Quinoa which reflect how adventuresome our tastes are becoming. A far cry from iceberg lettuce, red onion and a cherry tomato topped with Ken’s Italian dressing.
If the menu salads are too generic, we can have our meal assembled to our specifications. When I asked for a salad with no seeds or aged cheese, the young woman behind the counter cheerfully stripped off her stretchy gloves so she could wash her hands and arms to make sure she wouldn’t transmit any allergens.
Watch for standards of service and ambience to grow more relaxed while expectations for healthy (or fattening), high-quality foods from sustainable sources gain popularity.