1. Fast food grows up
The UK’s love affair with more upscale fast food – most notably burritos and the burgeoning better burger category – hasn’t gone unnoticed by the fast food giants. It may have taken the best part of four years, but McDonald’s is now piloting a new range of premium burgers called The Signature Collection. Burgers in the range feature larger patties and are designed to compete with the likes of relative UK newcomers Five Guys and Shake Shack. At around £4, they are priced at a small premium to the rest of the menu.
Meanwhile, KFC’s approach to design is increasingly sophisticated with spaces that could easily be mistaken for ‘proper’ restaurants and a Burger King in Bury St Edmunds has been granted a licence to sell alcohol. While plastic bottles of mainstream American beer (strictly one bottle per customer) isn’t exactly cause for jubilation, it signals the burger behemoth’s realisation that it needs to offer people more to retain market share. The freshly cooked, ‘build-your-own’ approach favoured by new entrants to the fast-casual market is also being copied, with McDonald’s rolling out kiosks that allow customers to create a bespoke burger and also providing table service.
So what can we expect this year? More collaborations between burger players and top chefs, for a start, following on from Shake Shack’s recent tie-up with Sat Bains and MEATliquor’s with Michael O’ Hare and Nieves Barragan-Mohacho. Also expect to see some top UK chefs working more closely with fast formats, a movement already happening in New York and California with the likes of David Chang, Andy Ricker, Daniel Patterson and Roy Choi bringing a better class of fast food to the masses.
2. Wine bars become cool again
Wine bars used to be places where people in power suits perched on uncomfortable stools and drank overpriced wine while picking at a sorry bowl of wasabi peas, but not in 2016. This is the year that specialist businesses tap into a growing appetite to learn about wine and – even more importantly – let people enjoy it in an atmosphere that is neither pretentious, intimidating or uncomfortable.
To some extent it’s already happening – step forward London establishments Sager + Wilde, Compagnie des Vins Surnaturels, Noble Rot, Antidote and Soif, with their friendly and engaging staff, carefully chosen wines with an emphasis on great, interesting bins that won’t break the bank and lots of options by the glass – and the next 12 months will see more venues opening that put wine on an equal, or even
elevated, footing to food.
The trend won’t be restricted to London, either, with Bristol’s recently opened Bellita already flying the flag for less (s)wanky wine bars in the south-west with its tight, pithily-written list showcasing interesting
wines made exclusively by female producers. Those that can help customers navigate the wine world quickly and easily without ploughing through lengthy wine lists that require an in-depth knowledge of obscure French villages will thrive. And such players also look set to influence the way wine is served in the wider restaurant world.
Move over the craft beer bar, the wine bar is back.
3. Mobile payments cross the Rubicon
There has been much talk about mobile payments in restaurants over the past 12 months, with some groups embracing the notion that people can settle the bill using their smartphone and others positively repulsed by the idea that customers might be able to pay and leave their dining room without so much as a goodbye and thanks for the lovely food. Well, 2016 is going to be the year when all this toing and froing is put to rest and restaurants finally realise that the ability to allow people to pay with their phone doesn’t mean the end of hospitality as we know it.
The introduction of Apple Pay has had a hand in this, as has the increase in contactless payments to £30, but the biggest catalyst has been the sheer number of companies that are promising to take away the hassle of payments with one flashy app or another. Like them or loathe them, a handful will gain traction this year, and when they do they’ll be no stopping people – Generation X or otherwise – paying with their phones and making for the door as if it was the most normal thing in the world.
It’s not even going to be the preserve of mid-market or casual-dining restaurants, either. With certain apps having the option of restaurants receipts being emailed directly to a person’s computer to help with expense account claims, restaurants that target the high-end business lunch or dinner are also likely to find themselves taking on the new technology. Diners need never again wake up the next day with a red wine hangover and no clear recognition of what exactly was spent the night before.
We’re not predicting dining rooms will instead be run by automatons, or that the end of the meal will descend into chaos, with staff unable to identify the dine and dashers from the mobile payers and maitre d’s wringing their hands because there’s no final flourish (customers still have to leave by the door so there’s plenty of time for that moment of magic) but rather that the nation’s dining rooms will finally join the 21st century. Now there’s an upwardly mobile idea.
4. The year of the taco
If 2015 was the year of the bao, then in 2016 it will be the turn of the taco. But we’re not talking about the crispy shelled abominations that come in Old El Paso cooking kits and which split the minute you pick them up, but the soft corn tortillas found across Mexico. And not just any old tacos, either; this year we’re going to see some pretty sensational creations being offered.
Last year Mexican food was finally given the respect it deserves in the UK, thanks to the likes of Wahaca bringing four of Mexico’s top chefs over here for a series of dinners and Lyle’s in Shoreditch hosting a guest dinner with Latin American culinary star Elena Reygadas. And while not everything will have captured diners’ imaginations (Hoja Santa leaves stuffed with Oaxacan cheese and grasshoppers might not be everywhere this year) one thing certainly did: proper tacos.
Street food operator Breddos Tacos has already laid solid foundations for the handheld snack, as have other places across the country, and this year interest in them is going to step up a gear. René Redzepi is currently obsessed with them, taking over ex-Noma pastry chef Rosio Sanchez’s Copenhagen taco stand for one night last November (he also cooked a mean taco at last year’s The World’s 50 Best Restaurants after party), and a book devoted entirely to their existence has also been launched. Said tome, Tacopedia, for which Redzepi wrote the foreword, contains more than 100 tacos recipes, in case you
thought it was a limited food item.
Wahaca, for one, is going tacotastic with specials every couple of months – the first for 2016 will be cod achiote taco with pineapple salsa and also a pork cheek one – and the Mexican chain has also just launched a taco bar at its Soho restaurant in collaboration with Sensacional, the collective behind Tacopedia, serving ribeye and cheese tacos with tomatillo salsa. It is even conducting some research with Mexican chef Santiago Lastra to determine whether a British grain equivalent of corn can be used to make British tacos.
And, if made properly, corn tacos don’t contain any gluten. Finally some free-from food to get excited about.
5. The return of reservations
When the (excellent) southern Italian restaurant Sugo Pasta opened in Altrincham last year, it wanted to mimic Italy’s walk-in trattorias. Like many trendy London restaurants, it did not take bookings. “The romantic idea is you build a reputation and people don’t mind waiting,” says co-owner Mike De Martiis. However as Sugo’s rep grew and people began to travel from around Manchester to this 25-seater, often with no hope of getting a table, that policy became untenable. “That’s not a great situation for us or new customers. You don’t want to piss people off,” says De Martiis, who was also concerned that an unpredictable flow of customers was inhibiting the kitchen from performing at its best.
First, Sugo introduced same-day bookings (“it felt even more complicated!”) before, finally, reverting to normal bookings, albeit of 90 minute slots to try and turn tables four times-a-night. Of course, no-bookings will suit some fast-casual outlets, but if it was once a statement of cool intent, restaurants are reassessing that.
Perhaps wary of the huge competition locally (diners can easily eat elsewhere), the new Evelyn’s in Manchester’s hip Northern Quarter and its near neighbour, the newly relaunched Common, are both on OpenTable. Likewise,from Kurobuta to recent opening, Canto Corvino, London, restaurants that might once have used a queue at the door to help market themselves, are taking reservations. M steakhouses even allows diners to choose their exact table in advance, so customers can elect for ‘superstar table 7’ instead of one next to the toilets.
Where once having a queue of people outside a restaurant was a badge of honour, and ‘managing the line’ was a thing, this year will mark the start of a return to old fashioned restaurant values where customers pick a date and time and show up, safe in the knowledge that they haven’t go to stand outside like lost souls for 40 minutes because of an operator’s desire for democracy. Even Pitt Cue will offer reservations at its soon-to-open second site.
Want to get ahead? Then get a booking system in place.
6. The rise of real tapas nationwide
Serious tapas – often better than the sometimes thrown together stuff served in Spain itself – has been available in London now for longer than we care to remember. But cross the M25 and the story is rather different. Whether it’s the poorly carved (and by that we mean hacked at) leg of jamon, cubes of potatoes covered in cheap chilli sauce masquerading as patatas bravas or myriad other Iberian-influenced indecencies, tapas restaurants beyond the capital haven’t seem to have evolved much since the 1980s.
“Ten years ago, I was banging my head against a brick wall,” says Simon Shaw, owner of award-winning tapas restaurant El Gato Negro. Shaw had recently opened his restaurant in a Yorkshire village, but his attempt to share his enthusiasm for nueva cocina and the creative energy sweeping Spanish cooking was inhibited by both limited customer knowledge and, but for a few key importers such as Brindisa, a lack of top-quality ingredients. He regularly flew out to Barcelona to fill his suitcases with produce.
Yet the tapas tide is finally turning across the UK. Small restaurant groups such as Bar 44 and Ultracomida in Wales; Friends of Ham, which has restaurants in Leeds and Ilkley; Lunya in Liverpool; and Levanter and Baratxuri in Ramsbottom, are popularising a new calibre of pintxos and tapas and this year many more, buoyed by people’s appetite for the real deal, will follow suit.
Shaw will reopen El Gato Negro in Manchester next month, and you can guarantee that soggy patatas bravas won’t have the impudence to grace its menu.
The rise of significant Spanish food importers in the UK and a growing number of tiny, specialist independents also means the supply chain is finally in place to furnish a nationwide tapas revolution. Moreover, a discerning, well-travelled minority of diners are desperate for the good stuff. “The love of Spain is growing. Spain is the buzzword. It’s the way people are inclined to eat these days, too,” says Shaw. “The idea of going out and having a starter, main and dessert is alien to me.”
From Battersea to Bradford, it seems, we are all Spanish now.
7. New wave soda
Soft drinks came under fire at the back end of last year, with Jamie Oliver campaigning for a tax to be placed on them in order to stem the rise of obesity. Such demonisation of fizzy drinks isn’t necessarily good news for the big companies, but it might be just what some of the smaller, innovative drinks players need in order to get a foothold in the industry.
One craze currently sweeping America’s street food markets and restaurants and soon to touch down here – most likely in Hackney or its environs – is that of high quality, and highly perishable, soft drinks that take the current trend for cold pressed juices and add a touch of sparkle to it. Such drinks are markedly different from the majority of premium carbonates already on the market in that they are prepared for customers on demand – using a kind of DIY Soda Stream to add CO2 once ordered – or sold as kegs rather than in bottles, partly because of their very short shelf life.
Not only that, but such drinks don’t tend to conform to the norms of flavour combinations. US drinks company Brooklyn Soda Works, for example, sells a range of flavours, some of which are highly seasonal, including Cucumber, Lime and Sea Salt; Redcurrant and Shiso; Grapefruit, Jalapeno and Honey; and Plum and Basil.
Not every pub or restaurant will be willing to switch some beer taps to premium soft drinks but, with soft drinks under the health lobby’s microscope, consumer are developing a thirst for better quality fizzies that are more fruit than sugar based.
House-made fermented drinks have also been bubbling along nicely in a few restaurants in the past year or so and their health benefits and interesting flavour combinations will put them further up the drinks list in 2016. A starter can be added to pretty much any fruit or vegetable juice. After a few weeks, the liquid will be lightly effervescent and the taste profile of the juice will have changed significantly, and usually for the better.
8. Shave ice
Ice-based drinks aren’t a new phenomenon, as anyone who owned a Mr Frosty in the 1980s will agree, with the Slush Puppie long reigning supreme in the UK. But slushies, whether neon pink or electric blue coloured from a petrol station or laced with tequila and served in bars, are made of crushed ice – and that’s so 2015.
This year it’s all about shave ice (the past participle is dropped for some unfathomable reason), which is basically ice shaved from a block that then has flavours added to it – not to be confused with a snow cone, which is also made from crushed ice. Big in Hawaii, where it’s often served in bright rainbow colours, shave ice has been given the artisan treatment in the US over the past few years with better quality, more natural (and generally organic) ingredients being used to flavour them.
What makes shave ice so attractive is that, done the traditional way, there’s spectacle in its preparation akin to that undertaken by high-end bars with their ice serves in drinks. Ice is hand shaved in the age-old manner from a block while the customer waits, with juice poured over the top afterwards.
Typically served to take away, there’s no reason why shave ice can’t be offered as a lighter option to ice cream or as an alternative to sorbet or granita at the end of a meal – or even between courses – particularly during the summer months. And, thanks to its ease of preparation, there’s no limit to the flavour combinations that can be served – in the US shave ice flavours include beetroot, sriracha, spearmint, honey, and rhubarb and vanilla.
Needless to say, alcoholic shave ice will no doubt crop up on a few menus this year as well, in keeping with us Brits’ belief that everything tastes better with a slug of gin.