Restaurant image created by OpenAI's DALL-E with the intentionally vague prompt "Paint a whimsical image inspired by current restaurant trends."

Here come 2024’s restaurant trends, like ‘em or not!

By Robin Garr

Well, here we are. It’s 2024, another year has gone into the history books. We’re at that annual point when we talk about New Year’s resolutions (and how quickly we break them).

This is also when we fondly remember that jolly old Roman deity Janus. whose name gave us “January” because he bears a face on both sides of his head: One to look forward and one to look back.

So let’s Janus-ize a bit in this January column – as food writers often do at this time of year – peering briefly backward and gazing deeply forward at trends and developments on the restaurant scene.

The Roman deity Janus, January’s namesake, c.1569 print from the New York Public Library collection.

Frankly, I said “briefly” backward because who wants to think about 2023 anymore? The pandemic sort of ended, only it didn’t. Prices went up, so did the economy, but we’re not feeling it, so we’re blaming Joe Biden even though we like his likely opponent even less. And Covid? It’s over, right? Got yer vaccinations? But the latest variant seems to be firing up again, and nobody wants that.

Louisville lost some restaurants last year. We’ll particularly miss the Nigeran delights at Funmi Cafe and the Italian-American comfort food at Come Back Inn. But the overall toll didn’t look devastating, particularly since a coupld of the closures pivoted immediately into welcome successors: Wiltshire on Market gave way to Meesh Meesh, one of the best new spots to come along for a while; and Napa River Grill essentially rebranded as Osteria Italian Seafood without an ownership change.

In addition to Meesh Meesh and Osteria, some noteworthy arrivals included Nami, a modern Korean spot in top chef Edward Lee’s portfolio; Enso in Clifton, a Japanese-influenced spot from the folks who brought us Schnitzelburg’s North of Bourbon; Nostalgic on Bardstown Road, a cousin of the popular Naive in Butchertown; also in Butchertown, Decade, whose name signals its sentimental connection with the departed Decca in Nulu; and Paseo in the new Myriad Hotel on Baxter.

Pandemic, economy, whatever: That feels like a pretty typical year, with about as many gains as losses, despite concerns about supply and labor challenges and rising costs.

So what does the coming year hold for the eats biz? A couple of weeks ago we talked about the positive effects of bourbonism, tourism, and new hotels in building activity for local restaurants and other businesses too.

For better or for worse, what other developments are we likely – or would we like – to see?

To get a handle on the local scene, I sought advice from my social media circles. As usual, I got an extensive wish list, along with a couple of wish nots.

Too many tacos. Several people expressed a desire to see tacos return to their intended status as simple, inexpensive street fare from taquerias. “I’d be happy to see less flashy Taco places,” said one. “I griped before about the tacopalooza tsunami sweeping through the area,” added another.

With a couple of local Taco Luchador shops evolving into Señora Arepa outlets, it appears the industry may be listening. What’s more, on the national level, Nation’s Restaurant News foresees an increase in Venezuelan restaurants, driven by refugees from the economically torn South American nation, among its trends to watch in 2024

Aesthetic cafe culture. After a trip to Korea, a LEO Weekly editor returned home aching to see more of this in Louisville. “working cafes, themed cafes, sleek modern cafes. good coffee and nice snacks … Even the Starbucks in Korea offered a much elevated experience and menu over any around here.”

Plant-based, cruelty free. Several friends wished there were more vegetarian, vegan, “healthy cruelty-free” options around; one even longingly hoped for the arrival of lab-grown meat. I’m seeing more creative plant-based entrees turning up on regular menus, and it’s great to see that choice developing. We’re moving past the days when the sole vegetarian option was a selection of side dishes, but there’s still room to grow.

Evergreen wishes. So many simple notions return year after year. Maybe some day they’ll resonate. A real Jewish deli! A German restaurant, now that Gasthaus has gone! A French bistro! A real Greek eatery! And, of course, more soundproofing, less noise!

Finally, to get outside our local bubble, I skimmed through some prognostication and trend forecasts from industry sources: Nation’s Restaurant News, The American Restaurant Association, Food & Wine magazine, and more. A lot of this was business- and finance-related inside baseball, but these insider views still gave us plenty to, um, chew on.

A random few:

Tomato everywhere. Trend watchers see the versatile tomato as the key ingredient for next year. Consumer and menu research firm Technomic sees 2024 as the “year of the tomato,” looking for this humble fruit to appear in unexpected places like dessert or as a meat replacement.

Cooked cheese. The National Restaurant Association;s annual What’s Hot trend forecast sees baked or similarly heated cheeses such as Swiss raclette, Greek halloumi, and Tex-Mex queso fundido as a significant trend in 2024.

Indian goes fancy. Trend watchers have been waiting for Indian cuisine to really take off in American dining for decades, Nation’s Restaurant News wrote in its 14 restaurant industry predictions for 2024, and it seems to finally be happening. Medium- to high-end independent Indian restaurants are opening across the country. It may have already arrived here in eateries like Tandoori Fusion and another new spot coming soon.

And, in a final trend that I’ll have to see to believe, Ammonium chloride. This is the chemical that imparts its distinctive licorice flavor to salmiak, a Nordic treat. Given Gen Z’s penchant for trying new things, and their pleasure in consuming energy drinks that some of their elders have described as tasting like sweetened battery acid, Nation’s Restaurant News wrote, you have the potential for a whole new polarizing flavor profile.