A Resurgence of Retro Food Ideas for Restaurants

What’s old is new again, thanks to modern twists on tried and true customer favorites.
Artisan muffin and cream

Retro foods that go back a generation or more are hot on today’s menus. Chalk it up to nostalgia, a shaky economy, or maybe just enthusiasm for Mad Men.
Whatever the reason, retro foods that go back a generation or more are trending on today’s menus. Creative operators are ramping-up flavors and employing different ingredients to put a new spin on old-fashioned comfort foods.

We’re seeing the resurgence of foods that were popular when baby boomers were young, and also in old-style Southern regional cuisine. Restaurants like Big Jones in Chicago are positioning old Southern dishes as ‘artisanal retro,’ and listing their history on the menu.

Tapping into this trend makes good business sense in terms of customer satisfaction and cost-effectiveness. Retro foods fit in with the trend of casualization and consumer demand for shareable, less formal dishes that are, largely, made from less-costly ingredients but provide layers of flavor. Moreover, many of these dishes are items that consumers can’t—or can’t easily—prepare at home.

Retro Foods From the Past

  • Fried chicken. Nothing can match the taste and texture of fried-to-order chicken prepared the old-fashioned way. Traditional pieces are popular, but boneless pieces provide an easier eating experience. On the menu: Bane’s Fried Chicken with Braised Greens and a Biscuit—Roberta’s, New York.
  • Meatballs. Entire restaurant concepts are now based on meatballs. Make sure they’re nice and light in texture.  People don’t want heavy, clunky meatballs. They do want a high-quality, interesting sauce. There’s a lot more innovation in cream sauces and broth-based sauces. On the menu: Naked Chicken Meatballs in Parmesan-Cream Sauce— The Meatball Shop, New York.
  • Sausage. Make your own or procure a high-quality sausage and make a plate out of that. Popular choices include: European bockwurst, kielbasa, and bratwurst; Spanish or Mexican chorizo; Middle-Eastern merguez; and Irish bangers. On the menu: Housemade Grilled Sausages (Smoked Chorizo, Andouille, and Curried Pork), Potatoes, Mustard—Acre, Chicago.
  • Macaroni and cheese. Use cheese blends that go beyond cheddar and offer add-ins such as kale, pancetta, crawfish, or sourdough breadcrumbs. Change up the pasta with non-traditional varieties such as orecchiette, cavatappi, or ziti. On the menu: Multiple-Choice Mac N Cheese with Burnt-End Brisket, Caramelized Onion, and Roasted Jalapeños—Public House, Chicago.
  • Pimiento cheese. This is a huge retro dish, combine cheddar and cream cheeses in a food processor, add diced roasted red peppers and serve it as a burger topping or a sharing plate with pita triangles or grilled bread. On the menu: Pimiento Cheeseburger with Fried Pickles, Pimiento Cheese, Bacon, and Red Onion on a Parker House Bun—Tipsy Parson, New York.
  • Deviled eggs. Create unique flavor profiles with relish or roasted  vegetables, crumbled chorizo, diced roasted red peppers, or start with pickled eggs. Maybe top a traditional filling with crispy, crumbled bacon, smoked fish, or scallions. On the menu: Deviled Eggs with Hot Sauce and Powdered Bacon— The Bedford, Chicago.
  • Southern beans and greens.  Flavor collards, mustard or turnip greens, and even braised black kale with a bit of ham or smoked ham hock, slow-cook them and serve with fried chicken, or a pork dish.  On the menu: Porchetta Plate with Beans and Cooking Greens—Porchetta, New York.
  • Grits. Serve flavored with cheese or other ingredients as the base for protein dishes. The Italian version—polenta— is also popular. Concentrate on the texture: use coarse or fine to achieve the desired effect. On the menu: Sausage & Grits on a bed of escarole—Milo and Olive, Santa Monica.
  • Pretzels. The popularity of snack items and sharing plates has given rise to items such as pretzels with bright flavor, sometimes with crunch, sometimes with a soft and doughy.  Rewarm commercially produced pretzels or prepare your own from simple pretzel dough recipes. On the menu: Warm, Soft Pretzel with Maldon Sea Salt, Smoked Gouda, and Cheddar Fondue—The Monk’s Kettle, San Francisco.
  • Corn dogs. “These are fair-style food, but people like them and they’re very easy to prepare.  Substitute flavored sausages, ground meats, or skewered crab cakes for hot dogs. On the menu: Stone-Ground Blue-Corn-Crab-Cake Corn Dogs— Stanton Social, New York.
  • Waffles. Waffles are finding their way into savory applications. Top waffles with fried chicken or pasta sauce, or even use them as sandwich carriers. On the menu: Waffle Sliders—Bru’s Wiffle, Santa Monica.

Getting Sweet On Retro Recipes for Desserts

Today’s popular retro desserts are simple, loaded with flavor, and taste like something grandma made.

  • Crisps. Mix sliced or chopped fruit—traditional apple, or other varieties—with brown sugar and butter, cover with a streusel topping, and bake for about 10 minutes in a soufflé dish or cast-iron pan. Serve made-to-order to reinforce your menu’s freshness message. On the menu: Caramel-Apple Crisp—Next Door By Josie, Los Angeles.
  • Bread pudding. Any bread, croissant, or cake in an egg-and-milk (or cream) mixture makes a nice soft bread-based pudding that’s easily prepared in advance and rewarmed. On the menu: Dark-Chocolate and Stout-Bread Pudding with Candied Pecans and Vanilla Ice Cream—The Monk’s Kettle, San Francisco.
  • Fruit and/or fruit-and-vegetable cakes. Think walnut or zucchini bread, not Christmas fruitcake. Hearty ingredients (e.g., dried fruits, brown sugar, oatmeal, and sometimes whole-wheat flour) produce dense, moist, and sweet cakes. Serve with some sort of sauce, icing, or ice cream. On the menu: Warm Date Cake with Ginger Gelato—Gjelina, Los Angeles.
  • Cream puffs. Purchase pre-baked cream puffs or prepare this easy, economical dough in-house. Bake a batch every few days and store (covered with plastic) on a rack. Drizzle with sauce before serving. On the menu: Sanders Hot-Fudge Cream-Puff Sundae—O’Mara’s Restaurant, Berkley, Michigan.

Retro Foods are New Again and Again

As you put retro dishes on the menu, continue to seek inspiration from the past, find ways to make them fresh, and choose the ones that are a good fit for your clientele. When it comes to food, there’s nothing new under the sun. Everything is a variation on a theme. In foodservice dining, dishes cycle in and cycle out, become fashionable, go out of style, and come back again.

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