20 local chefs forecast what's next for NYC dining

Three words: More meal kits!

Written by
Christina Izzo
Outdoor dining at Oiji
Photograph: Oiji

From the death of indoor dining to the rebirth of outdoor eats, New York restaurants got one steaming-garbage surprise after another in 2020. Now, the city's cooking talents are looking to the new year with hopeful eyes, street smarts and some soothsayer foreknowledge. Here are the food-trend predictions, continued innovations and state-of-the-industry updates that NYC chefs and restaurant owners foresee for 2021. 

Richard Zaro, founder of Cutlets Sandwich Co.

"As we enter 2021, I expect we'll see diners continuing to seek out nostalgic comfort foods in an attempt to retain a sense of normalcy. Especially this winter, people will be looking to surround themselves with foodslasagna, sandwiches, chicken noodle soupthat transport them to a pre-COVID sanity."

Jonah Miller, chef-owner of Huertas

"Last year, we started connecting with our guests in two brand-new ways for us, both which we think will be critical to our success in 2021: virtual classes and subscriptions. We teamed up with Table22 back in August to create Huertas subscriptions and have been really pleasantly surprised by their steady growth. These subscriptions have allowed us to expand our reach by delivering our favorite wines, cheeses and Spanish seafood conservas to diners all around the city and beyond."

Nozomu Abe, chef of Sushi Noz and Noz Market

"We believe that one of the main trends of 2021 will be the pursuit of sustainability. The team at Sushi Noz has committed itself to trying to be as sustainable as possible. We have been fortunate to open the Noz Market, which has allowed us to use every last bit of all the fish we bring in house—whether it be the shrimp heads that normally get thrown away, that now get used in our bouillabaisse, or every last fish bone that goes into dashi for our miso soup, or every clam shell that goes into our clam chowder. Our main focus this year is to promote sustainable practices to the best of our capacity, and attempt to be a zero waste establishment. I believe that we’ll be seeing a lot more restaurants trying to go in this direction this year, as well as more ghost kitchens and take-out only restaurants, which have proven to be the stars of the pandemic."

Franklin Becker, chef of Shai and Universal Taco

"Delivery will continue to play an important role in day to day life. I'm excited to predict ethnic foods will be all the rage as travel has been limited. Comfort foods as well as celebratory dining will see the biggest increases in business."

Gabriel Kreuther, chef and co-owner of Gabriel Kreuther

"People will be more interested than ever where their food comes from: Is it from nearby? Was it grown and raised properly? Everyone will want less fuss, but will want it to be of high quality, a definition that is changing. All the heirloom grains will be very big in 2021, as well as different sources of protein not from animals: Mushrooms, nuts, and beans. On an opposite note, duck has really taken off, so we see it continuing as an alternative in the new year." 

Frank Castronovo and Frank Falcinelli, chefs-owners of Frankies Spuntino Group

"Saying that these last ten months have been a delight would be pushing it, but various doors have opened—like the subscription service Table 22—that have shown us how to share Frankies beyond the walls of our restaurants. It’s hard to think that we will collectively turn our backs on the ritual of sitting down at a restaurant, but it’s good to know that there are ways to evolve—even if what got us there was a nice, big kick in the nuts."

Guy Vaknin, chef-owner of Beyond Sushi

"Restaurateurs will be working tirelessly this year to perfect their delivery and to-go options. Having a menu filled with dishes that travel well and are packaged to perfection will be key. Comfort food will be what New Yorkers want in 2021 and that's one of the reasons I'm opening a new concept with vegan comfort cuisine as the focus later this month. And by the end of the year, I predict that restaurants will go back to normal."

Michael Ayoub, chef-owner of Fornino

"The new dining thread is going to be bringing restaurant-quality, value-driven family meals to customers at home. As long as indoor dining is risky, people will want to stay at home and warm-up and serve family options. Curated DIY offerings with instructions on how to cook a memorable meal from your favorite restaurant at home will be the trend. Affordability will also be a factor, so we made sure that our Heat and Serve packages are $20 per person for a three-course meal." 

Benjamin Prelvukaj, co-founder of Benjamin Restaurant Group

"People are tired of cooking at home and ordering takeout. I anticipate one of the biggest trends we'll see in 2021 is a major return to groups dining out together once vaccinations are fully ramped up and restrictions are lifted in the months ahead. There's going to be such pent-up demand to eat and drink with your family and friends after getting through this difficult time."

Bobby Yoon, owner of Yoon Haeundae Galbi

"Spicy food! It's been said that when people are stressed or depressed they eat spicy foods to help release happy hormones in the brain. Given the current state of the world as a result of COVID, diners will explore their spicy palates even more than before. I think we'll see a rise of interest in Szechuan, Thai and Korean cuisines. At Yoon, this means a focus on our sleeper hits, our stews, noodles and rices." 

Grayson Schmitz, executive chef of Old John’s Luncheonette

"People may start to eat more immune-boosting super foods in hopes of staying as healthy and well as they can while navigating through this pandemic. We’ve learned so much more about this virus and it’s a fact that it preys on the immunocompromised. As much as I’d like to say I predict rich, opulent indulgence, I foresee healthier options being more readily available from our favorite restaurants. I definitely plan on adding more immune-conscious items to the menu this year as a result."

Barbara Sibley, chef-owner of La Palapa Cocina Mexicana

"Anyone thinking about trends in 2021 cannot discount what we have seen in 2020. There has been more bread baking and cooking done in New York City kitchens than ever. Typically, New Yorkers don't cook much at home and we all love to go out to eat. In 2021, these two things will come together. As soon as we are able to go out to eat New Yorkers will be out on the town. We can expect New Yorkers to still crave fresh, home-cooked meals but be thrilled to have someone else cook and clean up the mess. So I think there will be a trend and elevation towards comfort foods that will extend beyond the shutdowns.”

Brian Kim, chef-owner of Oiji

"In 2021, we expect to see an acceleration of the trends that emerged in 2020. When restaurants adopted delivery technology for survival, guests gained easy access to higher quality ingredients they love and discovered dishes that can be enjoyed at home. Even though we know certain delivery staples will always be around (pizza, tacos, fried chicken, etc.), we see that guests want to bring their favorite dining experiences and beloved dishes into their homes, and they are craving healthy and high quality ingredients. The Oiji bowl (our sea urchin rice bowl) has been our top ordered dish for delivery during COVID. This tells us there is significant demand for luxury and quality, and packaged experiences that can be delivered and enjoyed from home."

Ricky Colex, executive chef of JaJaJa Plantas Mexicana and Galioto’s Delicatessen

"Since the start of the pandemic, people have been more focused on their diet and what they consume and put into their bodies. I think there will continue to be a focus on plant-based foods being added to restaurant menus. I think diners will start to see more vegetables used as center focus of the meal, such as cauliflower steak and even creatively in pastas and other dishes. Additionally, I believe more restaurants will be adding grocery items as part of their offerings and an extension of their establishment. We basically added Galioto’s Delicatessen to our hospitality group as a plant-based Italian specialty store after recognizing the need for both groceries and plant-based products, so we think there will be more options like this in the future."

Guy Kairi, chef-owner of Concord Hill

“I see a lot of chefs going back to their roots and training to focus their craft on the ingredients they use and what they can they achieve with them. I think it will be a very exciting year in New York’s culinary world with a lot of food that is more paired down but focused on quality and flavor, similar to what many of the most innovative chefs in Europe today do.”

Diana Manalang, chef of Little Chef Little Café

“Filipino food is still on the rise in my book. It’s been on the radar for a while but has not truly broken through to the mainstream yet. But we keep seeing new Filipino places pop up like Bilao and Kora, the Filipino doughnut bakery, both of which opened last year to great reception from diners. I may be biased but I also speak from my own experienceour Filipino brunch specials for New Year sold out this past weekend, as did a pop-up Filipino dinner last fall."

Renato Poliafito, owner of Ciao, Gloria

“I think there will be a return to 'pretty' desserts, things we aren't really able to do at home (and we have certainly been making banana bread and chocolate chip cookies ad nauseam). Not that those pretty desserts ever went anywhere, but there may be some more attention paid to them this year.”

Michele Casadei Massari, chef-owner of Lucciola

"I think that 'trust' will mean everything to restaurant customers in 2021, more than ever. Patrons will make choices about where they want to spend their money and show their loyalty. I decided to buy only from producers I personally know to make sure where and to whom my money (and client's money) will go towards. If I can't meet with them in person because I can't travel, I'm happy to wake up at 5am in the morning to hop on a call with a producer in Italy or somewhere else and check out their farm or vineyard via Zoom."

Mayumi Kobayashi, general manager of MIFUNE New York 

“An omakase tasting menu experience may be a trend for 2021, as it makes it easier for restaurateurs to forecast food cost in an economy where one has to be very cautious in cutting cost without compromising quality. Serving a la carte can be more challenging to calculate food cost and more difficult to avoid food waste with such limited seating, especially now with the NYC indoor dining ban. Omakase gives the chefs the flexibility to change the menu daily, so every visit will be different for the customers, and it is also easier to prepare when most restaurants are running on a skeleton staff.”

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