A YEAR IN MENUS
Food trends change constantly, and unless you really loved the cronut or were particularly smitten with poke, there's a strong chance your tastes have evolved just like everyone else's. We took a look back at food in 2018 and found some terrific and troubling changes to the national menu during the past year. If you want to go back for seconds, there's still some time.
BEST: PLANT-BASED BURGERS
The bloody, meat-like "Impossible Burger" was served in 40 restaurants worldwide in 2017. In 2018, that jumped to 4,000. Using a compound found in plants similar to hemoglobin, the Impossible Burger boasts the same protein and iron as a burger without all of the cattle-raising and killing. It's grown so popular that even Harold and Kumar's favorite chain, White Castle, has the Wu-Tang Clan promoting the Impossible version of its sliders.
WORST: VEGAN HEART-ATTACK BURGER
You've made a plant-based burger: Great. Putting it between two vegan glazed doughnuts and smothering it with agave mustard dressing — as one restaurant did at the New York State Fair — isn't doing much to help the cause.
BEST: HYBRID PRODUCE
This isn't exactly a new concept. Hybrid farming in the U.S. dates back more than a century, going mainstream with corn. But the more farmers experiment, the more chefs get to cook with kale-Brussels sprouts, pluots, broccoflower, and more on restaurant plates.
WORST: TAINTED ROMAINE
No, you didn't imagine it: Romaine lettuce had a tough 2018. Two major recalls made it the most feared leafy green in the country and will likely lead to a new labeling protocol, if not an entire overhaul of its storage and irrigation.
BEST: HONKIN' CUTS OF MEAT
As Bon Appetit points out, short rib, aged porterhouse, lamb shoulder, and even windowed meat aging rooms have made themselves more pronounced this year. With big-name chefs such as David Chang putting their brand on large-format meat, don't let the plant burgers convince you the age of beef is dead just yet.
WORST: CHIPOTLE, AGAIN
This summer, an outbreak of food poisoning affected hundreds of diners at a Chipotle location in Ohio. The problem was a bacteria found in the location's meat that gets particularly wily when that meat is underheated. For a chain that's struggled mightily with food safety issues, this was yet another setback.
BEST: UGLY PRODUCE
The firm Imperfect Produce has been peddling "ugly" fruits and vegetables up and down the West Coast since 2015, but community-supported agriculture and other companies are making a big push for "ugly" produce that's made it as popular as ever, even while amplifying debate about whether the movement is more hurtful than helpful.
WORST: MAC & CHEESE BURGER
This was the first full year of macaroni and cheese burgers at T.G.I. Friday's, and it was vile. The sandwich itself featured a fried mac-and-cheese patty, a burger (ground chuck, brisket, and short rib), beer cheese sauce, peppery mayonnaise, bacon, and some garnish on a sweet challah bun. The final tally on that? It hits 1,390 calories and 3,700 grams of sodium — the latter of which is equal to eating a full bag of potato chips by yourself.
BEST: FRESH QUARTER POUNDERS
McDonald's began replacing the frozen beef used in its Quarter Pounders with fresh meat and is testing a fresh chicken menu as well. Rival Wendy's still took the chance to point out on Twitter that the McDonald's menu still has a long thaw ahead.
WORST: HOT DOGS
"Is a hot dog a sandwich" was the argument that dominated 2018, but doctors honestly don't care what it is. The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine wants hot dogs and other processed meats out of hospitals. Not only are hot dogs a choking hazard for kids, but the group rightly points out that they've been declared a carcinogen by the World Health Organization.
BEST: HOUSE-MADE CONDIMENTS
The Nation's Restaurant News picked it as a top trend for 2018 a year prior, but Lebanese joints in Michigan and Indian spots in Northern California are joining barbecue houses in Kentucky in making their own ranges of spices and sauces. As more diners want to know where their food is coming from, more restaurants are willing to show them the process.
WORST: BEER-CAN CHICKEN SANDWICHES
It's tough to fault Arby's for experimenting with poultry, and we typically don't. Sous vide duck? Go for it. But not only is the science behind cramming a beer can up a chicken and steaming the bird suspect, but Arby's doing so simply to create a branding opportunity with Miller High Life leaves a bad taste.
BEST: WORLDLY BREAKFAST
Once you've had chorizo scrambled eggs or Saharan pancakes, why would you cook yet another benedict? As the Travel Channel pointed out, breakfast around the country has evolved into grilled fish, miso soup, steamed rice, Asian pickles, and seaweed served at New York hotels or shakshuka in Los Angeles restaurants.
WORST: ELF BREAKFAST
Chicago loves itself a pop-culture pop-up restaurant. It did "Saved By The Bell" a few years back, has seen restaurant homages to "Stranger Things" and "Wayne's World" in recent years and had a "The Office"-style pop-up this year. The Virgin Hotel's "Elf" pop-up, though, features plates of pasta topped with strawberry and raspberry sauces, marshmallows, s'more Pop-Tarts, M&Ms, Oreos, Fruity Pebbles, coconut flakes, syrup, and chocolate sauce — just like Will Ferrell's character ate in the film. Gross.
BEST: $1 COCKTAILS
It sounded really dumb, right? Applebee's dishing out $1 drinks to draw in customers and get those pesky millennials who haven't been kind to casual-dining establishments. Well, the move announced in late 2017 turned out to be genius for 2018. The chain just had its best quarter in 14 years and people actually seem to like $15 meals paired with spiked hummingbird feed.
WORST: $4 MEALS
The $5 meal deal is fast food's sweet spot and its biggest draw. Psychologically effective in drawing consumers and better for the industry, it undoes years of $4 deals and makes the 4-for-$4 meal deal now a dying breed. Declining restaurant visits suggest we're likely going to see even less of it in 2018 in place of more examples of the same food for a higher price.
BEST: TRASH FISH AND SEAFOOD
The National Restaurant Association was big on sustainable seafood in 2018, and companies such as TrashFish — which deals primarily in fish and seafood other than salmon, tuna, and shrimp — are helping broaden the palate. Monkfish, mullet, gar, amberjack, and other fish long avoided by fishermen are now the talk of restaurants.
WORST: BACON MAPLE CHICKEN SANDWICH
Wendy's can tease McDonald's all it wants about freshness, maybe because it doesn't really matter how fresh a fried chicken sandwich topped with cheese, maple syrup, and bacon is. That's still 680 calories worth of sandwich before you even get to sides or drinks.
BEST: FAT BOMBS
The ketogenic diet, originally created more than 80 years ago to help epileptics, is riding high. The idea is to go low on carbohydrates and high on fats to get the body to start eating stored fats. Restaurants and food trucks from Austin, Texas, to the U.K. make "fat bombs" now — a sign restaurants are acknowledging dietary habits as worthy of accommodation, including those people do to lose weight and make themselves overall healthy. Fat bombs are the most visible evidence of the keto diet's move into the mainstream this year.
WORST: UNINTENTIONAL FAT BOMBS
There's a difference between a "fat bomb" and eating badly. For example, the Arbynator is sliced beef topped with curly fries and cheese for 560 calories (before a drink or side), 25 grams of fat, 58 grams of carbohydrates, and 1,630 milligrams of sodium, which is 71 percent of your max for the day.
BEST: HERITAGE-BREED MEATS
Heritage breeds are traditional livestock breeds raised by farmers, and restaurants with their own farms have been putting them on the plate for some time. Berkshire hogs, Welsh Mountain Sheep, chocolate turkey, and white duck require a lot more time to raise and must often be slaughtered by hand, which can make them prohibitively expensive, but they're raised humanely and, according to chefs and farmers, taste far better than standard meats.
WORST: GROUND BEEF
This year, more than 6.9 million pounds of ground beef were recalled in 16 states because of a salmonella outbreak that sickened dozens of people. It was the largest beef recall in history for salmonella contamination — a danger when beef isn't cooked properly and potentially for those cooking with it or handling it.
The Korean mixed rice dish exploded from coast to coast this year, with beef, curry paste, kimchi, and egg showing up on menus and in Instagram feeds across the U.S. While it's been a big deal on the West Coast for a while now, its popularity between coasts is what's made this the year of bibimbap.
WORST: HAPPY MEALS
The good news is that McDonald's happy meals no longer contains cheeseburgers and now feature bottled water and healthier yogurt as options. The bad news? It's off the McDonald's value menu. At some point, a Happy Meal is just going to be a combination of water, yogurt, and a bag of Cheerios that parents simply bring from home.
BEST: UNLOVED MEATS AND CUTS
Chicken feet, pig ears, tongue, oxtail, and other cuts have been butcher secrets for cash-strapped cooks for generations. This year, the Travel Channel notes restaurants have been more likely to include new cuts such as Vegas Strip steak, Merlot cut, and Bavette. Not only does it give chefs a signature cut to work with, but chefs say it helps educate consumers about the animal they're eating.
WORST: TINDER TENDERS
You shouldn't have to go onto a dating app to get yourself some buy-one-get-one-free chicken tenders, but that's was Hardee's grand idea for 2018. It wanted people to go onto Tinder, look for chicken-tender-headed "Chris P.," and match with him to get a second helping of chicken. Tinder is enough to make most folks queasy on their best day.
BEST: NACHO FRIES
Taco Bell shouldn't be good at making fries, but never underestimate its commitment to helping those with the munchies. Dipped in a spicy seasoning and served with nacho cheese on the side, nacho fries began as a limited-time item before eventually returning. The combination of spice, thick-cut fries and cheese that isn't simply left to soak on the fries' surface is inspired, and late-night diners everywhere have reason to rejoice every time they return to the menu.
WORST: LOADED FRIES
The entire editorial staff of The Takeout banded together to declare that loaded fries — the soggy, sauce-laden excuse for a meal that does its best to kill the fries serving as its foundation — are awful. Casual dining chains love them, and Arby's, Jack in the Box, and A&W have embraced them too. The prediction that McDonald's may take its limited-release Cheesy Bacon Fries nationwide serves as warning that the fast-food industry is out to ruin one of its best offerings in as disgusting a fashion as it can.
BEST: SQUID INK
Yes, squid ink blackens pasta and rice, but also imbues it with an umami flavor that makes you wonder why you were slathering it with butter or tomato sauce. It's in tostadas, in flatbread, sprinkled into crumbs on queso Chihuahua, and baked into bread loaves. This is the year squid ink went mainstream, and it's beautiful.
WORST: ANTIBIOTIC BURGERS
Consumer reports and the National Resources Defense Council found that just two national chains — Shake Shack and Burger Fi — source meat without antibiotics. Overall, 22 chains including Burger King, McDonald's, Five Guys, In-N-Out, Jack in the Box, and White Castle failed, with Wendy's looking good with a D- for buying just 15 percent of its beef from producers who have reduced their use of the antibiotic tylosin.
BEST: NATURAL WINE
Natural wine comes from organic or biodynamic vineyards and comes to the table with no chemical additions. (That includes sulfites, which move wine to the "bio" or "organic" categories.) Jorge Riera, the wine director of Frenchette in New York, prides himself on his restaurant's natural wine list and explained the difference to Bon Appetit: "I think the food pops more with these wines than it does with conventional or traditional options because of the way the wines are made, with high acidity, low alcohol, and not-so-grippy tannins. The wine doesn't overtake the food; it's refreshing."
WORST: RAINBOW AND MERMAID EVERYTHING
Congratulations, you combined berries and matcha into something that looks completely undrinkable! Not only that, but you inspired Sam's Club, McDonald's, and the need for bakers to fuss over every tier of a cake individually. While there are good reasons to add color to the culinary spectrum, doing so strictly for the 'Gram blew out the color palate in 2018.
BEST: STUFFED CHICKEN WINGS
Tebasaki gyoza isn't easy to find in all areas of the country, but seek it out. It requires deboning a chicken wing while leaving the skin intact, filling it with fried rice or other stuffing then deep frying it. In the Northwest, even food carts make it, though it isn't hard to find in Thai, Cambodian, and Japanese restaurants, either. It'll be everywhere soon.
WORST: MEATBALL PIZZA BOWL
The Food and Drug Administration suggests eating no more than 2,300 milligrams of sodium a day. The Olive Garden's meatball pizza bowl has 2,500 milligrams, on top of 950 calories and 56 grams of fat.
BEST: SHAVED ICE
From Filipino halo-halo with fresh fruit, evaporated milk, ice cream, and other toppings to New Orleans sno-balls and dense Northeast water ice and Italian ice, shave ice gives ice cream reason to be nervous. Bon Appetit was all over this one, spotting Japanese-style kakigōri in New York, Korean bingsoo in Montreal, Tcho-chocolate-sprinkled, Taiwanese-bao bing–inspired shaved snow in San Francisco, and sweet Wailua shave ice in Hawaii and along the West Coast.
WORST: LOADED PASTA CHIPS
Loaded anything is a bad idea. First off, nachos aren't "pasta." Secondly, Italian cheeses, a three-meat sauce, and alfredo drizzle are a recipe for disaster. You're staring at 1,410 calories, nearly 2,800 milligrams of sodium, and a whopping 94 carbs. This is a new addition for the Olive Garden, but if it's hoping to draw repeat business, there are better ways to do so than by giving your customers a coronary.
BEST: PRETZEL DESSERTS
Pretzel is now in gelato, shortbread, and panna cotta. It's woven into brownies, into the crust of sweet potato pie, and into tarts. In a culinary world still in love with pairing salty and sweet, the pretzel is a near-perfect dessert accent.
WORST: CHEESY GARLIC BREAD
Like plenty of other pizza and Italian casual places, growing Northwest chain MOD Pizza dropped a cheesy garlic bread onto its menu this year as a "side," but didn't advertise that its 1,350 calories are higher than most of its pizzas. (Though this side basically is a pizza.)
BEST: THE FUSSY BREAKFAST SANDWICH
In some corners, like much of the Northeast and Midatlantic, breakfast sandwiches on kaiser or potato rolls made with farm-fresh eggs, meats, and other ingredients aren't all that uncommon. Ellē in Washington, D.C., subbed in smoked brisket to separate itself from the pack. Uproxx called the fancy breakfast sandwich "chef'd up," while noting that the high-piled sandwiches make great Instagram fodder. That's fine, but know that somebody who just walked out of a Jersey diner with a pork roll, egg, and cheese on a kaiser bun for roughly half the price is having a good laugh.
WORST: WALDORF SALAD
Waldorf Salad is a Thanksgiving staple for some that seemed to get an extra push this year. Shame it's based on a disgusting question: "What if we took these great seasonal ingredients such as apple and walnuts and doused them in mayonnaise?" The answer, as the California Pizza Kitchen's version can attest, is 1,320 calories, 94 grams of fat, and basically an entire day's worth of sodium — from a salad.
BEST: SPONTANEOUSLY FERMENTED BEERS
This would be fairly low on the "trend" scale for beer geeks, but for much of the U.S. — those who may never visit Brussels — spontaneously fermented beer is a concept hitting closer to home. There are now more than 7,000 breweries in the U.S., among them are an increasing number cooling brewing beer in broad, shallow, open vessels called coolships and allowing them to pick up whatever stray bacteria is floating through the air, combining with yeast and giving the beer tart, sour, or even fruity flavors.
WORST: LOBSTER MAC AND CHEESE
This has been a restaurant staple for a few years now, especially in New England, but it just arrived on the Red Lobster menu this year. The concept isn't bad — and is a great fit for Red Lobster, who we're surprised didn't do this earlier — but the 1,280 calories and 3,180 milligrams of sodium exceeding the daily maximum in a fairly modest serving is tough to stomach.
BEST: THE RETAKING OF FOCACCIA
This isn't '90s focaccia, which boho kids and retirees packing cafes dipped into olive oil and pepper and considered themselves the height of sophistication. This is wood-fired focaccia topped with olive oil, sea salt, and rosemary or parmesan, used as a vehicle for ricotta and tomato sugo, and pocked with blackberries and topped with balsamic vinegar — '90s nostalgia not included.
WORST: UNNECESSARY PACKAGING
In 2018, Starbucks (like other chains) went after the straw, pledging expanded use of recyclable lids instead. Produce departments are encouraging customers to bring their own bags, and single-use packaging is on its way out — this year, New York City banned single-use styrofoam containers by restaurants, following in the footsteps of Albany, D.C., Minneapolis, Portland, Oregon, Seattle, San Francisco, and Oakland, California. "Some movements start as trends, then become necessities," Whole Foods declared. "This is one of them."
BEST: CBD FOODS AND DRINKS
In Portland, Oregon, there's a cafe and tasting room dedicated to sampling products made with cannabidiol, though not produced from actual cannabis. There are CBD sodas and beers all over town. Other states that have legalized marijuana for recreational use have been slow to jump aboard with CBD, which eliminates the "head high" of cannabis. Even Oregon isn't down with restaurants cooking with the stuff if it comes from cannabis, so we're still going to have to wait a while for a broader sampling of foods and beverages. Thus far they're doing just fine in their niches.
WORST: BEEF BACON RANCH QUESADILLAS
Among the things you aren't going to find in a traditional Mexican quesadilla? Bacon, nasty ranch dressing, and roughly 1,850 calories, 140 grams of fat (including 48 grams of saturated fat) and 4,000 milligrams of sodium, which is what Chili's is selling.
BEST: KATSU SANDWICHES
Basically a Japanese fried pork sandwich, the Katsu sandwich has blown up, with Bon Appetit more or less anointing it sandwich of the year. Serve it with a layer of Jamon Iberico or put it on a bed of cabbage, the best part is that this panko-crusted wonder is really just an homage to schnitzel. The best new sandwich of 2018 is likely something your grandparents loved.
WORST: 1,000-CALORIE SALAD
BEST: GREAT GRAINS
Whole grains have been a staple of the Mediterranean diet (both the diet of actual Mediterranean peoples and the "Mediterranean diet" weight-loss plan) since the beginning, but they're only now becoming mainstream here. If you've had farro, often identified as spelt or einkorn wheat, you're starting to understand why these grains are replacing rice, more stout wheat, and other portions of the American diet.
WORST: DULCE DU LECHE CRUNCH PANCAKES
Denny's doesn't really need to do more than serve the staples and stay open 24 hours. This year, however, it dropped a 1,680-calorie meal on customers with a centerpiece of pancakes encased in salted caramel crumbles. Its 156-plus grams of sugar is more than a human should eat in three days.