Local restaurateurs are keeping a positive, post-pandemic outlook for 2021

By April Lisante
Posted 1/14/21

The year 2021 may just be the perfect storm for a restaurant revolution, an experimental food frenzy unlike any we‘ve ever seen.

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Local restaurateurs are keeping a positive, post-pandemic outlook for 2021

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The year 2021 may just be the perfect storm for a restaurant revolution, an experimental food frenzy unlike any we‘ve ever seen.

This past year, the industry suffered through an unprecedented plummet. We permanently lost stalwart institutions and we witnessed an historic wave of closures, restrictions and dining out experiences. We cooked at home, ordered take-out and wondered what the future held.

As the year begins, a trifecta of trends is emerging, and it may mean foodies will be in their glory once again. Health is on our minds. We are sick of cooking at home. And we like take-out, but we might just be able to once again to eat food inside a restaurant, instead.

The foods we seek to eat may be more vegan-centered, or contain more probiotics and healthful components, like walnut or pumpkin seed oil in lieu of olive oil, according to food predictions from Whole Foods.

It also means we’ve been craving a nice meal out with some serious table service and some chef TLC. While chefs nationally predict a huge uptick in what and how they offer take-out options, they also believe diners will be seeking out personal, private dining experiences at restaurants, from special occasions to family gatherings centered around comfort foods.

And we’ve been experimenting with our cooking at home for months, and restaurants have taken note. Industry watchers predict flavor profiles will be ratcheted up tableside, with food and wine tastings, spicy condiments and heritage cooking, especially Hispanic and African American heritage foods.

With the state ready to open indoor dining again this week, and Philly scheduled to do so next week, I asked our Hill chefs and restaurateurs what they thought we would be seeing in 2021 as we try to dine out more, or experiment with new food trends. Happily, the year may provide fewer dishes to clean up in our sinks each night – and a foray into new ways to savor food.

“I think that with 2021, as soon as the vaccines are out and people are not afraid to go out, I think it’s going to be a stellar year,” said Jansen chef and owner David Jansen, who invested this year in outdoor heaters and a firepit, accoutrements which have kept his restaurant bustling through the New Year. “They are going to go out and celebrate. I’m sure social distancing will still be a thing, but I think that restaurants that survive and going to feel a lot of love in 2021.”

Jansen, like other chefs, is betting on the vaccine removing social restrictions, and restoring restaurants to their former lives. With that will come a return to the hospitality industry as it is meant to function, Jansen believes.

“I think in 2021 people are going to be appreciative to go out and have great food and great service. I’m hoping this changes people’s perspective,” Jansen said.  “Everything I was taught for 40 years in the hospitality industry was put on the backburner. What I’m looking forward to is the “trend” of shaking hands and hugging people. True hospitality.”

Once restaurants open this year at a greater capacity, clientele will savor the experience of actually dining in, chefs predict.

“I would say take out for the beginning [of the year],” said Campbell’s Place chef and owner Rob Mullen. “But I feel that once the pandemic is over it’s going to be back to business as usual. I feel like people are [going to] want a sense of normalcy again and that people miss the social interaction of restaurants and indoor seating.”

But when they do dine out, restaurateurs are well aware that health is first and foremost on people’s minds now, not only with how they sit to dine, but what they are dining on. There will be weight loss resolutions, but it is now more than that, it is changing the way we eat for health reasons as well. Couple that with the fact that people have spent ten months cooking their own cuisines and doing it in a healthy way, and restaurants have to step up their offerings, chefs say.

“We know right after the holidays everybody is [going to] be on a diet for a couple months trying to lose those extra pounds,” said Karla Salinas, of Karla’s Kitchen in Flourtown. “We are still getting more vegans than vegetarians and people are more into eating clean and healthy. People are really getting very conscious about food.”

For those who have been dining at home, chefs are hustling to hone their take-out menus beyond bar bites. They now have to get more creative to package more intricate meals, a near-scientific undertaking when you are trying to make saucy servings to go.

“I think we’re trending towards perfecting the take-out experience, making at home dining feel as close to the in-house experience as possible,” said Kevin Kilroy, chef at the Chestnut Hill Brewing Company Taproom.

But perhaps one of the most interesting trends to emerge this year will be the increased interest in Zoom cooking classes. While many mediums, from yoga to art, went the way of Zoom in past months, it may prove critical for local restaurants to offer the same client interaction. Mimi’s Café chef Carl Drake began Zoom cooking classes at the start of the New Year and has no plans to stop. His first class? Comfort food central. He taught a group how to make chicken pot pie and shortbread cookies.

“I’m offering Zoom cooking classes for groups of eight to 10 people,” Drake said. “The first one was last week and it was a huge success!”

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