Though the pandemic hummed in the backgrounds of our everyday lives, the availability of vaccines earlier this year encouraged a mood that passed as “normal” when it came to dining out.
Restaurants began reopening their dining rooms, inviting patrons back indoors, while cities grappled with ever-shifting virus realities.
At home, many of us flocked to TikTok for our entertainment, and that app has had a marked influence on food this year. From launching bona fide cooking stars to giving us 60-second recipes like baked feta pasta and a viral “hack” for leftover salmon rice bowls, the app was a welcome distraction for its users, helping to make aspirational home-cooking that much more approachable.
Elsewhere online, 2020′s cottage industry boom on Instagram spilled into 2021, as small businesses eschewed brick-and-mortar locations for an increasingly online audience. That trend shows no sign of slowing down.
While the food and hospitality industries continue to grapple with an uncertain future, The Inquirer’s Food team has a few trends we’d rather not see continue into 2022, plus a couple we’re hoping make an appearance.
Trends to leave in 2021
In 2020, the hype was real over the wave of big industrial buildings repurposed into culinary warehouses stocked with chefs in bare-bones kitchens sending food out into the world at the summons of phone apps.
At the press of button, delivery services would be dispatched to your door with massive burritos, hummus bowls, and roast chickens. Was this the future of food? God, I hope not based on the soulless and flawed meals I ordered recently..
During a pandemic era already overloaded with isolation, I can think of few things more dystopian or disconnected from the human touch that makes restaurants essential than the notion of an inaccessible and faceless ghost kitchen. Too often, there’s no one to call beforehand if you have questions about, say, avoiding an allergy, or a complaint about the inevitable mistake on your order only to be answered by this most discouraging shrug of words: “I’m sorry, you’re going to have to call Grubhub for a refund.”
A ghost kitchen seemed like the perfect stepping stone for entrepreneurs Dan Lee and Joe Liang of Farina Pasta and Noodle when their food truck fell through. Seven months later, “we barely squeaked out (of our ghost kitchen) breaking even,” says Lee, listing the fees paid to the delivery apps, the monthly rent plus the landlord’s percentage of gross sales. Lee is now the sole owner of Farina since it settled into a new brick-and-mortar storefront at 132 S. 17th St. “I do better now in one week at the brick-and-mortar storefront than we did in a month at a ghost kitchen … Plus, it truly sucks the hospitality out of the restaurant experience. There’s no smile.”
Yes, we may be headed for plenty more takeout in the cold months to come. But I’m spending my money on real restaurants, not ghosts.
— Craig LaBan
After spending several weeks in Europe in 2021, I quickly became used to closing a bill and walking away without thinking about the archaic, exploitative practice of tipping.
I was thrilled every time I’d dine in restaurants from Philadelphia to Napa Valley that ditched the tip lines and implemented 20% to 25% service charges on all bills. Whether the restaurant had Michelin stars or homespun classics, exceptional service was part of the experience, a professional skill that was valued and built into the cost of the meal. I’m still uncomfortable in fast-casual spots and coffee shops when a screen is swiveled around to ask me to add a tip. “Just add 20 percent to the bill,” I ask them.
Not only do service charges make it easier for me as a diner, it is a more equitable way to ensure restaurant workers are paid living wages. I respect the higher-end restaurants that require diners to prepay their reservations with the service charges, cocktails, and wine pairings already included. This makes for an enjoyable, relaxing experience, with no awkward splitting of the bills or math equations, while I’m basking in the delight of a great meal.
— Jamila Robinson
Gross-Out Viral Videos
At the start of 2021, it seemed like every other week, there was another gross-out food video riling up social media. My first memory of this genre of food entertainment, if you’re being generous, started with a Spaghetti-Os pie in January — a monstrosity of depressingly buttered white bread (inexplicably flattened with a woman’s elbows), pie crust, and garlic powder. The year devolved into countertop spaghetti or nachos, even toilet bowl ice cream sundae. Eventually, publications as varied as Eater, The Atlantic, HuffPost, and Vice covered the phenomenon, unearthing a twisted cabal (my words) of content creators who actively sought to make gross-out videos as some form of entertainment.
I personally hate yucking someone’s yum. People’s source of joy may not be mine, and that’s great. And yet, I find myself filled with rage when I see these videos pop up on my timeline. In article after article, it seems like that’s what these “creators” ultimately want — a heightened response. After all, in an internet economy in which a viral moment can mean cheap fame, these manipulative “entertainers” have mastered their weird, engrossing grift. Nearly two years into this pandemic, though, I can’t help but see only wasted food — what I’d like to see is these creators close the loop on their creations and eat it all, in one mukbang of their own design.
Then again, there is enough rage in the world, and if that’s the going currency these days, I’m fresh out; the mute option is my best friend.
— Joseph Hernandez
Things we hope to see:
Bright lights and Photo Ops
I often wonder why dining rooms remain so poorly lit when we inhabit an Instagram world where chronicling a dining experience in photos and stories is essential as placing an order.
Chefs are discerning when they choose linen and pottery, making perfect canvasses that best reflect their creativity, and many encourage customers to take pictures. Yet, many dining rooms are so dark, that the posts that crowd our social media feeds often look blurry, the colors murky, worlds apart from the stylish plating that arrives at the table.
Even tableside selfies are dulled by stark dining rooms, especially for those of us with melanated skin tones who often looked washed out or invisible in our restaurant shots, unless we’ve brought along handheld LED lights so that our faces — and dishes — show up.
Some of my favorite dining excursions in 2021 have included a photo-op, either in the kitchen or the dining room, where customers can pause in a brightly lit space, to best capture that moment. I’ve also appreciated the restaurants that have strategically placed lighting to recreate the best reflections of the plates.
Those beauty shots feel like a celebration, and closer to the professional images that restaurants and media organizations capture in the morning or at the golden hour in natural light, which is optimal for food photography.
What if chefs gave diners an opportunity to show off their experiences by adding more light?
Childish answer, right? But for the love of Pete, can we please find some way back to civility in our restaurants? Restaurant workers and owners have experienced wave after wave of temporary or permanent shutdown, while workers try to make ends meet however they can. Other restaurants, which have survived by the skin of their teeth thanks to outdoor dining, now face changes in streetery zoning, leaving their financial future in question. And loans meant to bail out struggling businesses aren’t enough, even as sales slow, labor shortages continue, and supply costs increase.
Customer entitlement is through the roof. Yelp reviews still expect long-suffering restaurants and bars to be operating as if business was normal (and normal wasn’t even good enough to begin with). Meanwhile, would-be customers flout civic mandates on mask and vaccination policies in the middle of a two-year-old pandemic, as if the host, bartender, server, or back-of-house workers implemented the policy just to inconvenience their good time. Restaurants have a long history of being a political battleground — from civil rights sit-ins to presidential diner photo ops — but Applebee’s, Cheesecake Factory, and Olive Garden are hardly the Alamo.
As we head into 2022, I hope that more people outside the hospitality industry show respect to those people working in food service, from restaurants to delivery drivers to grocery workers and everyone up and down the supply chain. They literally keep us fed and, therefore, alive. I for one am happy to tip more for the experience.
The push to embrace outdoor dining has been one of the greatest benefits born from the pandemic. It began, of course, as a means for this city’s restaurants to survive when they found themselves suddenly without full use of their dining rooms. And the added seats, both on sidewalks and in constructed shelters occupying parking lanes known as “streeteries,” have been a crucial source of revenue for businesses that may never fully recover from their losses since 2020. With more than 800 streeteries built across the city over the past two years, all that new al fresco seating has also helped us awaken another beautiful part of urban life: turning all that warm Philly hospitality outward into view has infused the needed energy and community that restaurants uniquely bring into our shared public spaces.
It has made the city more vibrant, more joyful, and more pedestrian-friendly with every parking space that gets replaced by a table of diners celebrating the opportunity to gather (relatively) safely and share a meal. You won’t catch me shedding a tear for the Philadelphia Parking Authority. The economic and spiritual value of keeping restaurants alive and our dining corridors vibrant far outweighs whatever parking revenue might be lost, plus annual streetery fees can easily help compensate. And with the current Omicron surge, I want to use these outdoor dining amenities as much as ever, cold weather be damned. I’ll be eagerly on the hunt for the best heater-warmed outdoor dining once again in the coming months.
That’s why I was excited — then also concerned — when Philadelphia City Council announced imperfect rules for making streeteries a permanent fixture on Philly’s landscape. With politics, there’s always a catch! I’m all in favor of strengthening regulations to assure those streeteries are safe and meet design standards (some of those structures are eyesores). But I’m skeptical about unequal access to streetery rights. According to a recent Inquirer analysis, only 500 restaurants within the core districts have automatic rights to maintain them while nearly 300 others outside the designated areas will have to plead their case to individual council members. And many missed the go-zones by an arbitrary block or two. Opportunity for pay-to-play corruption and favoritism? Don’t be shocked. I had no idea “councilmanic privilege” was also going to be on Philly menus for 2022. That’s one cocktail for the New Year that might be hard for many to swallow.