Mahi mahi, either crusted with macadamia nuts or plain grilled and served with vegetables, is a popular fish menu item seen at many restaurants.

As budgets have tightened nationwide, restaurants have found success in appealing to consumers’ pocketbooks and stomachs at the same time. Guests want to feel they are getting the most value for their dollars. When they do eat out in 2008, the experience is likely to be one they consider a splurge.

Platters and combos give “splurge” restaurant meals variety and heft. Strong franchises build the need for platters into their concept, like Virginia Barbecue’s cornerstone Novice BBQ Sampler, which touts three separate barbecue styles: North Carolina, Texas and, of course, Virginia. Samplers and combos can be set at a higher price point, because they give diners the taste treat of several “meals out” in one experience.

Natural Appeal

Second, the number of Americans interested in “healthier” lifestyles continues to grow, along with interest in local, sustainable, “all-natural” and organic fare. Menus reflecting aspects of this awareness can be a major selling point for these consumers. For instance, Mimi’s Café this summer rolled out several new entrées featuring from-scratch preparation and trans fat- and cholesterol-free cooking oils. Offerings include:
* Citrus Broiled Shrimp & Fresh Asparagus--drizzled with basil pesto aioli and served with baby spring greens and strawberries tossed in balsamic vinaigrette.
* Mediterranean Chicken Fettuccine--tossed with fresh spinach, artichoke hearts and sun-dried tomatoes and served in a tomato-Asiago cream sauce.
* Orange Roughy or Mahi Mahi--crusted with macadamia nuts or plain grilled, served with vegetables, baby bakers or mashed potatoes and a signature avocado-artichoke salsa or lemon-caper butter pan sauce.

As consumers finally begin to heed nutritionists’ message to eat more vegetables, operators have found ways to incorporate veggies into classic menu items. For instance, successful operators treated pizzas as a canvas onto which vegetables could represent ethnic flavor combinations. Vocelli Pizza introduced several new selections that played to this idea. The Quattro Pepper pizza featured roasted red peppers, green peppers, hot peppers, cayenne pepper and mozzarella over a pesto sauce, establishing a spicy, Creole-influenced flavor, while the Olympian targeted Greek flavors using white sauce with spinach, roasted red peppers, black olives, artichokes and a trio of feta, mozzarella and Pecorino Romano cheeses.

Comfort Above All

A desire for unfussy meals and big, homestyle comfort foods may be a reaction to the newfound emphasis on healthy eating. Unapologetic, understandable comfort food menus can find great success. Arizona-based 5 & Diner capitalizes on this with entrées like its Chicken Tender Meal, which is accompanied by corn on the cob and honey-Dijon mustard, or retro-themed picks like the Cadillac Meatloaf, Ground Round Steak Stack and Mrs. Cleaver’s Pot Roast.

The appeal of a good meatloaf is perennial, but there is room for experimentation in regional and seasonal fare. Diners who are eating out less frequently than they used to can be lured by regional, ethnic and seasonal entrées they cannot easily prepare at home.

Exotic meatloaf preparations play to the dish’s comfort-food image, while exciting contemporary tastebuds:
* Jalapeño Meat Loaf--baked with fresh peppers, topped with traditional honey-brown gravy and served with fresh, spicypico de gallo, Black-Eyed Peas.
* Italian Style Meatloaf--Piedmontese beef loaf stuffed with mozzarella and Italian sausage and baked with sun-dried tomatoes, The Old Spaghetti Factory.

The surging comfort food in the pasta category was macaroni and cheese. Restaurants appealed to nostalgia, but often added ingredients to the titular duo:
* Macaroni and Cheese--with hickory-smoked bacon, breadcrumbs and parsley, Bakers Square.
* Macaroni with Four-Cheese Sauce-with porcini mushrooms, Charlie Brown’s Steakhouse.

Bob Evans added the draw of seasonal fare to the creamiest of comfort food pastas with its Garden Vegetable Alfredo, featuring fresh springtime vegetables like broccoli, carrots and squash. It built in several opportunities for upcharges with optional add-ons of chicken, grilled shrimp or salmon. Other pasta dishes showcase a luxury ingredient. Il Fornaio offered a rich Turtei ConAragosta--lobster-filled ravioli topped with shrimp and diced tomato in a lobster cream sauce.

These trends--a new value equation; natural and organic fare; comfort and convenience--seem disparate. Still, innovative operators found ways to appeal to them all this year.

Convenience Fare: Sandwiches and Burgers

Consumers want convenience. They want their food quickly and without ado, and they often prefer that it be portable--which is part of why sandwiches and burgers continued their perennial appeal.

Fast-casual restaurants offer diners an excellent middle ground between the service, ambiance and culinary complexity of full-service restaurants, with the speed and economy of fast food. While much of the rest of the industry had to adjust their long-term growth prospects downward during 2008, fast-casual operators continued to appeal strongly to cost-conscious guests hungry for something a step up from fast food. Fast-casual operators in the bakery café, burger and other sandwich-oriented segments fared especially well; chains like bakery café Panera Bread and big-burrito specialist Chipotle Mexican Grill dominated in this competitive field. One category reigns on their menus: sandwiches in their many forms.

Sandwiches--quick, satisfying and open to variation--are well-suited to the desires of contemporary consumers. And, the possibilities are far from played out. A recent Technomic survey found that 51% of customers crave more variety in the sandwich selections of full-service restaurants, and 39% want more sandwich variety from limited-service restaurants.

Operators taking advantage of the craving for sandwich innovation incorporated ethnic and regional influences--notably Asian, Caribbean and Southwestern--to set their sandwiches apart. Particularly popular were chicken-based sandwich options. Lean chicken appeals to health-conscious consumers, but the versatile protein also provides a blank slate on which seasonal and regional flavors can be explored. Some examples:
* Island Jerk Chicken Sandwich--sweet-and-spicy chicken spiced with citrus and herbs, topped with pepper Jack cheese and chipotle sauce, Shoney’s.
* Chicken Pesto Sandwich--topped with pesto, goat cheese and roasted red peppers, The American Café (Specialty Restaurant Group).

On the other hand, for all the talk of variety and experimentation, burgers remain consumers’ perennial favorite sandwich. The numbers do not lie: 85% of consumers enjoy a burger at least once each month, according to recent Technomic research. Unashamedly high in fat and calories, the bacon cheeseburger proved particularly popular in recent months, appearing on menus almost 18% more frequently the first half of 2008 than it did a year ago, Technomic’s MenuMonitor database shows. Country Kitchen introduced a defiantly named Big Bad Bacon Burger. Denny's rolled out an “All Nighter” menu of value items served exclusively from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m., including a Barbecue Bacon Burger, a Smokin' Q Four Pack of mini-burgers and a Cheesy Four Pack of mini-burgers. The American Café debuted a Bacon Cheddar Burger and a Bleu Cheese Pepper Burger as well as a Black Bean Burger.

Going Swimmingly

Some types of seafood are appearing less frequently on menus, whether because of higher cost or limited availability; trout appears 13% less frequently this year on menus tracked by Technomic’s MenuMonitor, and grouper is down 14%. But, other fish have taken their place: salmon incidence is up 5% compared to last year, and tilapia entrées are up 19%.

Abundant, inexpensive, versatile and mild-flavored, farmed tilapia lends itself to spicy regional preparations. Recipes with Creole or Caribbean influences are particularly popular:
* Royal Port Tilapia--with shrimp, mushrooms and green onions, finished with a Creole sauce, Outback Steakhouse.
* Costa Rican Tilapia Filet--wrapped in banana leaves, served with grilled vegetables and sides of white rice, black beans and flour tortillas, Pappasito’s Cantina.

The other fin fish swimming upward in popularity--salmon--has a “health halo” as well as a strong, distinct flavor. Some new menu listings involving salmon employ simple preparations to bring out this flavor; they are grilled with butter, pepper and occasionally dill. Other salmon items engage more adventurous eaters with Asian preparations:
* Salmon Glazed with Peanut Barbecue Sauce, Ruby Tuesday.
* Marinated Salmon--marinated in soy, garlic, sesame and scallions, Damon’s.

An upsurge in the prevalence of menu options involving shellfish seems to pinpoint one area in which diners are willing to splurge. Crab’s rich flavor makes it a perfect lure for diners desiring a special experience. Crab cakes, in particular, function well as appetizers, entrées or add-ons, boosting meal checks. Ruby Tuesday and Ruth’s Chris have both introduced classic takes on the dish. California Pizza Kitchen rolled out its Blue Crab Cakes--pan-sautéed lump meat served with a homemade remoulade, grilled asparagus and spaghettini in a lemon caper sauce.

Shrimp also featured prominently in menus this year. More than any other shellfish, shrimp lends itself to ethnic and regional preparations. Legal Sea Foods served it in a number of dishes: as aceviche, with pickled red onions, cilantro, avocado and jalapeño; over jasmine rice with broccoli and melted Monterey Jack cheese; and as an element in its Thai Grilled Mahi Mahi, along with sautéed spinach and red coconut curry.

White Meats: Blank Canvas

Chicken’s healthiness, versatility and moderate cost make it a perennial favorite. The protein was updated with trendy flair in some dishes:
* Venetian Apricot Chicken--featuring an apricot citrus sauce and broccoli, asparagus and tomatoes, Olive Garden.
* Crispy Orange Asian Chicken--chicken strips tossed in an orange sweet-and-sour sauce with mixed vegetables, Mandarin oranges and chow mein noodles over citrus rice, Country Kitchen.

On the “less healthy” end of the spectrum, fried chicken strips functioned as this protein’s popular comfort-food item: Tony Roma’s, Red Lobster, Fuddruckers and many more introduced chicken strip plates.

Pork entrées are fairly rare, but for that very reason they draw the attention of diners:
* Pork Tenderloins in Maple Bourbon Sauce--served with sautéed greens and mashed potatoes, The Cheesecake Factory.
* Herb Crusted Pork Tenderloin--served with apricot honey and Dijon sauces, Fresh Choice/Zoopa.
*Bracioli di Maiale--center-cut pork chop stuffed with asparagus, roasted garlic and smoked mozzarella and finished with a lemon and Trebbiano wine sauce, Il Fornaio.

A New Wave of Entrée Innovation

One new restaurant that is exploring--and leading--new trends in entrées is The Wave at Disney’s Contemporary Resort near Orlando, providing diners a forward-thinking combination of global flavors and eco-conscious cuisine. The Wave opened its doors last May, emphasizing local, sustainable and organic ingredients served in a sleek, modern environment.

A daily selection of sustainable fish is featured prominently at each daypart, served with corn and edamame stew, saffron oil and balsamic glaze. Sandwiches take the spotlight at lunch--everything from a Vegetarian Sandwich of grilled tofu with zucchini, eggplant, roasted red pepper and herb goat cheese to an Angus Chuck Bacon Cheeseburger.

At dinner, a Braised Chicken Pot Pie satisfies diners looking for high-quality, homestyle fare, but intriguing preparations of a variety of proteins are the stars. The Braised Lamb Shank arrives with bulgur wheat-lentil stew and a red wine sauce. The Grilled Beef Tenderloin features oven-dried tomatoes, roasted fingerling potatoes and Cabernet sauce. Grilled Marinated Flank Steak is enlivened bychimichurrisauce and guacamole. Pineapple rice adds a hint of sweetness to the Grilled Pork Tenderloin, a dish finished with wilted greens and black-bean sauce. Less meat-centric entrées include linguini, elegantly paired with Florida Littleneck clams and rock shrimp in a chunky tomato sauce, and an ever-changing Seasonal Vegetable Stew.

The Wave’s menu features a robust variety of drawing points for guests looking to eat out in a spot offering a superior experience value equation, without compromising a desire for healthy food and culinary invention. It is a basic format for entrée success that can be applied to any concept, in any segment, at any price point.

For more information about foodservice entrée trends and exclusive industry data, contact Patrick Noone at Technomic at 312-506-3852.