The left side of the menu is evolving with several major themes in mind -- including freshness, health, big flavors and ethnic-inspired offerings. The most notable of these new salads, soups and appetizers appear to combine these very trends toward fresh, healthful and globally influenced flavors.
Ethnic soups, particularly those featuring Japanese ramen, are particularly poised for growth. Far from the packaged supermarket variety with which most Americans are familiar, trendy ramen soups are kicking off the menu with housemade savory broths, pork belly, soft-boiled eggs and fresh bamboo shoots.
Primarily the domain of independent restaurant concepts, the appeal of ramen is spreading -- as both an appetizer and an entrée. Morimoto offers a signature ramen appetizer, billed simply as Chicken Noodle Soup, which offers a fragrant, Asian-influenced spin on the conventional.
Ethnic fusion is taking place for appetizers in an effort to showcase interesting combinations of bigger, bolder flavors. Kitchens are finding avenues in pan-Asian, Latin American, Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cuisines to fuse new flavor combinations into finger foods. Cooper’s Hawk Winery & Restaurants promotes an award-winning appetizer that flaunts Asian and Mexican culinary notes, with its Asian BBQ Pork Belly Nachos. Using an ancient braising method, the pork belly is slow-cooked with soy rock sugar and spices. After several hours, the deeply flavored pork belly is sliced and served atop crispy tortilla chips with scallions, cilantro, radish, sesame seeds and a sweet chili barbecue sauce.
Big flavors are also on the scene in the form of new flatbread appetizers topped with aromatic herbs, robust vegetables and spicy ingredients. Chili’s Grill & Bar recently introduced a line of flatbreads designed to whet the appetite, help drive adult-beverage sales and promote mix-and-match sharing, all at a value-oriented price point: 
  • Margherita Flatbread is dressed with cilantro-ranch pesto, drizzled on top of Monterey Jack, mozzarella and fresh tomatoes
  • Chipotle Chicken Flatbread features chile-rubbed grilled chicken, chipotle pesto sauce, a trio of cheeses, cilantro, pico de gallo and a drizzle of tomato sauce.
  • California Grilled Chicken Flatbread features applewood-smoked bacon, grilled chicken, Monterey Jack, mozzarella, cilantro, pico de gallo, sliced avocado and roasted garlic aioli.
Crispy, fried or cheesy appetizers still get top billing on the menu for the most part, but a significant number of consumers want to see lighter options that still give flavors a chance to shine. There’s been a bit of push-back from high-caloric, indulgent starters, with a move toward vegetarian appetizers.
Salads with a differentiating mix of ingredients drive this veggie-focused appetizer trend. Ethnic influences also make their presence felt among salad selections. A burgeoning interest in both Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cuisines is fueling the launch of starter salads, like The Cheesecake Factory’s Santorini Farro Salad, featuring farro, cucumbers, tomatoes, beets, red onion, feta cheese and tzatziki; and the Tabouleh appetizer salad at TooJay’s Original Gourmet Deli, featuring fresh parsley, bulghur wheat, onion, tomato, fresh lemon juice and olive oil. 
Key Takeaway 
A standout trend from this discussion of the menu is health. There’s plenty of talk about healthy eating, and now the conversation is veering toward better-for-you foods that taste better, too. Creative and contemporary menu developers recognize  that today’s healthy-menu offerings should showcase deeper levels of flavor; freshness and a made-to-order focus; exotic, ethnic influences with a lighter touch; and veggie-centric appetizers and entrées that boast a heartiness that appeals to vegans, vegetarians and meat-lovers alike. 

Rising Prices, Enticing Entrées 

Nothing shakes up the menu quite like the skyrocketing price of meat. Rising beef prices directly affect menu development for center-of-the-plate proteins. Recent research conducted for Technomic’s 2013 “Center of the Plate” report series showed the number of beef entrées on full-service restaurant chain menus has been experiencing a slight, but steady, decline over the past several years -- while entrées featuring pork, chicken and other proteins have increased their presence on the menu. (See chart “Where’s the Beef?”)
While higher costs may be nudge operators toward poultry and other options, beef remains the hallmark of many an entrée section. Operators that steadfastly tout beef entrées are getting creative by doing more with cheaper, underutilized cuts, like brisket, flank and London broil, and making the most of low-and-slow cooking techniques, such as braising and smoking. In fact, the National Restaurant Association’s latest “What’s Hot” chefs’ survey calls under-used/inexpensive beef cuts -- like brisket, shoulder and skirt -- a top, center-of-the-plate menu trend for 2013.
Such preparations elevate humble cuts to new heights and render tougher, denser cuts -- like brisket -- tender and adaptable to upscale presentations. Harris Ranch Restaurant’s Chipotle Braised Brisket of Beef is seasoned with beer and a Southwestern-inspired spice rub, and the Overnight Brisket at Whiskey Creek Wood Fire & Grill is hickory-smoked all night, until tender.
Pork prices are also experiencing a hike -- albeit to a lesser extent than beef. Nevertheless, cheaper cuts, such as shoulder and country-style ribs, are also gaining notice for pork entrées, especially when depth-of-flavor preparations like smoking are applied. 
This gives barbecue entrées -- which can incorporate an array of seasoning rubs, spices and innovative sauces -- a chance to shine on the menu. Trends point to barbecued pork with a regional American or ethnic flair, as well as peppery, fruity and beer-laden accents to barbecue sauce. Examples include Chili’s Memphis Dry Rub Ribs, featuring an ancho-chili barbecue sauce, as well as the chain’s Shiner Bock BBQ Ribs. And, a pork chop entrée at Tumbleweed Tex Mex Grill & Margarita Bar pairs a Bourbon glaze, mango-chili glaze or its signature honey-chipotle barbecue sauce with mesquite-grilled chops.   
As for poultry, chicken naturally continues to be among the most versatile and adaptable platforms for flavors. Over time, certain flavors have dominated chicken.
Barbecue sauces, Buffalo wing sauces, Cajun spice rubs, flavors ambiguously described as “seasoned” -- all of these profiles are plentiful on the menu.
Consumers welcome these flavors for chicken and, no doubt, expect to see them available on the menu when ordering chicken--particularly in a something-for-everyone, varied-menu setting.
But, there is a next-level stage of innovation for chicken now seen in the full-service restaurant segment, and it calls for the application of even bolder flavors -- part of the larger trend toward bigger flavor profiles discussed previously. This includes ethnic accents that are unconventional and exotic; developing global pairings to mix and match international flavors as a fusion offering; and using chicken as the foundation upon which to balance layers of heat, spice and textures.
Here are some examples, as seen on full-service restaurant menus this year. Notice the depth-of-flavor attributes for these chicken dishes, such as hard woods for fire-grilling; Moroccan spices for a Middle Eastern/North African accent; pan-Asian components as a complement to Caribbean-inspired chicken; and Jerk chicken as the base for warm, cool and crunchy elements of a tropical-style dish:
  • Hardwood-Fired Moroccan Chicken Breast at Elephant Bar
  • Caribbean Chicken with pan-Asian ratatouille and caramelized bananas at Kona Grill
  • Jerk Chicken with warm mango salsa, almond rice and orange jicama slaw at Tommy Bahama
In the handheld realm, a couple of trends are emerging for sandwiches and wraps. The first reflects a major move toward all things Mediterranean, with Greek foods and flavors squarely in the spotlight. Anchored by healthful, flavorful and familiar staple ingredients -- such as olives and olive oil, tomatoes, garlic and chicken -- Greek fare is adaptable to a portable, handheld preparation when interpreted as a sandwich.
Technomic’s online trend-tracking resource, MenuMonitor, provides examples of the latest Greek-style hot and cold sandwiches and wraps currently on-trend:
  • Greek Panini -- with egg, feta cheese, black olives, baby spinach and red onion, at Sandella’s Flatbread Café 
  • Med Specialty Sandwich -- with grilled chicken strips, Greek dressing, feta cheese, kalamata olives, cucumbers, pepperoncinis, red onions, lettuce and tomato, at Spicy Pickle
  • Greek Chicken Rollup -- a wrap stuffed with sautéed chicken, fresh spinach, diced tomatoes, peppers, onions, kalamata olives, feta cheese and Greek vinaigrette, at T-Bones Great American Eatery
Beyond Mediterranean -- but following along the same better-for-you sensibility -- another sandwich trend to watch calls for the expansion of vegan and vegetarian offerings. Roasted and grilled vegetables, crispy components, spicy condiments and globally inspired preparations are all coming into play for vegan and vegetarian sandwiches, boosting their appeal and craveability. The latest examples pair varying levels of heat, sweetness and spice, while others feature non-meat offerings with a Middle Eastern or Asian flair:
  • Sweet Hot Vegan -- sandwich made with a tofu frittata patty and edamame with sea salt, at 4food, New York City
  • Mujadara Pocket -- pita stuffed with lentils, rice, mixed greens, Lebanese salata and fried onions, and topped with choice of sauce, including varieties like almond nut and tahini yogurt, at Aladdin’s Eatery
  • Vegan Pilgrim -- vegan breaded “chicken,” cranberry sauce, sriracha and vegan cheese, at Ike’s Place, San Francisco.

Flavorful, Portable, On-trend Desserts

Expect the miniaturization of desserts to continue. The downsized dessert “shots” and sweet flights of several years past are still a good fit with consumers.
Some of the most interesting flights now extend beyond simple, mini versions of larger signature desserts to include alcohol and dessert-paired flights. Cooper’s Hawk Winery & Restaurants’ Wine and Chocolates dessert flight presents an assortment of chocolates and truffles paired with three sweet wines. 
Other chains are jumping on the bandwagon with flights that feature super-trendy dessert items. For example, Houlihan’s is leveraging renewed interest in doughnuts with a Donut Flight -- featuring dense, Italian doughnuts served with a duo of sauces for dipping: Kahlua fudge and a white chocolate Bailey’s sauce.  
Playing off the consumer preference for smaller desserts that don’t require a spoon or fork, limited-service chains are also introducing a number of new portable, frozen treats for dessert on-the-go. Friendly’s recently debuted a line of grab-and-go ice cream novelties, including bars, cones and sandwiches, on the menu and as part of a new retail line. Offerings include the Vanilla Friendwich and Strawberry Cake Krunch Bar. Rita’s Italian Ice is testing cookie shells for a new range of ice-cream sandwiches specifically for children to build their own confection-to-go.
Another trend worth noting points to the flavor marriage of salty and sweet. Ongoing developments will showcase the synergy between salty-and-sugary flavor profiles, as seen in the proliferation of dessert items that tout sea salt as an accent to rich caramel. Here are just a few of the newest listings that pair salty with sweet:
  • Salted Caramel Pudding -- rich caramel pudding, dark caramel sauce, black cocoa cookie crumbs, homemade whipped cream and natural flaked sea salt, at California Pizza Kitchen
  • Caramel Cocoa Cheesecake -- garnished with salted caramel, at George Webb Restaurants
  • Salted Caramel Shake -- a milk shake blended with caramel sauce and red Hawaiian sea salt, topped with whipped cream and a sprinkling of the red salt, at Red Robin Gourmet Burgers.

Hot (and Cool) Beverage Trends

Operators are continuing down a specialty path for beverages. Specialty coffee -- and now, specialty tea -- are growth vehicles for restaurant concepts. Since these drinks are now so ubiquitous on the menu across dayparts and restaurant segments, the next step calls for setting specialty drinks apart. One way this trend is making inroads is through “spiked” variations that occupy an adults-only niche.
Although the everyday specialty coffees found at limited- and full-service restaurants are overwhelmingly of the non-alcohol variety, a number of full-service, casual-dining brands are capitalizing on the growing popularity of these espresso-based beverages and are imparting specialty coffees with Kahlua, rum, brandy, tequila and other spirits to spark customer interest. Here are a few examples of new specialty-coffee drinks accented with alcohol:
  • Mexican Coffee -- with coffee, Kahlua, Cuervo Tradicional Tequila and whipped cream, at Chevys Fresh Mex
  • Nuts & Berry Coffee -- with Frangelico and Chambord liqueurs, at Firebirds Wood-Fired Grill
  • Espresso; Cappuccino -- customers can add their choice of Kahlua, Patron XO, Bailey’s Irish Cream or Amaretto di Saronno, at Pappadeaux Seafood Kitchen   
Other drinks are getting spiked, too. One of the hottest trends on casual-dining menus (and higher-end independent restaurant menus) calls for spiked milk shakes. Adult milk shakes are a fun addition to specialty cocktail lineups and offer consumers something whimsical, sweet and outside the ordinary -- beyond the conventional martinis and margaritas they’ve come to expect on casual-dining menus. The appeal of these specialty milk shakes is that they’re drinks that double as craveable and shareable desserts. Examples include:
  • The Cheesecake Factory’s Twisted Salted Caramel Pretzel -- furthering the salty/sweet flavor trend, with Absolut Vodka, Licor 43, caramel, pretzels and ice cream, and Flying Gorilla -- a “kicked-up” chocolate-banana milk shake with Godiva chocolate and banana liqueur
  • Bobby’s Burger Palace’s Vanilla Caramel Bourbon, Pineapple Coconut Rum and Mocha Kahlua Vodka.
Despite all of the hype around super-indulgence and decadence for beverages, they’re still a safe haven for the health-conscious consumer. Juice -- once seen as just a specialty or breakfast beverage -- has now emerged as one of the biggest menu trends in the restaurant industry. 
Illustrating the growing interest in juice, new juice bars are being launched across the emerging-chain, limited-service segment. Over the past two years, the biggest news in juice has been Starbucks’ introduction of Evolution Fresh, an upscale juice-bar concept in Bellevue, Wash. Starbucks believes that Evolution Fresh -- with its focus on high-quality, customizable juice drinks -- is poised for further expansion.
Starbucks first acquired Evolution Fresh in late 2011 and introduced the sleek, urban-style concept in March 2012; its system has since expanded to four units. The company is positioning Evolution Fresh as “super premium” and is operating from the belief that its customers are willing to shell out more for an upscale, eco-friendly experience, in addition to the fresh, better-for-you juice blends.
Other juice bars are emerging and mapping out expansion. Roxberry Juice, part of the Beautiful Brands International portfolio, offers freshly squeezed orange, carrot and wheatgrass juices, as well as signature offerings, such as Pomegranate Perfection -- made with 100% pomegranate, strawberry, mango and peach juices. Daily Kitchen & Wellness Bar is a Las Vegas-based concept that offers fresh juice blends in addition to fresh, healthful breakfast and brunch fare. In keeping with its concept positioning on wellness, Daily Kitchen offers the following freshly squeezed juice blends:
  • Harmony -- with cucumber, kale, spinach, apple and lemon juices
  • Focus -- with kale, orange and carrot juices
  • Restore -- with apple, beet, carrot and lemon juices
  • Balance -- with beet, spinach, apple, lemon and ginger juices
With the drives toward both healthful eating and novel beverages, consumption of fresh juices in restaurants is up significantly -- and has plenty of room to grow further, fueled by the potentially vast variety of juices, blends and additions that can be offered. 
The future of this beverage trend will see global juices emerge on the menu. Aguas frescas, traditional fruit punches native to the Caribbean, Central and South America, are growing in popularity. While the tropical options are vast, some of the more basic, popular aguas frescas flavors include tamarind drink (made with tamarind pods) and agua de flor de Jamaica (made with hibiscus flowers). El Torito offers Jamaican Agua Fresca, a sweetened hibiscus-accented drink, and Taquerias Arandas lists aguas frescas in various flavors.