Restaurant patrons are beginning more meals with appetizers, according to Technomic’s new “Starters, Small Plates & Sides Consumer Trend Report.” Some 38% of consumers surveyed in June say they order appetizers on all or most restaurant occasions, up from 27% who said the same in 2009. 
What are today’s app-hungry consumers looking for on the left side of the menu? Bold, signature flavors and better value. More than four in 10 consumers say better value and better variety, respectively, would encourage them to order appetizers more frequently at restaurants. 
Digging more deeply into consumers’ desire for app variety, Technomic found that 47% of diners ages 18-44 say unique or ethnic flavors influence their decision to order appetizers, and around 40% say spicy flavors are an influencing factor.  When it comes to choosing a particular appetizer to order, 68% rate craveability as an important attribute, while 48% say appetizers that are unique to the establishment hold strong appeal. 
On appetizer menus at the country’s Top 500 restaurant chains -- ranked by Technomic, based on U.S. system-wide sales -- bolder ethnic flavors; herb- and spice-boosted offerings; and fresh salads and seafood are gaining ground. 
Yesterday’s appetizer all-stars are ceding menu space in some cases to more vibrantly flavored versions of themselves. Consider: Spicy and garlic-flavored French fries appeared more often on appetizer/starter menus in the second quarter of 2013 vs. the same period last year, according to Technomic’s digital MenuMonitor resource, while regular fries declined. Flatbreads gained; bruschetta waned. Tacos soared (by almost 44%, in fact); chicken quesadillas declined. 
Tacos’ rising-star status bears out another trend: street food. In Q2 2013 alone, Gordon Biersch Brewery Restaurant, House of Blues, Lucille’s Smokehouse Bar-B-Que and Rock Bottom Restaurant & Brewery introduced “street tacos” on their appetizer menus.
Appetizer trios, too, remain especially popular, and sampler plates that feature multiple versions of the same type of item -- sliders, tacos or French fries, for example -- represent an interesting app evolution. These plates appeal to diners looking to compare different flavors presented in one particular format. Consumers also may view them as a better value than a combo plate that consists of several different items -- say, a trio of wings, fried mushrooms and mozzarella sticks -- that may not appeal to everyone in the dining party. 
Technomic finds these “one-item, several-ways” plates in several guises on menus: Houston-based, casual-dining chain Chart House offers a hummus trio featuring traditional, roasted red pepper and edamame hummus varieties served with grilled pita bread and plantain chips. Dos Caminos similarly features a ceviche trio, and El Torito menus a wing trio offering Chile Peligroso, Cadillac Margarita Habanero and Mexican Buffalo Wings.
Other big gainers on appetizer menus at the country’s Top 500 restaurant chains include pretzels, predictably -- their app-menu appearances climbed nearly 10% from the second quarter of 2012. (New pretzel additions include Carolina Ale House’s Soft Pretzels with Sloppy Joe Cheese Dip and Not Your Average Joe’s Pulled Pork Pretzel Bites.) And, in a victory for fermented foods, pickled cucumbers and other pickled veggies make the list: They’re featured in 117 chain appetizers, up 23% from last year.