Welcome, friends, to the modern dining out scene in the year 2019. As Thrillist’s National Writer-at-Large, it has been my duty to keep an eye on the American dining scene for the last few years, and I can tell you firsthand, we are currently living in strange dining times. With no recession in the last eleven years, restaurant growth has been explosive, and there are over 100,000 more restaurants in America now than there were ten years ago. Cool, right? Well, sort of. But no recession also means landlords have been able to jack up rents for 11 straight years, and with an increase of restaurants looking for workers, it’s also meant the labor force has been stretched nearly to the breaking point.
Thirsty for a solution, or at least a way to cut costs, more and more restaurants have turned to the fast casual model, which meant less front-of-the-house staff, and often simplified casual menus and apps. Oh, the apps. Like websites ten years ago, fast casual restaurants everywhere are clamoring to have apps for ease of ordering and payment, and this is not just the national chains. Even my local bakery, with three locations all in Marin County, has an app.
This phone-heavy, nearly human interaction-free style of dining has pushed us into some weird places as consumers, as our dining habits start to model our increasingly fractured, niche focused second life online. Even the idea of the “communal table,” once thought of as a novel idea to both add more seats to a restaurant and encourage interaction amongst solo customers, now seems to have more in common with a subway car or a farm barn trough, as people stare ahead at their phones with their AirPods in and mindlessly chew whatever is in front of them.
But before I spend too much time leaning back in my rocking chair and telling all the young folks how better it was back in the day, I’d rather talk through some of the other emerging trends I’ve noticed over the last six months writing my bi-monthly review column, Too Fast Too Casual. So here are three: