The health of the economy and the wealth of the people can dictate how America eats.
Less money in the wallet means less money for going out. As consumers have less cash to spend, what that reduced income is being spent on falls under greater scrutiny. Two trends that have surely increased in the last few years is the return of home cooked meals and special occasion restaurant dining. Coupon clipping and deal hunting are trends that have become the norm both for dining out and stocking the home pantry.
"We went out to eat several times a week. I didn't want to hassle with cooking after working all day," says North Tacoma resident Michelle Thomas.
Stocked with to-go boxes, her family's refrigerator was once a visual dining diary. Then like so many others, Thomas was laid-off.
"It's sad to say it, but losing my job brought our family closer," offers Thomas, "and we're healthier for it."
These days, Thomas says her family plans a weekly meal schedule together using a budget; the kids make grocery shopping a game by finding the best coupons and prices and Thomas makes almost everything from scratch.
"We try a new recipe each week and I'm teaching my girls to cook," says Thomas. "They only knew how to use the microwave before."
Thomas says her family didn't give up their going-out habit entirely, however. It's just been scaled it back.
"We check the papers and online for specials," she says, citing C.I. Shenanigan's, Primo Grill and The Lobster Shop as restaurants that offer twilight dining with lower prices.
"Now we only take the kids out for birthdays or good report cards," say Thomas. "It's a reward."
What trends in dining are local restaurant owners seeing?
"The trend for a while has been toward small plates and away from classic formal dining," says Nicole Butigan, owner of Swing Wine Bar in Olympia. "I think the most current trend in eating is in the slow food or local food movement."
Butigan says she sees people consciously choosing to eat food that is grown or raised locally, and sees restaurant owner consciously choosing to carry it.
"We rotate our menu about three times per year, and try to use seasonal ingredients," Butigan says.
Swing's menu also features smaller versions of some entrees, and Butigan has plans for more local meat and produce.
On the drinking side of the equation, Swing bar manager Bradford Knutson is delving into beer cocktails, a drinking trend on the rise nationally. Currently Knutson is working on a beer version of the classic Fernet cocktail, Hanky Panky.
Mike Parker of Top of Tacoma Bar & Café will soon make the jump to running the kitchen at Peterson Bros. 1111, a neighborhood bar focusing on fresh-ingredient sandwiches and burgers scheduled to open on Tacoma's Hilltop this spring. Parker says he's also encountered the trend of smaller offerings and lower prices with the economy in mind.
However, Parker adds, "People are sick of fast food. They're looking for real food, not pre-manufactured stuff or something that's been reheated."
That's exactly what the American regional culinary movement is all about: fresh, local, real food. Parker cites Marrow Kitchen Bar as an innovator, a trendsetter, and a stand-alone in what's good about Tacoma's restaurant scene.
Mobile food trucks, offering a variety of tastes and treats, are old hat in larger cities, but in this area they've yet to get past tacos, hot dogs and barbeque. Former gallery owner Robert Stocker and business partner Steven Naccarato will soon change that. Stocker and Naccarato plan to open a mobile food truck on Tacoma's Sixth Avenue before summer hits. The duo will be "slinging old school burgers and making specialty shakes" according Stocker.
I doubt comfort or nostalgia foods will ever go out of style. Stocker says a trend he'd like to see increase locally is more boutique dining destinations like Rosewood Café, Primo Grill and Europa Bistro. Stocker says he's passionate about having a good experience that's not expensive. Amen to that.
What trends in dining and drinking do you see in on the horizon? What trends do you wish would go away? Comment and let us know.