A steak entree from Chilis
A steak entree from Chili's

Nancy Kruse, Bret Thorn debate the death of the entrée

In a monthly series, menu trend analyst Nancy Kruse and NRN senior food editor Bret Thorn debate current trends in the restaurant industry. For this installment, they discuss whether or not the entrée is becoming endangered on restaurant menus.

The main course lives on

Kruse Company president Nancy Kruse says customers simply want choices.

Bret, do you remember a while back when a columnist for Esquire magazine wrote a piece called "The Death of the Entrée [5]," in which he opined that the main course had run its course? He implied that it had become like the appendix, a vestigial culinary organ that is both unwanted and unnecessary.

No sooner did his piece see print than all gastronomic hell broke loose, with food writers, critics and bloggers around the country weighing in on the issue. The debate continued in fits and starts, only to be reignited this spring when Jonathan Gold, the Pulitzer Prize-winning dining critic for the Los Angeles Times, observed that entrées had all but disappeared and been replaced by “a bunch of courses.”

Shortly thereafter, chef Alex Stupak of Empellon Cocina in New York City dropped entrées from his menu, declaring on Twitter: “I can’t stand them so I’m never cooking them again.” It’s nice to know where he stands, though his current menu has a section coyly titled Appetizers/Mains that offers dishes like Short Ribs Pastrami Tacos or Shrimp and Smoked Potato Tacos in two sizes at two prices.  Call me crazy, but this sounds suspiciously like he’s still got one foot in the entrée category.

But let’s not quibble. It does appear that restaurateurs of all stripes have jumped on board the smaller-is-better bandwagon. The onset of the recession impacted both traffic and spending and led bellwether operators like The Cheesecake Factory to embrace comprehensive and creative small-plates programs, an approach that reportedly revived that chain’s flagging check averages and customer counts.

It also spawned a raft of imitators. Even steakhouse chains like Morton’s and Fleming’s now provide downsized options, the former with a Bar Bites menu that includes Mini Crab Cake BLTs and the latter with the 5 for $6 ‘Til 7 program that offers goodies like savory Pan Crisped Pork Belly.

It’s the combination of tasty food at attractive prices that has lured patrons and prompted a steady stream of operators to think small. Olive Garden, for instance, is testing a small plates Tastes of Italy menu that includes Crispy Risotto Bites and Grilled Chicken Spiedini starting at $3.99. Similarly, T.G.I. Friday’s launched a Taste & Share menu last April with finger-food options like Ahi Tuna Crisps and Corned Beef and Swiss Sliders.

Small bites like these can encourage trial of the unfamiliar, control calories, deliver good value and promote beverage consumption. And as some proponents have pointed out, their diminutive size reduces the boredom factor; there’s not enough food to induce palate fatigue.

High-end tasting menus at operations like the storied French Laundry in Yountville, Calif., have long since eschewed the traditional entrée in favor of a succession of exquisite bites that come one after another in order to dazzle diners and showcase kitchen virtuosity. Despite all this, it seems to me that the death of the entrée has been greatly exaggerated.

While testing the waters with small plates, Olive Garden is also assaying a Weeknight Family-Style Dinner that includes family-style platters of hearty favorites like Five Cheese Ziti al Forno. Promotions like Applebee’s 2 for $20 or Chili’s $20 Dinner for 2 are popular precisely because they offer two full-sized main courses at a modest price point.

At the end of the day, I believe patrons want choices relative to number and size of courses, and there will always be a place for conventional main dishes. What say you, Bret? Do you think the entrée is on the endangered dining list?

 

Entrees just sharing the limelight

The following is NRN senior food editor Bret Thorn’s response to Kruse Company president Nancy Kruse’s take on where the entrée stands [9]:

Nancy, the growing popularity of appetizers, small plates, shared dishes or whatever people want to call savory food that isn’t an entrée doesn’t mean that main courses are dead.

To be sure, appetizers are becoming more popular. GuestMetrics, which monitors point-of-sale data at independent full-service restaurants, reported a 3.3 increase in sale of appetizers in the first half of 2013, making them the fastest-growing category on the menu. Sales of soup, salad and dessert all fell, but entrée sales rose — by just 1.4 percent, but they still rose.

I think what we’re seeing is customers’ growing awareness that they can have whatever they want, whenever they want it. Restaurants in return are realizing that if they don’t give their customers delicious snacks at the bar, shareable dishes at the table and half-portion options for 3 p.m. cravings, then their competitors will.

Other broader trends are spurring consumers’ interests in eating in ways that don’t involve a single item in the middle of the plate.

You’ve spoken for years about the disintegration of the daypart. Fewer Americans have traditional 9-to-5 jobs, and so they want to eat at different times. More of us are also becoming more weight conscious, which means a 10 a.m. smoothie might satisfy the need for breakfast and lunch (although it might also necessitate that 3 o’clock snack).

On top of that, food in America has become an adventure. An entrée might not only induce palate fatigue, but also levy an opportunity cost: Instead of that center-of-the-plate piece of beef, customers realize they could nibble on spare ribs, have a couple of wings, dip into some hummus and eat an oyster — all the while sharing with their friends and making it all a more sociable experience.

Restaurants benefit from that experience because customers tend to spend more money on food in such settings. They also generally drink more and have a better time.

At the super-high-end, it’s true that restaurants like The French Laundry, as you mentioned, as well as Catbird Seat in Nashville, Tenn.; Alinea in Chicago; and a bunch of restaurants in New York City (Masa, Eleven Madison Park, Momofuku Ko, Atera, the Chef’s Table at Brooklyn Fare and others) have decided that the best way to flex their culinary muscle is with “a bunch of courses.” But that doesn’t mean there’s no place for big hunks of food that form the centerpiece of a meal.

You mentioned that that Morton’s and Fleming’s have started offering delectable bar snacks. So has Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse with its Sizzle, Swizzle & Swirl Happy Hour, during which guests at the bar can buy skewers, sliders and the like starting at $7. But Ruth’s Chris also is cashing in on multi-course dinners [10] in which they partner with a wine or liquor company to match a beverage with the food. You’d better believe that at the heart of those meals is a big, juicy filet.

And Morton’s and Fleming’s offerings are in addition to their steaks — and often for different occasions, such as happy hour or other non-meal social gatherings — not in place of them.

I recently spoke to South Florida restaurateur John Kunkel [11], whose restaurants, Yardbird, Khong River House and Swine, have garnered critical acclaim and stayed packed since they opened. He had tried to present the meals at Khong River House in the same way that they are in the Mekong River region of northern Thailand, Laos and Myanmar, which is to say the food is served when it’s ready, in no particular order, and it’s all eaten family style. He soon found that his customers like their food coursed out.

“You’re never going to retrain the American dining public about how they want to eat,” he told me. So he took menu items that worked well as appetizers and made them just that.

I suspect Alex Stupak had something similar in mind when, despite his protestations against serving entrées, he gave his customers the option of eating main-course-sized amounts of tacos — he has something of an artist’s temperament, but he’s not stupid.

So entrées might have to share some of the limelight with other shapes and sizes of food, but I agree with you that news of their demise is premature.

Nancy Kruse, president of the Kruse Company, is a menu trends analyst based in Atlanta and a regular contributor to Nation’s Restaurant News. E-mail her at [email protected] [12].

Contact Bret Thorn at [email protected] [13].
Follow him on Twitter: @foodwriterdiary [14]