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2020 Vision is NRN's special report on the future of foodservice. Find out how the restaurant business will change in seven years >>

Want customers to look at your menu? There’s an app for that — and there will be more of them in 2020.

Restaurant patrons are already accustomed to reading menus online, but as the smartphone and tablet revolution continues, they also will expect the ability to order and pay for their food from their handheld devices, and to sort the menu items according to nutritional value or price.

Vision 2020 menu app
Multiple prices reflect different portion sizes.

A tap of the screen will change the menu to display only vegan items, gluten-free items or both. Categories such as appetizer or entrée will disappear as items become sortable by the customer — by keyword, price, dietary restrictions or whim — allowing customers to mix snack-sized portions, small plates and large shared dishes as they see fit.

As restaurant patrons grow increasingly used to customizing their own food, most chefs will give up on the idea of offering center-of-the-plate items accompanied by appropriate sides in favor of à la carte ordering.

Rising real estate, labor and food costs will result in smaller, more cuisine-focused restaurants with many stock-keeping units, or SKUs, used in multiple preparations. A growing number of restaurants probably will outsource their desserts for those same reasons.

Cost of goods will continue to fluctuate, but with no paper menus, restaurants will be able to adjust their prices in real time, changing them daily or even hourly by the penny, if they like.

Don’t let the simple explanations fool you. Lengthier descriptions will be available with the tap of a finger, including links to more information about the origins of the proteins and any local ingredients and suppliers.

The following are sample items chosen to explain upcoming food trends:

Customizable options available a tap awayGhana Chicken-Peanut Curry
The national dish of Ghana, the actual name is Nkatenkwan, but restaurateurs will find a more easily digestible term. The dish is a natural extension of the trend toward slightly unusual presentations of familiar ingredients.

Tandoori Chicken
Indian cuisine has long been an also-ran in the world of food trends, but India’s growing economic prominence and global influence will lend appeal to the country and possibly give it a stronger presence on menus, probably starting with straightforward items such as this one.

Millet and Callaloo Salad
Whole grains and greens are here to stay, but as quinoa and kale become mainstream, other varieties will trend in and out. Millet is gluten free, high in fiber and was widely eaten in the ancient world. Callaloo, the leaf of the taro plant, is a popular green in the Caribbean.

This Brazilian bean stew with pork has a low food cost and will appeal to customers who have taken a liking to Brazil, whose global cachet will be enhanced by its hosting of the World Cup in 2014 and the Olympics in 2016.

Green Crab Bisque
Green crab is a small crustacean that’s considered a nuisance in the Atlantic Ocean and suitable only for bait because the animals are too small for the meat to be extracted effectively. However, their high shell-to-meat ratio makes for a rich crabby flavor that can work well in a bisque. As restaurateurs continue to look for sustainable seafood sources, species such as these that were previously shunned will become more attractive.

America’s favorite menu item is expected to remain America’s favorite menu item.

Las Vegas Strip Steak
As beef prices continue to rise, new cuts will be isolated in cattle. Consider the Las Vegas Strip. The name was given to the subscapularis muscle by the scientist who patented the process for isolating it. It lies between the shoulder blade and the backbone, and is reportedly as tender as the New York Strip.

Asian Carp Ceviche
Another invasive species — bony but tasty — it makes a fine ceviche. Ceviche and other Latin American preparations will be more prevalent owing to demographic shifts.

— Bret Thorn

Sources: Roger Kaplan of Restaurant Innovations in Dallas, Aaron Noveshen of The Culinary Edge in San Francisco, Matthew Mabel of Surrender Inc. in Dallas, Maryanne Rose of SpenDifference in Denver

Illustrations by Joe Anderson
Photos by Thinkstock unless otherwise noted