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Culver’s long-running beef pot roast sandwich is made with premium chuck roast and hand-shredded in store.

Not your mother’s Sunday roast: Restaurants are revisiting the comfort food classic

Classic menu staples like pot roast and meatloaf are being revamped in new ways

Comfort food classics are classic for a reason: they stand the test of time, are attractive to a broad swath of consumers and offer nourishment to both body and soul. Typically simple and rarely ostentatious, they are attractive to restaurateurs as well. In the case of perennial favorite pot roast, operator appeals include the cost benefits of working with secondary cuts of meat, relatively uncomplicated preparation requirements and lots of promotional opportunities.

Contemporary takes. Portable pot roast has been raised to an artform at Wis.-based quick-service chain Culver’s, where the long-running beef pot roast sandwich is made with premium chuck roast and hand-shredded in store. The sandwich debuted in 1984 and in 2020, Culver’s comfort cravers ordered 1.5 million pounds of the stuff. Patrons who prefer knife-and-fork dining can opt for the chain’s homestyle beef pot roast plated dinner entrée that comes with two sides.  

In Atlanta, newly opened independent restaurant D.B.A. Sandwich Company also goes the handheld route with the pot roast sandwich made with smoked brisket, carrots and potato spread; horseradish and gravy are served on the side. At nearby 57th Fighter Group, a fixture on the local scene for 30 years, the pot roast “Samwich” uses slow-roasted chuck steak finished with caramelized onions and steakhouse mayo.

Casual-dining chain Perkins Restaurant & Bakery covered multiple bases when it launched the pot roast potluck specials in December that include both a pot roast melt sandwich and classic pot roast dinner with beef gravy. In addition, the hearty pot roast stroganoff, which is served over egg noodles in cream sauce with a drizzle of sour cream, blends two standards, while the pot roast Sunrise Skillet topped with two eggs allows diners to start the day with their dinnertime favorite.

Comforting throwbacks. For many consumers, pot roast conjures an image of dinners around the family dining table, an association that some operators capitalize upon. At Cracker Barrel Old Country Store, the new pot roast supper is available only on Sunday and features oven-braised beef roast accompanied by biscuits or cornbread. The Dallas-based Cotton Patch Cafe extends the timeframe; their Weekend Roast program is available all day on Saturday and Sunday.

Wallace Station, an independent restaurant and popular stop on Kentucky’s Bourbon Trail near Lexington, drives demand by limiting supply. Here, the Saturday night pot roast is only available after 4:00 p.m. that day and in a nod to its location, uses Kentucky Proud beef.

Other menu marketers utilize nostalgic nomenclature to make a customer connection, as with the Down Home Pot Roast at Houlihan’s or Mom’s Pot Roast at sports bar chain Twin Peaks. The former is served with honey gold mashed potatoes and homestyle vegetables, while Twin Peaks serves Mom-inspired garlic mashed potatoes and sautéed green beans.

In a real blast from the past, the pot roast TV dinner from Lazy Dog Restaurant & Bar is made in-house and frozen in a retro aluminum tray: with compartments filled with pot roast and fixings and a cute little huckleberry-apple cake for dessert.

Time-tested technique. Culinary technique provides a major opportunity for restaurateurs to add value to humble dishes. At New Albany, Ohio-based Bob Evans Restaurants, for example, the fork-tender pot roast is slow roasted for nine hours, while Denny’s deluxe dinner classic pot roast is slow cooked, the onions are caramelized, and the mushrooms sautéed before being covered in gravy. As an indicator of the item’s popularity, the menu notes that it is a “to-go favorite.”

Speaking of takeout, four-unit Southern Baked Pie Company in Atlanta boasts a repertoire of savory to-go options like the pot roast pie. This pot pie-meets-pot roast mashup is made with meat, gravy and mashed potatoes baked together in a signature butter crust.

Pre-pandemic, James Beard award-winning independent restaurant, Spoon & Stable in Minneapolis, took the classic dish uptown with Dorothy’s pot roast that came with pommes aligot, mushroom confit and rosemary broth (diners seeking to up the decadence factor could finish with a flourish of foie gras).

Modern meatloaf, too. While pot roast has clearly preoccupied many chefs, some others are taking a second look at another homestyle favorite from the last century. For dedicated carnivores, Marie Callender’s 28-unit brick-and-mortar chain upgrades the classic with angus beef and mushroom-Cabernet gravy, while Lazy Dog’s BBQ Bison Meatloaf is made from all-natural, grass-raised Wyoming bison and smoked bacon and served with red skin potato mash, sautéed spinach and haystack onions. And in tune with the plant-forward times, San Diego-based Urban Plates celebrates healthful eating with specials like the “meatless loaf” made with garden vegetables, black beans and quinoa topped with homemade tomato jam.

Nancy Kruse, President of the Kruse Company, is a menu trends analyst based in Atlanta. As one of Linked In’s Top 100 Influencers in the US, she blogs regularly on food-related subjects on the Linked In website.

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