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Served in a cast-iron casserole, Lazy Dog’s queso dip delivers a contemporary take with cheddar, jack and queso blanco cheeses combined with pimento, hatch chiles and cilantro black beans.

Buckets and skillets to savor: Customers crave comfort food as dining rooms reopen

Deep dish comfort foods — from sizzling skillets to indulgent casseroles — are resonating with customers at a time when abundance and value reign king

Denny’s chief brand officer John Dillon noted in a recent CNN Business Interview that the chain’s Sizzlin’ Skillet Supreme had fallen victim, at least temporarily, to menu simplification, but the good news is that other sizzlin’ favorites like Crazy Spicy Sizzlin’ Skillet made the cut on the newly slimmed-down bill of fare.

As diners return to post-pandemic dining rooms, skillets — along with other old-fashioned, don’t-get-at-home comfort foods — will reassert their crowd-pleasing presence and broad-based popularity, thanks to their value, abundance and presentation pop.

Why skillets score.  Skillets — one of the oldest tricks in full-service chains’ playbooks — deliver total sensory appeal with their surefire preparation-and-presentation combos. Their rustic appearance connotes back-to-basics authenticity, and their auditory crackle and wafting aroma suggest hot-off-the-stove freshness and hands-on kitchen expertise.

Applebee’s skillets trace their roots back to the chain’s early days; a menu from 1998 touts five varieties of Sizzling Skillet Sensations, like N’Awlins and Sicilian. The Bourbon Street Steak currently on offer is jazzed up with Cajun spices and garlic butter and served searing on a cast-iron platter. TGI Friday’s Sizzling Fridays Signature Whiskey-Glazed Flat Iron Steak is soy marinated and topped with Cajun-spiced onion rings, while Quaker Steak & Lube’s loaded mac and cheese skillet piles on extra cheese and pulled chicken or pork.

Sweets are super in skillets, too, like Applebee’s Sizzling caramel apple blondie or Quaker Steak & Lube’s Amazing chocolate chunk cookie skillet with salted pretzel balls.

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Why buckets are big. They telegraph abundance and value, as with KFC’s iconic bucket, which house-bound, finger-lickin’ consumers rediscovered to the tune of double-digit sales increases in May. This summer’s $20 Fill Up promotion invites diners to fill the bucket with their chicken of choice and throws in slaw, biscuits and mashed potatoes on the side.

Buckets also suggest shareable informality, as with Grapevine, Tx.-based Cotton Patch Cafe’s new chicken fried bacon bucket that consists of hand-breaded, Southern-fried bacon strips with choice of cream gravy or ranch dipping sauce. In fact, bacon and buckets seem to have a real affinity. They are paired in Southern Calif.-based Lazy Dog Restaurant & Bar’s bacon candy appetizer, which is baked in brown sugar, crushed red pepper chile flakes and black pepper, and in Nashville, Tenn.’s Logan’s Roadhouse’s bacon on a stick appetizer, in which the bacon is skewered on wooden sticks and placed inside a silver bucket lined with newspaper.

Buckets aren’t the only source of deep-dish satisfaction. Huntington Beach, Calif.-based BJ’s Restaurant & Brewhouse’s long-running Pizookie line of desserts features cookie dough baked in a pizza pan, promising the perfect ratio of warm and gooey to cold and creamy. The seasonal Strawberry Shortcake Pizookie swaps out conventional shortcake for a large, hot sugar cookie topped with strawberries, strawberry puree, vanilla ice cream and whipped cream.

Why casseroles are comforting. Their familiar, double-handled informality conjures neighborly potlucks and Sunday suppers. Served in a cast-iron casserole, Lazy Dog’s queso dip delivers a contemporary take with cheddar, jack and queso blanco cheeses combined with pimento, hatch chiles and cilantro black beans. Cracker Barrel’s all-day breakfast menu gets a boost from the classic hashbrown casserole; the loaded version is finished on the grill with bacon crumbles and melted colby cheese. At City Winery’s outpost in New York City, a special French toast casserole topped with berries was on offer for Mother’s Day brunch.

Independent restaurateurs favor creative casseroles, too.  Bluestem Brasserie in San Francisco — currently temporarily closed during the pandemic — features an unexpected cast iron cornbread with chocolate crémeux and mascarpone. In a similar vein, the first floor tavern at Boston’s Post 390 — temporarily closed during the pandemic — cooks up cast iron s’mores in the restaurant’s brick oven.

On the savory side, Prairie Grass Café in Northbrook, Ill. includes spicy chicken chilaquiles casserole as part of a family-style meal package. In downtown Atlanta, By George presents pot au feu (French beef stew) in a shiny metal casserole, while at Cold Beer nearby, a dish of deviled crab, sunchokes and preserved sunflower seeds comes in a brown enamel casserole dish. Skillet Cornbread with sorghum and butter is a popular starter course at no. 246 in Decatur, GA.

Looking ahead, when customers return to restaurants, they’ll crave the comfort of familiar foods served with style. Skillets, buckets and casseroles are humble vehicles that deliver a visual pop of reassurance along with their tasty contents.

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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