A Great Restaurant Evolution Might be Just Around the Corner
July 14, 1999
It's 6 p.m. on a Friday and you want to go to dinner with a couple of friends. But this is the Bay Area, where last-minute restaurant reservations are hard to come by. Which places will still have tables?
You log onto the Web, do a search and snag a reservation at the new restaurant at the top of everyone's list.
Futuristic fantasy? Hardly. San Francisco-based OpenTable.com, plans to launch just such a service early next month.
It's just one of the innovations people in the restaurant industry forecast for Bay Area diners in the coming millennium. The already vibrant industry will continue to boom, they say, but just how is a matter of debate.
"Every area of restaurants is going to escalate even more," says veteran restaurateur and designer Pat Kuleto. "Food quality will rise, service, wine, everything."
But the form this quality will take will vary. Some see the number of extravagant restaurants continuing to grow, while others do not. Already high meal prices may keep skyrocketing, but value may become more important. Some insist fusion will remain a viable cuisine but others predict authentic regional specialties will dominate. Michael Dellar, co-owner of One Market and Lark Creek restaurants, foresees high-end places continuing to prosper.
"I think restaurants are fairly resilient to the economy," he says. Excitement and service are the two factors he believes will make restaurants successful in the new millennium.
"I think people are looking for an experience different from home -- jazz piano, tableside presentation, dishes that blend cuisines, he says.
Service and Economics
As for service, Dellar sees it becoming more important than ever. "With places like Walgreens and Home Depot, the service element has become a lost art. Restaurants afford the opportunity to be pampered."
On the other hand, George Chen, who spent years on Wall Street before bringing the Bay Area restaurants such as Betelnut and Shanghai 1930, claims restaurants need a strong economy to succeed. "People talk about us having a financial hangover when the economy hits an air pocket," he says. "I think we may have a food hangover, too.
Chen believes customers will be looking to stretch their dollar in the new millennium. "I think people will need to see real value in food beyond entertainment," he says.
Tom Walton of Fortune Public Relations, which specializes in restaurant accounts, sees splashy restaurants continuing, but not in San Francisco itself. "The city is getting overbuilt and restaurants are either being forced way South of Market by the ball park or into the so-called suburbs."
Chen, who recently opened Xanadu and a LongLife Noodle Co. and Jook Joint in Berkeley, agrees that San Francisco is "over-restauranted." "I'm very wary of all the froth in the restaurant market," he says. "I don't think it can continue like it is."
But Kuleto, co-owner and designer of Boulevard, Farallon and Jardiniere, takes a survival-of-the-fittest approach. "We continue to see a great evolution of restaurants," he says. Restaurants that don't do well will close, while the best restaurants will just get better.
On The Menu
As for what those restaurants will serve, predictions again vary widely.
"Fusion is definitely here to stay," Chen says. "It's part of the world becoming more globalized."
Many are quick to point out that all food is really fusion. "There's no purebred anything," says Judy Rodgers, chef-owner of Zuni Cafe. Where fusion has failed is where it's forced, she says. "What often gets the title of fusion is more intellectual, where the intellectual is more important than sense the food makes."
Rodgers sees restaurants' role partly as educational. "We're in a really great position to show people (food) choices that are healthy, tasty, organic and local," she says.
By our choices, we (can) show what makes sense to eat."
And what does make sense for the new millennium? Kuleto sees a resurgence of meat and a new dominance of farm-raised seafood in diners' future.
Aquaculture is just beginning to poke its head out," he predicts.
Food Comes First
Susie Biehler, a restaurant public relations specialist, believes the exploration of American food will be the next hot trend, with an emphasis on meat and small plates.
Chen says he gets a kick out of seeing foods that have been made for hundreds of years all of a sudden turning into a trend.
"Indian food is hot now," he says, "but that's just because it's under-explored."
And while in the very near future cyberspace may help customers get restaurant reservations, one of the few things it won't be able to replace is the restaurant experience itself.
"Everyone is trying to bank on the Internet," says Chen, "but it's not going to get you good food in a good location with good service. I don't think you can commercialize restaurants that way."
July 14, 1999
©1999 San Francisco Chronicle
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