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Here’s What Restaurant Menus From Across the Country Tell Us About Dining Today

Menus are utilitarian, sure: They tell you what a restaurant is serving. But in aggregate, menus can offer a window into the larger culinary scene, showing you which foods are trending, what the general vibe is, and what chefs and restaurateurs care about at a given moment.

This year, menus from across the United States are displaying that restaurants are focused on opulent, expensive items and comfort foods alike, The New York Times reported on Tuesday. A team at the newspaper analyzed 121 menus from a range of restaurants (different styles, cuisines, and price points), and together they showed what’s trending this year.

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After years of pandemic shutdowns and restrictions, diners are looking for maximalism and opulence, Anna Polonsky, the founder of a New York design studio, told the Times. That’s evident in the preponderance of caviar across the country, served traditionally or in dishes like quesadillas. “It’s true with presentations as well: croquembouche, towers, big scoops of ice cream,” Polonsky said.

It’s even true with the humble Caesar salad. No longer confined to just steakhouses, restaurants across the culinary spectrum are playing with what a Caesar can be. There are Thai Caesars, Mexican Caesars, and catfish Caesars. “It’s a lot of chefs’ favorite salad to eat,” Este’s Fermín Nuñez told the newspaper. Its price is starting to match its cachet, too: The average cost for a Caesar was $15.42, with the most expensive being $22.

On the other end of the spectrum, thanks to years of upheaval and uncertainty, diners are craving comfort. That’s borne out in the rise of dishes like fried chicken, which is having a veritable moment. Restaurants of all stripes are serving their take on the poultry, whether it’s a classic fried-chicken dinner, chicken katsu at a Japanese restaurant, or a Mexican chicken milanesa torta.

And at the end of a meal, restaurants are hoping you’ll dig into a nostalgic dessert like an ice cream sundae or Funfetti cakes and cookies. The old-school flavors are a nod to childhood, ideally, a simpler time when the biggest question in your life was “Chocolate or vanilla?” As a further nod to the youthful feel of these desserts, restaurants are branding them as “Mom’s” or “Nonna’s” recipes. We bet you weren’t shelling out $10 or more for a slice of cake when you were just a kid, though.

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