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We assessed trends from our 10,000+ restaurant customers to find out what items sold best in 2020 for online ordering, in-house dining, as well as the items trending on James Beard-winning menus.

While we generally look for menu trends that seem to be on the rise in popularity for the upcoming year, as every restaurateur knows, 2020 has been anything but typical. As small businesses try to stay afloat and consumers look for comforting budget-conscious options, trending menu items have shifted from unique and adventurous to simple and satisfying.

2020 Restaurant Online Ordering Menu Trends

From fine dining to quick service, restaurants had to meet consumer demands while also simplifying their menus and adapting items to retain quality for to-go orders. 

2020 Restaurant Dine-in Menu Trends

While there was a good amount of overlap in online ordering and dine-in menu trends for 2020, we found that guests wanted to experience big-ticket menu items at a restaurant more than at home, particularly ones that are best eaten fresh from the kitchen like seafood, steaks, and roasts.

Download Upserve’s 2020 State of the Restaurant Industry Report to see how menu trends vary by restaurant type, plus see 2020 sales trends, holiday trends, and more.

2020 James Beard Restaurant Menu Trends

Every year we check the trending items from our James Beard Award-winning customers and compare them against the rest of our database. Often, we find that James Beard menus often have new and exciting flavors, concepts, and ingredients that are indicative of what trends will come to the mainstream in the coming years. This year, however, our JBF customers followed the demand for simple and satisfying items just like the rest of the industry. 

  • Family-style meals were the top-selling item at JBF restaurants this year. 
  • Fish, chicken, salads, and veggie-based options were the most popular types of meals sold, either family style or otherwise, as we saw a spike in the price of beef across the country this year.
  • Alcohol sales mainly consisted of bottles of wine and cocktails, which is expected as many of these restaurants are special occasion destinations and have menus that are often accompanied by beverage pairings.
  • Tickets that feature “tasting menu” as an item made the top ten list as well. This tells us that while simple comfort food is the top trend for 2020, many people are still looking for a special experience. 

Looking Back: 2019 Menu Trend Predictions

2020 restaurant menu trends

1. Vegan-Friendly

From the Impossible™ Burger to jackfruit, vegan-friendly menu items are on the rise with zero signs of slowing down–they earned on of the highest scores on our scale (a 12.5 out of 14). With more and more consumers turning to plant-based diets for health, animal rights, or environmental reasons, you’ll only isolate a growing number of potential guests by not offering thoughtful and expansive vegan-friendly options.

2. Tinned Fish

Tinned fish is making a steady climb, appearing on menus as apps, small plates, and bar snacks. While it wasn’t one of the highest-ranked, it did have one of the biggest jumps, moving up a whole point from 6 to 7, indicating that this item is one to watch. From sardines to smoked mussels and octopus, food lovers in the US are starting to realize what our counterparts in Spain and Portugal have known forever—tinned fish is awesome.

3. ‘Sober Curious’ Beverages

Many people are choosing to refrain from alcohol for health and wellness reasons as part of a new ‘sober curious’ movement. We found that the appearance of mocktails on menus was higher than last year, and continues to rise. There is also a new non-alcoholic distilled spirit on the market called Seedlip that is gaining popularity (it rose 2 whole points) within the movement and beyond. 

4. Mushrooms

We’re not talking about portobellos or white buttons, here. Interest in wild, seasonal, and rare versions of mushrooms have been appearing more on menus and customers are loving them. More expensive (but still relatively well-known) varieties like chanterelles and trumpets are gaining more fans. The most interesting item in this category is the Lion’s Mane mushroom—they appeared 360% times more on menus of James Beard Award-winning restaurants, so they will only continue to grow in popularity as more people discover them. 

5. Lettuce Alternatives

Romaine and iceberg are so last year. If you’re having trouble selling salads on your menu, try giving them a makeover by using a trendy new type of lettuce to entice guests. The two we found to be on the rise are little gem (a cross between romaine and butter lettuce) or celtuce (an endlessly adaptable vegetable that can replace kale, celery, cucumbers, and more).

6. Unusual Seafoods

Find out the best times of the year to serve popular items like octopus, turbot, uni (aka sea urchin), and abalone.

7. Shiso Leaves

Also known as Japanese mint, these leaves are being enjoyed muddled in cocktails, pickled, tossed in salads, and dozens of other ways.

8. Foreign Spirits

Classics in their native countries, spirits like cachaça, amaro, and sotol are making their way into the American mainstream.

9. Fermented Foods

From kimchi to koji, many of our trending fermented menu items had a major Japanese influence.

10. Charcoal

Oh how the mighty have fallen. We breakdown the meteoric rise and subsequent crash of the activated charcoal phase.

Looking Back: 2018 Menu Trend Predictions

1. CBD (Cannabidiol)

Data revealed a 99 percent increase in CBD menu items in 2018, setting up 2019 as the year of CBD. From baked goods to CBD-infused beverages, restaurants across the country are responding to a consumer demand to chill out.

“There has been growing popularity and support around CBD, and if it makes people happier and less stressed, then why not give the public what they want?” says Nick Duckworth, owner of cafe Banter NYC. They currently only sell Dirty Lemon CBD, a packaged, CBD-infused drink, but will be expanding their CBD offerings in 2019, allowing customers “to add CBD drops to most beverages.”

At River and Woods in Boulder, CO, CBD has become a menu staple that’s used in everything from glasses of water to garnish for oysters. “It is mainly used in our beverage program for cocktails, mocktails, beer, and wine,” says Ian Mitchell, beverage manager at River and Woods. “We serve Kannaway Pure Gold, Full Spectrum CBD oil. While a single portion is $5 per 5mg, our wellness cocktail offers a discounted price of only $3 to add the small 5mg optional garnish to the ‘Be Well.’ With the benefits of ginger, turmeric, apple cider, and carrot, the addition of CBD further promotes anti-inflammatory and many other health-based properties.”

2. Fermented Foods

The wellness trend continues: a recent obsession with gut health has consumers turning to naturally preserved foods. This means that fermentation has swept the restaurant industry, with a staggering 149 percent increase on Upserve customer menus, making it the biggest trend in 2018.

One of the most popular items to take the food industry by storm? Kombucha. This fermented, sweetened, slightly effervescent, functional tea beverage has popped up everywhere from restaurants to mass retailers.

Ben Aalvik is the co-owner of Fully Rooted, a raw cold-pressed juice and kombucha company based in Providence, Rhode Island. Ben has been brewing his own kombucha since 2010, but didn’t introduce it to his pressed juice business until 2017. “We started selling cold-pressed juices in 2013. When a lot of markets started carrying kombucha in 2016, we knew it was a good time to start,” he says. “Kombucha is a very difficult product to keep consistent, so we added a brewery room to our space to control the product. There are a lot of things that can throw it off or change the characteristics of the beverage.

3. Jackfruit

Restaurant owners and managers find value in having jackfruit items on their menu as more and more people shift to plant-based diets. “We have made a choice to work towards having more options for vegetarian, gluten-free, and other specialty diets,” says Kyle Kensrue, Director of Operations at Randolph Beer, a gastropub with three locations in New York City. “We have BBQ Jackfruit Sliders. Non-vegetarians order the sliders and they say they’re just as good as the meat version.”

Like many other restaurants, Ryan Wallace, owner of William Oliver’s Publick House, a gastropub in Lafayette, CO, has jackfruit tacos and a jackfruit sandwich on his menu, but also has another option on their secret menu: jackfruit on a baked potato. “I wanted to add jackfruit to our menu because it is such a versatile ingredient that lends itself to so many dishes, to easily create new and fun flavors,” Wallace says. “Our customers have really enjoyed the addition of jackfruit, but the vast majority of them had never heard of it before. It’s been fun to introduce people to something new.”

4. Fire-roasted Foods

While some cooking methods quickly become stale, fire roasting has worked its way into American kitchens with a 19 percent increase on restaurant menus. Fire roasting vegetables and fruits results in a depth of flavor not attainable with regular roasting or baking, creating a variety of smoky flavors for chefs to offer customers.

Looking for ways to bring the flame to the kitchen with fire-roasted menu items? Heat up your menu with a fire-roasted tomato bisque, fire-roasted shrimp tacos, or try adding a fire-roasted green chile jam to chicken, pancakes, or a burger for a subtly sweet burn.

5. Ancient Grains

The last trend is not so much a food of the future, but a sign that consumers are continuing the trend of going back to their roots. With diets that focus on wholesome, unprocessed foods, ancient grains saw an 11 percent increase on restaurant menus in 2018. Grains such as teff, einkorn, amaranth, millet or spelt may sound rather exotic to the average foodie, but health-conscious consumers are well versed in these carbohydrates that provide more nutrition than a simple grain.

“Quinoa is probably number one in trending grains,” says Mike Kostyo, senior publications manager for Datassential, a food industry market research firm. Quinoa’s menu mentions are up 350 percent over the past four years, and the grain is on the menu at one in five fast casual restaurants. It’s remarkable growth for “something a decade ago most people had never heard of,” Kostyo told QSR Magazine.

When it comes to consumption in the U.S., the International Food Information Council Foundation’s 2018 Food & Health Survey indicates Americans rank healthful eating as one of their top three concerns. With 36 percent of Americans between the ages of 16-34 are on a diet or specific eating pattern, eating healthfully is a priority now and into the future.

The state of the restaurant industry is ever-evolving, but nothing could have prepared restaurant owners and operators for 2020. Download our State of the Restaurant Industry Report for 2020 menu, sales, and holiday trends, plus stories from restaurant owners who managed to grow sales despite the pandemic.

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Written by   |  
Stephanie is a Providence, RI native and eight-year food industry veteran. As Upserve's Content Marketing Coordinator she creates materials that help restaurateurs, managers, and service professionals succeed. When she's not writing, Stephanie is most likely traveling, cooking, or trying new restaurants.
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