The rise and rise of ‘Single dish’ restaurants

Ahead of the casual dining show 24-25th February we’re looking at some of the major trends that have swept the casual dining industry. We know that staying ahead of the curve in this fast-paced industry is essential, especially where consumers are demanding ‘different’ and ‘more’ or, as our chef Adele, likes to call it have an ‘increasing restless palate syndrome’. Having a hero dish on your menu is something that has always been a sure-fire way to ensure customers come back for more, but what if that hero dish is the only thing you served on your menu?

One way that new casual dining outlets are hoping to stand out in this crowded market is by making their menu unique and embracing the saying ‘less is more’. Single-dish restaurants aren’t new to the industry; they’ve been popular for a while, and brands such as Pizza Express, Nandos and more recently Wahaca, and have made their mark in the industry for their single-dish nature.

But for some reason – it’s the more unique single dish franchises/independent outlets that are turning heads. We’ve seen the power that food trends can have on a business which, done correctly, can lead to new and retained custom. Furthermore it can help a casual dining outlet become an exciting destination, cue social media ‘check-ins’, Instagram snaps and a buzz in the media. In the past couple of years we’ve seen this in practice with the opening of Cereal bars, bubble tea cafes and grilled cheese sandwich restaurants sweep the nation.

Let’s take a step back, where has this trend come from?

When two become one…

Before single dish restaurants, successful dual restaurants were popping up left right and centre. For example, Burger & Lobster in London serve; you guessed it, burgers and lobster or Tramshed in trendy Shoreditch serve only chicken and steak. The buzz about these locations certainly indicated that there was an opportunity for niche markets to flourish, less on a menu really could be the ‘more’ that diners were after. The natural next step was single dish…

Food trucks

Ahead of this tidal wave of permanent single dish restaurants and outlets setting up shop, casual dining in the UK had been inundated with food trucks touring the country, attending events and getting our taste buds tingling for new, exciting and different flavours. 10 years ago the humble food truck may have been a burger van at a football match or a mobile fish and chippie, but as we’ve seen in the industry – consumer demand for more choice and food experimentation has led to an explosion in the market place. The permanent instalment of single dish restaurants could largely be argued as a natural progression from a more mobile format.

Looking across the pond…

Whilst the UK food scene is a trend-setter in its own right, there’s no harm in looking over the pond or further afield for new mealtime inspiration after all, the USA was the birthplace of some of the nation’s favourite food brands. Like many food trends, New York has often been the epicentre for new food trends – and single dish restaurants/cafes/trucks are no different. New York is home to bagel shops, dumpling counters and macaroni cheese or ‘mac’ bars. It’s no surprise that we’ve seen singe dish restaurants start also springing up in the UK. Discover more international recipes here.

Can single dish restaurants be of benefit to those in the foodservice industry?

Not all food trends last – so for chefs and caterers, getting involved in them can take up a lot of time and effort for potential little gain. So are single dish restaurants here to stay? 

Single dish restaurants can help overcome some of the challenges that the casual dining sector faces, notably, wastage. Theoretically, less choice therefore means less waste as menus are a little more flexible and driven by demand.

Furthermore, it’s also not just the country’s capital that has shown that this trend could be here to stay – Primo’s in Leeds is a great example of a successful, single dish restaurant. There’s also evidence that many independents have now moved into franchise territory; often opening up a northern sister to the original London location.

How can you incorporate this food trend in your existing restaurant?

Just because your restaurant is already in existence doesn’t mean that you can’t get involved with this food trend on a smaller scale. Consider which food type is most in line with the cuisine you serve and see how you could create a feature section of your menu dedicated to variants of this one food type. Why not be inspired by one of New York’s specialities and include a variety of macaroni cheese recipes – think mac and lobster or ‘posh’ cheese.

The important part to consider, however, is not to stray too far away from the food you already serve.

What’s next for the single dish restaurant?

Alongside this rise in single dish restaurants in the UK, the food industry has seen healthy quick service restaurants become the second fastest growing outlet. Tossed is taking over central London, selected shopping centres and in 6 Welcome Break service stations - which is a good indication that the UK is open to healthy, quick alternatives. It will be interesting to see if the two trends start to converge.  

Looking for assistance as a casual dining operator? Get in touch to find out how McCain Foodservice can help.