Comfort is defined as “the easing or alleviation of a person’s feelings of grief or distress” and for centuries, for better or worse, people have turned to food to help them find relief. While we all define comfort food in slightly different terms, the core of comfort food is this: It takes us back to a time when we were cared for, when mom made us chicken noodle soup when we were sick or a friend came over with a bowl of mac-and-cheese after our teenage love affair ended.
Some will turn to the sugary-sweetness of ice cream while others yearn for the salty goodness of crunchy deep-fried French fries. In the end, everyone is searching for the same thing—food that will help them feel a little better when life or circumstances have left them feeling a little worse for the wear.
Restaurants and Comfort Food
There have been a few extremely difficult times for Americans in the last quarter of a century. 9/11 and the Great Recession are two of the events that come to mind—one’s that have changed the face of this nation, families, and individuals for good. They also changed consumer’s needs and expectations.
An article in Thrillist quoted Chef Michael Ferraro of New York City, “The stock market crash hit in 2008 and basically, my restaurant was sold immediately. We went from doing 200 covers a night for dinner with $110 check average to doing three people a night.” High-end was out and comfort food was in.
In addition to cataclysmic events, the mindset and the advent of newer generations slowly began altering the restaurant landscape. Eating out became a necessity, “I mean, really, who has time, or the desire, to cook?” became a regularly-used phrase. People were no longer going out to eat for special occasions at high-end establishments; the newer generations were looking for food that would sustain and vitalize them and places they could patronize on a regular basis that wouldn’t break the bank. And what types of foods were these newer generations turning to? Home style meals with a twist—healthier and a little edgier—and the coming-of-age of the healthy fast-casual dining arena exploded.
Comfort Foods as the New Culinary Landscape
If you walk down the streets of Chicago, you can’t help but run into a restaurant on just about every block serving mac-and-cheese, and not just serving this comfort food, but making it their staple signature all-or-nothing single-concept dish. Look at the food making the Instagram social media highway and you’ll see pictures of pizza (the most Instagrammed food) as well as specialty burgers and succulent avocados.
But as we leave the hardships of the subprime mortgage crisis behind, comfort foods are changing as well. After all, we can only live on fried cholesterol for so long. Enter the rise of comfort food with a twist including healthier concepts as well as international flavors.
Restaurants Serving up Comfort Food with a Twist
Noodles & Co. is known for its unique, international menu, but one that focuses on comfort food. What could be more comforting than noodles and pasta? Consider their soups: chicken noodle, tomato basil and Thai chicken, and their offerings with a healthier twist such as Pasta Fresca with olive oil, roasted garlic, onions, tomatoes, spinach and parmesan.
Even Kroger Co. is getting into the comfort food craze. Kitchen 1883 is set to open in Union, KY with a menu that offers a fresh take on new American comfort food. Their made-from-scratch menu will consist of American and international flavors.
You can find another new spot in DC with a name and tagline that says it all: Chef Brian’s Comfort Kitchen – Fresh American Comfort Cuisine Made With Love. One of his signature comfort food dishes is a Chesapeake Bay salmon salad with fresh tarragon and arugula.
Breaking Bread Café & Catering claims to offer “a unique style of fresh, flavorful and healthy global comfort foods.” I think, with that one line, they covered all the main attributes that are trending in the restaurant industry. You’ll find this socially conscious café in North Minneapolis.
Ramen is considered the comfort food of Japan and this Asian staple is fast becoming a soothing food for Americans as well. When Bon Appétit listed their 2017 Best New Restaurants in America, Kemuri Tatsu-Ya in Austin placed 8th and offers the solace of ramen combined with brisket as their signature dish. Ramen seems to be getting just about as popular as mac-and-cheese and is a dish that lends itself well to not just protein and noodles, but veggies, garlic, sprouts, mushrooms and seaweed—adding a touch of health to the lowly noodle.
Food trucks are entering this sector as well. Ms. Cheezious in Miami offers up grilled cheese sandwiches, some with a healthy twist, such as their goat cheese, prosciutto, tomato and arugula rendition.
And you know, when the entrepreneur-extreme known as Oprah enters the fray—many will follow. O, That’s Good! is her recently launched line of refrigerated healthier spins on comfort food classics.