Buoyed by his excellent 2019 score, our fearless forecaster offers his thoughts on the New Year

Last year, in the very first words of the 2019 Delaware Dining Trends report, I made fun of the idea that “milk” could ever come from oats.

Consider me chagrined. Today, as I pour myself a cold glass of pulverized oats, I am reminded of two things: One, your daily lactose intake is something you worry about a lot more in your 40s; and two, the future is hard to predict.

(Side note: If you haven’t yet had the pleasure, oat milk tastes exactly like milk if that milk had been poured into a bowl of oatmeal and drained a couple of hours later. But if you drink it with Oreos, it’s … fine.)

I failed to predict a few other things too: The seemingly limitless supply (and, I guess, demand?) of CBD edibles and the stores that will sell them. The explosion of Vietnamese joints on the Concord Pike. Pop-up Christmas bars. Fried-chicken sandwich wars.

So as I point the crystal ball toward 2020, I do so with great humility and, yes, a few wins in my back pocket. (Check the 2019 scorecard at the end of the story.) As usual, I’ve noted the national trends, chatted with the culinary cognoscenti, and ignored everything Whole Foods has to say about the shape of things to come. (Stop trying to make watermelon-seed butter happen, Bezos. It’s not happening.)

My thanks to a motley crew of chefs and restaurateurs, bartenders and baristas, who patiently put up with my questions, as well as the dynamic duo of Carrie Leishman and Karen Stauffer from the Delaware Restaurant Association for their thoughts and insights. Any missed guesses are mine alone.

Trend: Lunchtime Veganism

There’s a story that comedian Wyatt Cenac told on the podcast “The Nod” last year: “I was in Austin, Texas. I wasn’t feeling particularly well, probably because I had eaten a lot of barbecue. A friend took me to a Chinese restaurant, and there was broccoli. I had never had broccoli in my life. But you know how when a dog has been sick, they’ll just start eating leaves? It’s instinctual. The dog is, like, ‘This is going to help me deal with some stuff.’ In a similar way, I was, like, ‘I think I need that broccoli. Am I going to do this? Yeah … I’m going to eat that broccoli.’ And I ate that broccoli. And I did feel better. And I celebrated by eating more barbecue.”

More and more, people are realizing we are Cenac, and it’s time to eat that broccoli.

Whether you’re thinking about the earth or thinking about your body, it’s clear that eating less meat is a good idea. I’m no big fan of nutritional science—my kids are members of a generation of Americans who have a higher incidence of life-threatening food allergies thanks to “expert” advice—so I tend to believe the best diet advice is still the simplest, from Michael Pollen: “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.”

Vegetarianism is healthy and sustainable and unlikely to become truly mainstream anytime soon, because meat still tastes great. And yet, a meatless burger was the second most popular fast-food introduction of 2019. (Restaurant Brands International reported a 5 percent increase in same-store sales at Burger Kings thanks to the Impossible Whopper.)

A growing number of local restaurants are all-vegan. Check out Green Box Kitchen on Market Street, V-Trap on Lincoln, and cult favorite Drop Squad Kitchen on the Riverfront. They serve food that is inviting, soulful, and a far cry from the meager rations that constituted a vegan diet 20 years ago. And these places are not catering solely to a meat-free crowd. They’re full of lunchtime vegans, trying to live a little better.

I’ll be back to Green Box soon for falafel waffle and a chopped Thai salad. And I will feel better. And then I will celebrate with some barbecue.

Prediction #1: At least three high-profile vegan eateries open in Delaware in 2020, including one at the beach, for vegan-curious vacationers.

Trend: Dewey Diamonds

I was at the Delaware Restaurant Association’s annual Cornerstone Awards when I ate my first oyster grown in Delaware’s Inland Bays. Plump and delicious, the oyster had been cultivated less than a mile from where I was standing, and it competed well against all the other shellfish at the event, with a bit of hometown pride mixed in.

“The flavor is there for sure,” says Leishman. “They’re salty and delicious.”

They’re also locally sourced, sustainably grown and … get this … actually improve the water quality around them by their very presence. What more could you want? Cultivators like the Delaware Oyster Co. are using available technology to bring a better and better product to market—at this point, mostly focused on creating shells that will look cool on a fine-dining restaurant platter, Leishman says.

But shell appeal (or lack thereof) hasn’t stopped the Dewey Diamonds from moving fast at George & Sons’ Seafood Market and Oyster House in Hockessin. On a recent Thursday night, shuckers stayed busy keeping up with a full bar of slurpers, and a waitress was happy to talk about how much she enjoys these Delaware-born-and-raised beauties. George & Sons has been a pioneer in this area, but expect to see them on more menus, and watch for more varieties in 2020.

Prediction #2: Delaware oysters knock some random Canadian oysters off menus, as soon as supply allows. We’ll see three varieties in regular rotation by the end of the year.

Trend: Market on Market

Ask 10 people what they think downtown Wilmington needs, and you’re likely to hear the same thing 10 times over: a supermarket.

You would have gotten the same answer 10 years ago, probably. And still, no supermarket. Why? It’s all metrics. A retailer like Trader Joe’s makes decisions based on how many people live within walking distance, how many live within a mile, and many other data points. In the past, the metrics for Wilmington just haven’t been appealing enough.

The residential boom in downtown Wilmington has absolutely changed that math. Has it changed the math enough? Maybe.

The following is based 100 percent on supposition and no insider knowledge, but is prompted by a curious story in The News Journal in late November which revealed that the city planned to use $1 million in state funds—money that had apparently been appropriated explicitly for this purpose—to purchase 801 N. Market St., the building on the corner where Rite Aid used to be. Why? No one would say, at least not to the reporter at the time.

The 6,600-square-foot space is small by modern retail standards—way smaller than the average Trader Joe’s. But small-format grocery stores in urban settings are a hot growth area in that sector. Would city/state incentives be enough to lure one of them to Wilmington? Dare to dream.

Prediction #3: A brand-name market with hipster cred opens (or is at least announced) on Market Street—and if it’s not Trader Joe’s, it’s a close cousin.

Trend: Wine, Naturally

Organic. Biodynamic. Raw. Naked. Natural. Call it what you will, but low-intervention wines aren’t just having a momentthey’re on their way to becoming the new normal.

“It’s probably the biggest thing to change the landscape of how people shop for wine since the advent of the point system,” says David Govatos, owner of Swigg in Independence Mall.

Govatos has built a reputation as a purveyor of “natural wines,” a term that’s already loaded with such baggage that The New York Times is asking whether the natural wine movement is “dead.” (Answer: No.) David himself prefers the term “low-intervention wines,” meaning wines made from grapes that usually start in organic vineyards and become wine with very few, if any, additives in the process.

While Robert Parker’s point system gave a generation of non-expert wine drinkers a way to evaluate what was being sold in local stores, it also incentivized winemakers to use a variety of not-so-natural techniques to make sure every vintage appealed to the venerable Mr. Parker’s specific taste buds. Now, a new generation cares more about what’s going into their glass than how it scores.

Low-intervention wines tend to be lower in alcohol (but not always), more expressive of terroir (but not always), and more interesting than Yellow Tail (always). The way craft beer drinkers pushed brewers to make more interesting beers, natural wine drinkers should push restaurants to offer more interesting wine lists.

Prediction #4: Orange wines (yep, orange wines) pop up in fine-dining establishments in Delaware, and at least one restaurant adds a “natural wine” section to their wine list. 

DoorDash’s first shared commissary kitchen, in Redwood City, Calif., part of a trend of companies opening shared kitchens that allow restaurant partners to expand their delivery footprint without dealing with the expenses of opening a new location. Photo Michael Vi / Shutterstock.com

Trend: Ghost Kitchens

“I wonder if we’ll see our first ghost kitchen in Delaware this year,” asks Leishman.

I wonder, too. I’ve been ghost hunting for months now.

Last year, we predicted fine-dining delivery would take off. Score one for us. Virtually all experts now predict that off-premises dining is where most restaurant industry growth will come from over the next decade, and driving that growth are restaurants that exist nowhere but on UberEats.

What would it take to get you to order from a “ghost kitchen” that you can’t see or visit? Maybe a familiar chef with local credibility, launching a new concept? Maybe a cuisine that’s otherwise unavailable in Delaware? (Ethiopian? Please?) Or most likely: A chain that doesn’t yet exist in Delaware, but is dipping its toe into the market without the cost of setting up a storefront. Look me in the eye and tell me you wouldn’t order a Double Double Animal Style if an In-N-Out Burger appeared on your Door Dash app tomorrow.

Prediction #5: We’ll be able to find at least one restaurant you can’t actually visit on a dining app by the end of the year.

Last Year’s Scorecard

Let’s see how last year’s predictions stacked up:

1. Asian Beyond Sushi: When the DE.CO food hall opens, expect at least one stall – or possibly even two – offering Asian street food.

Nailed it. DE.CO opened with Phubs serving Vietnamese pho and banh mi, and The Verandah serving Indian samosas and tikki chaat. Bao also went mainstream, showing up on the opening menu at Maker’s Alley.

2. Fine Dining, At Home: Better coordination leads to more local restaurants joining forces with delivery services. You’ll be able to order your favorites from your couch by the end of next year.

As I sit here in my office in Wilmington, I’m only 35 minutes away from having a bowl of PEI Mussels Diablo from Big Fish at my desk, courtesy of Uber Eats.

3. More Breweries: Forget the naysayers. Delaware’s thirst for local suds does not dry up, and at least three more breweries open in 2019.

This prediction went against the grain to bet on hops—and hops won. Crooked Hammock in Middletown. Autumn Arch in Glasgow. Brick Works in Long Neck. Thompson Island in Rehoboth Beach. Bellefonte Brewing to Brandywine Hundred. Coming soon: Hangman Brewing in Claymont, and First State Brewing in Middletown. And, likely, more.

4. American Regionalism: “American” cuisine becomes more dominant on local menus, and at least one restaurant opens with a very tight regional focus.

Ehhh, let’s call this a miss. People were too busy opening brewpubs.

5. Better Ways to Keto: Hummus checks a lot of boxes. Look for more than one fast casual restaurant to open with an Israeli/hummus theme.

You can maintain your ketosis at Naw Naf Grill, which brought shawarma and hummus bowls to Christiana. And hummus, still having a moment, appears on many upscale appetizer lists.

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