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5 Changes You'll See When Dining Out in 2021, According to Experts

Restaurants aren’t getting “back to normal” any time soon.

In the last year, there have been a lot of previously unimaginable changes to the dining out experience. Twelve months ago, we could eat indoors all across the country. We tried sips of each other's drinks, sometimes ate with our hands, and using hand sanitizer at the table was reserved for the greatest of germaphobes among us.

But once the quarantine started, everything changed—many restaurants closed, and those that remained were forced to adjust, providing outdoor dining and other COVID-safe precautions.

Though the vaccine rollout has started, the pandemic is far from over. Rather than reverting back to the pre-pandemic normal, restaurants are going to continue to change, finding new ways to offer COVID-safe dining experiences. Below are five of the biggest changes you're going to see in restaurants this year.

For more, don't miss The Saddest Restaurant Closures In Your State.

Menus will stay smaller and more specialized

open menu with photos and description of dishes

Peter Saleh, Managing Director and Restaurants Analyst at global financial services firm BTIG, predicts to Restaurant Dive that, to account for losses in sales, restaurants will pare their menus down to just the best selections, so that kitchens can be more productive. We've already seen this trend taking off last year, with fast food chains discontinuing dozens of menu items.

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The West Coast and Northeast will see the most dramatic recovery

restaurant dining

Restaurants were most negatively impacted in states with most severe lockdowns, like the West Coast and the Northeast. As establishments begin to reopen, Saleh predicts, most dramatic improvements will be seen at restaurants that have lost most traffic.

We'll get back to breakfast on the go

Breakfast sandwich

Forbes points out that 60% of employees expect to be back in the office by the end of Q1, with more people coming back to work as the year progresses and the public gets vaccinated in larger numbers. Those commuters will also return to the drive-thru window for a quick on-the-go breakfast. After a year of eating the same breakfasts from our fridges and pantries every morning, we'll all be glad for some more exciting hand-held options.

We'll be drinking cleaner cocktails

three purple pig mocktails carrot mocktail recipe
Courtesy of The Purple Pig

The rise of low-ABV drinks like hard seltzers and alternatives to spirits signal a new era of imbibing, where alcohol is kept at a minimum and cocktails are enjoyed as healthy beverages. And we can expect to see this trend cross over to restaurant menus this year.

"Consumers are reaching for more alcohol-free spirits, low-calorie alcoholic beverages, and boozy versions of popular healthy beverages ahead of 2021," Instacart trends expert Laurentia Romaniuk tells Real Simple. "We've seen sales for trendy alcohol-free spirits boom, increasing by 195% year-over-year. Perhaps consumers are looking to turn over a new leaf in 2021 with tasty, guilt-free libations."

Comfort foods will be back in style

Mac and cheese

Based on observations of last year, in times of turmoil our food preferences shift from healthy to comforting. And the comfort food comeback is here to stay, according to Elizabeth Blau, CEO of restaurant development and consulting company Blau + Associates. "People just want to gather and socialize while feeling safe—so instead of obsessing over a rare new super-seed, restaurants will move forward by providing guests with feel-good food and genuine hospitality, filling the need for comfort and warmth during these extraordinary times."

For more, make sure to read up on the the Unhealthiest Snack Foods, According to Science.

Clara Olshansky
Clara Olshansky (they/she) is a Brooklyn-based writer and comic whose web content has appeared in Food & Wine, Harper’s Magazine, Men's Health, and Reductress. Read more about Clara