Flavor Trends, Strategies and Solutions for Menu Development

Instagram Moments Developing menu items that are begging for a close-up is a smart social strategy

Chicago’s Arbella riffs on the Greek saganaki with its flaming Cheese Saganaki, featuring pan-fried queso panela, apple and sunflower seeds.
PHOTO CREDIT: Mistey Nguyen

For food or beverage posts to catch fire on social media, a little vamping for the camera is in order. Of course, flavor first—but Instagrammability is becoming part of menu strategy today, particularly when trying to woo younger consumers. They like to Instagram their lives, taking snapshots that build a story of who they are.

Food and drink play a large role in that narrative: Nearly 130 million posts on Instagram carry #foodporn as a hashtag. It’s not enough to make plate presentation appetizing. Gorgeous colors, interactivity, unexpected flourishes, tableside drama—all make the dining consumer click and share.

Those factors also make that same diner come back for more. They’re now part of that restaurant’s community, which is important to a growing number of consumers.

Although one successful Instagram strategy calls for jubilant, over-the-top builds—think freakshakes and sushi doughnuts—this isn’t always the most practical menu-development approach. Substance, as well as user experience, must come into play. Here are 12 ways to shine on Instagram, garnering that social-media love.

1 Sensational Skillets

(See main image) Whether mini or family-sized, skillets promise warmth, comfort and pulled-from-the-hearth deliciousness. Those values translate well on social media, especially when the skillets boast bubbling cheese or a flame or two. Even without those traits, food served in skillets is special. Rustic and homey, skillets help elevate veg-centric dishes, shareables and bar bites, highlighting crispy, charred characteristics and signaling a nostalgic campfire sensibility.

  • Cheese Saganaki: Pan-fried queso panela, apples, sunflower seeds, “Opa!” finished
    —Arbella, Chicago
  • Skillet Fries with cheddar, Monterey Jack, bacon and chipotle aïoli
    —Forest Room 5, Denver
  • Cast Iron Chocolate Chip Cookie served in a skillet with a pitcher of cold milk
    —Boulton & Watt, New York

2 Over-the-top Shakes and Sundaes

If any menu category is primed for extreme indulgence and all-out fun, it’s sweets. Thanks to the Instagram-success of places like Black Tap in New York and their wildly over-the-top freakshakes, the bounds are limitless: multiple garnishes, edible candy coatings on the glass or plate, all with soaring heights of sweet surrender.

  • Caramel Corn Sundae: Funnel cake, caramel sauce, buttered-popcorn ice cream, caramel corn, whipped cream
    —Red’s Table, Reston, Va.
  • S’more Than You Can Handle: Frozen hot chocolate frappe with a graham cracker rim, chocolate syrup, topped with a wicked big s’more
    —Boston Burger Company, three locations in Massachusetts

3 Beautiful Bowls

Instagram loves those overhead shots of food, and modern bowls really pop when photographed this way—the curve of the bowl, the layers of intriguing colors and textures, the inherent comfort-food posture. Bowls tell a great flavor story worth sharing, whether it’s because they show off an adventurous global flavor profile, an eclectic combination of flavors, or simply a gorgeous assemblage of familiar favorites.

  • Wild King Salmon Crudo Bowl: Fresh salmon poke, sushi rice, avocado, Asian slaw and furikake
    —Watr at the 1 Rooftop, Miami Beach, Fla.
  • Lemongrass Pork Bowl: Warm heirloom rice, Berkshire pulled pork, carrot, cucumber, pickled onion, jalapeño, cilantro, toasted peanut, chile vinegar
    —Modern Market, based in Lakewood, Colo.

WATR at the 1 Rooftop The Wild King Salmon Crudo Bowl at Watr at the 1 Rooftop in Miami Beach, Fla., makes a pretty picture, with its artful combination of salmon poke, avocado and Asian slaw.

4 Indulgent, Loaded Fries

There’s something deliciously hedonistic about poutine, loaded fries and loaded tots. And sharing that “naughty” experience on Instagram conveys an appealing recklessness, a contagious joie de vivre. Any way you parse it, items as craveable and delicious as loaded fries are fun to share on social media. Diners are guaranteed to get groans of delight and serious lifestyle envy. Success on menus seems amplified when tapping into global mash-ups or favorite flavor systems, like Buffalo wings or a pastrami sandwich.

  • FOMO Fries: Kennebec potatoes, cheese sauce, chorizo, cilantro and chile cream
    —Bear’s Lair Tavern, Berkeley, Calif.
  • Pastrami Fries: Pastrami, grilled onions and melted American cheese over crispy string fries
    —Outta Bronx, Phoenix

5 Tableside Drama

Some of us are old enough to remember—and reminisce about—tableside Caesar salads and cherries jubilee. In recent years, there’s been a bit of a comeback, thanks to the proliferation of tableside guacamole, which keys into freshness cues with a nice serving of dramatic flair thrown in for good measure. Now, there’s tableside carved meats and poultry, with a customization element through sauces and garnishes. Tableside cupcake frosting, s’mores building—the possibilities are endless. Instagram loves interactive dining, and tableside delivers with grace and aplomb.

  • Whole Chicken Tagine carved tableside, served with harissa carrots, fennel and couscous
    —Terra Mare, Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
  • White Gazpacho with green almonds, fraises des bois and pea tendrils; servers pour the soup over a colorful lattice made of purées and edible florals
    —LondonHouse, Chicago
  • Fried Rice Stone Pots, made with soy sauce, butter, sesame oil, carrots, zucchini, mushrooms on a bed of fried rice; combined tableside
    —Sushi Garage, Miami Beach, Fla.

Kailley Lindman At LondonHouse in Chicago, the White Gazpacho is poured through a flower-laden lattice, with green almonds and pea tendrils in the picturesque bowl.

6 The World in a Cone

Food in a cone is no stranger to the state-fair crowd, but recently, restaurants are combining that sensibility with a global street-food vibe and developing highly creative, usually indulgent dishes—served in a cone, edible or not. Whether it’s for the on-the-go consumer or served on plateware that keeps it upright, food in a cone looks good on Instagram. It’s fun and playful, often taking familiar favorites and twisting them into something new, like fried chicken in a waffle cone, or pancake bites drizzled with maple syrup sitting in a bacon cone—or “bacone,” if you dare.

  • Sun Moon & Stars Ice Cream: A mix of oolong, jasmine and green tea flavors, served in a puffle cone (a Hong Kong-style waffle cone)
    —Cauldron Ice Cream, four locations in Southern California
  • Fork-Free Chicken & Waffles slathered in a choice of sauces: Kick’n Ranch, Yella BBQ, Cinna-Maple, Buffalo Blue, Traditional BBQ or Peri Peri
    —Chick’nCone, based in New York

7 The Art of Foam

We’ve seen flaming garnishes, branded ice cubes, glittering rims. Now, foam art is a phenomenon, pushing beyond niche coffeehouses and into progressive restaurants, showing up on both coffee drinks and cocktails alike. With coffee drinks, the “branding” sits atop the milk foam. In cocktails, baristas often cleverly use the egg white (or aquafaba) foam.

  • Spring in Tokyo: Mizu Lemongrass Shochu, umeshu, yuzu, matcha tea and egg whites, with a float featuring edible flowers and matcha tea powder
    —Azabu Miami Beach, Miami Beach, Fla.
  • Pisco Sour: Pisco, lemon, bitters and cinnamon with a monkey logo branded into the foam
    —Monkitail, Hollywood, Fla.

Monkitail Branding with logos updates the foam effect. The monkey logo, at Monkitail in Hollywood, Fla., tops the foamy Pisco Sour.

8 Luscious Yolks

Eggs are certainly enjoying rock-star status on menus today, crowning sandwiches, bowls, fried rice dishes and more. What’s come into focus is the yolk: Soft, runny egg yolks evoke deliciousness. Maybe it’s a poached egg, punctured with a fork and spilling slowly over a bowl of breakfast grits. Or maybe it’s a soft-boiled egg encased in a tender raviolo, surprising diners when it bursts with a golden, yolky sauce. Either way, it’s an Instagram moment.

  • Uovo Salad: Frilly greens and caramelized walnuts tossed in a mustard dressing and topped with a crispy poached egg
    —Donato & Co., Berkeley, Calif.
  • Spinach: Beth’s Farm spinach, 6-minute egg, marinated feta
    —Nina June, Rockport, Maine

Nadia Andreini Oozy is good when it comes to eggs, like in the Uovo Salad at Donato & Co. in Berkeley, Calif., starring a crispy poached egg.

9 Pretty Produce

Blaze Pizza’s executive chef, Bradford Kent, posits that one of the drivers of veg-centricity is that it photographs so beautifully, which increases its appeal on social media. In fact, he strategically uses colorful produce on pizza builds to help win over younger consumers, knowing that they like to share great food shots on Instagram. Whether it’s a veg-centric pizza, artisan toast, bowl build, pasta dish, or more, leveraging produce’s rainbow of vibrant, contrasting colors is a smart way to build buzz.

  • Asparagus Open-Face Sandwich with blue cheese kajmak, cherry tomato, hard-boiled quail egg, and crispy prosciutto scallion
    —Ambar, Washington, D.C., and Arlington, Va.
  • Coconut Ceviche: Coconut pieces, corn nuts, guajillo, pickled cucumber, topped with edible flowers
    —Planta South Beach, Miami Beach, Fla.

Goran Kosanovic The Asparagus Open-Face Sandwich is a vibrant showcase for produce at Ambar in Washington, D.C.

10 Bring on the Meat

Call it “caveman chic.” Call it a glorious backlash to veg-centricity. Either way, big, bountiful plates of meat are taking center stage, commanding attention both in the dining room and on social media. Some are stunning with elongated bones. Others steal the spotlight with sheer size, boasting conviviality that fits right into modern dining. In fact, that shareable side of dining helps drive this opportunity. Instagrammability is a done deal, showcasing decadence in one quick share.

  • Tomahawk Rib Chop: A 24-oz. steak, cut and served tableside
    —Nick & Stef’s Steakhouse, Los Angeles
  • Kurosawa Long Bone Ribeye: A 26-oz. steak on a Japanese grill
    —Makoto, Miami Beach, Fla.
  • Grilled Prime Tomahawk Ribeye Steak with roasted carrots, cumin, charred lemon, Bordelaise and Béarnaise sauces; with Grilled Maine Lobster, herb butter, petite greens, red mustard greens, pea tendrils, sorrel
    —Travelle Kitchen and Bar, Chicago

Galdo Photo A Grilled Prime Tomahawk Ribeye Steak alongside Grilled Maine Lobster is impressive in magnitude, served at Chicago’s Travelle Kitchen and Bar.

11 Booming Brunch Cocktails

Half the fun of brunch is sharing it with friends—both in person and online. Modern brunch’s hip swagger, along with its built-in languid, indulgent charm, yields a rich social media story. Bloody Marys garnished to the nines, creative mimosas that demonstrate extravagance, punches that signal sociable fun—all pop on Instagram. Brunch cocktails that capture that spirit can do serious heavy lifting when it comes to brand loyalty.

  • Kimchi Bloody Mary with soju, fresh kimchi juice, lime and pickled vegetables
    —Tree House, St. Louis
  • Mamita’s Michelada: Cerveza, lime, hot sauce, salt
    —Red Rooster, New York

12 Desserts in Technicolor

Blame it on the Unicorn Frappuccino … or should we thank that eye-popping Starbucks drink? Either way, bright, colorful desserts are trending. They’re not only fun and spirited, they look great on Insta. Red velvet works here, so does gold leaf, edible glitter, plumes of pastel cotton candy and rainbow sprinkles.

  • The Foodgod Baked Alaska Surprise: Cake batter, strawberry ice cream, Funfetti cake, cotton candy, white chocolate Rice Krispies and Fruity Pebbles
    —Komodo, Miami
  • Chocolate Banana Torta: Chocolate tart dough infused with banana, sesame and chocolate custard alongside marigold ice cream, maple syrup, rum caramel, caramelized banana, puffed rice, fresh mint and cocoa streusel
    —Nico Osteria, Chicago

Komodo An over-the-top Baked Alaska Surprise at Komodo in Miami combines everything from cake batter to cotton candy in one dessert.

From the November-December issue of Flavor & the Menu magazine. Read this issue online or check if you qualify for a free print subscription.

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About The Author


Katie Ayoub is managing editor of Flavor & The Menu. She has been working in foodservice publishing for more than 16 years and on the Flavor team since 2006. She won a 2015 Folio award for her Flavor & The Menu article, Heritage Matters. In 2006, she won “Best Culinary Article” from the Cordon D’Or for an article on offal.