Remember when dining consisted of a relaxed meal with nice flatware, good china and maybe a glass of wine?
2011 evokes different dining memories in North Texas: of tacos and tweets and trucks. Of scarfing your food with a plastic fork from a red-and-white checkered paper boat, with your iPhone nearby and the scent of exhaust fumes in the air.
Money remained tight, and diners relied on the Internet; 2011 became the year of cheap grub, of eating as scavenger hunt, with Facebook and Twitter as the guide.
"You do see an emphasis on more casual dining," says chef-restaurateur Stephan Pyles, owner of the renowned Stephan Pyles restaurant and its exotic sibling, Samar, both in Dallas. "It probably has to do with age group; there's a younger crowd of diners. It's not the death of fine dining -- they're more attuned to food than ever -- but it's a Twitter and Facebook world, and you've got to tap into that."
Call it the year of the anti-gourmet, when what captured everyone's attention had less to do with the actual food and more to do with the hubbub surrounding it.
Here are some examples.
Food trucks have to be the most anti-gourmet dining trend of the year. Let's see: You queue up to place your order through a tiny window, and you get your food on disposable plates. You dine on the hood of your car or, if you're lucky, at a communal picnic bench. If you're unlucky, the truck runs out of food; by the time you get there, they've closed up and moved on.
"It's silly that you have to chase them down -- location is part of the problem," says Jose Ralat Maldonado, founder of the Taco Trail blog (www.tacotrail.blogspot.com). "In smaller, pedestrian-friendly cities, food trucks make more sense."
But for fans, the elusive, casual nature of the food truck is key to its appeal.
"I love that it's a different dining experience -- something you stumble upon," says food-truck aficionado Robyn Darley. "The change in atmosphere is what I like most about it."
As they've become more widespread, they're adapting, says Chris Kruger, founder of the Fort Worth Food Park, which hosts a rotating cast of half a dozen food trucks Thursdays through Sundays.
"The smarter ones are establishing reliable schedules," Kruger says. "In the beginning, it was the hot thing to try and find the food truck, where's the food truck? But eventually people get bored playing that game."
And scoff if you will, but food trucks fill a valuable need for those who can't afford to open a regular restaurant, says Christina MacMicken, co-owner of Good Karma Kitchen, a vegetarian and gluten-free food truck that resides at the Fort Worth Food Park.
"It's so expensive, and the overhead is so high," she says. "This let us reach people and provide a place to get gluten-free, vegetarian and vegan food."
Burgers previously existed for one thing: when you wanted convenience for cheap. But then they got fetishized and foodie-ized, and a new kind of burger joint emerged where the ground beef has to be fresh, not frozen. The pickles must be pickled in-house. The ketchup comes in a dipping ramekin. And people sit around discussing the ratio of burger to bun.
At Chop House Burgers in Arlington, they mix in chopped brisket. At The Commissary in Dallas' One Arts Plaza, burgers come with a sommelier. Fort Worth chef and recent Top Chef judge Tim Love expanded his empire this year, too, opening another Love Shack burger shop in Denton. At the new YourWay joints, you can go for one of their dozen burger options or build your own.
All those finicky efforts have conspired to persuade us that a burger is no longer a mere patty on a bun but instead a bona fide foodie object -- though one that is affordable by foodie standards: A new-age burger with fries and a drink is less than $20.
The best burgers are those you can't have. In the loopiest burger mania of all, California-based In-N-Out Burger debuted in the Metroplex and hoodwinked us into thinking that its standard fast-food burger merited not just waiting in line but camping out overnight. When people wait in line, it must be good, right?
What started out as a modest $2 snack filled with off cuts of meat such as tongue or sweetbreads has become a culinary obsession. Gourmet tacos, breakfast tacos and fusion tacos emerged, and half a dozen local blogs have dedicated themselves to the lowly taco.
Tacos have their own chains like Fuzzy's and Taco Diner. They've turned up at high-end Mexican restaurants like Wild Salsa in downtown Dallas, but they're at non-Mex spots, too. Brownstone, former home of celebrity chef Casey Thompson, now features street tacos on its $10, 30-minute "executive" lunch menu. Revolver Taco Lounge in Fort Worth brings it full circle, using traditional ingredients but in a white-tablecloth setting.
One thing all these tacos have in common: They're under $5. The year's hottest trend is all about the bottom line.
"People are tired of going to restaurants and being charged $40 for a portion of food," says blogger Maldonado. "They often can't afford that. Tacos are a smaller item that's less expensive, but you can fill it with whatever you want -- be it high-end like lobster or old-school picadillo."
The pop-up restaurant ranks as 2011's cruelest, most challenging trend, wherein only the fittest diners survive. Fleeting and ephemeral, the pop-up requires you to be plugged in on the social-media front, vigilant, well-funded and open-scheduled.
The pop-up is the desert flower of dining, a makeshift restaurant open for a limited time, usually in a borrowed building, with ragtag furniture and forks that don't match. Its existence is known to a select few. If you are one of the privy set, you must monitor its existence, then sprint to the phone to grab one of the limited reservations.
Pop-ups around Fort Worth have included "Farm and Fork," a one-nighter at the Wine Down Bistro in Burleson in the summer that featured locals such as Artisan Baking Co. and Burleson's Lone Oak Winery, and the more recent "Pop-Up Restaurant" at Times Ten Cellars, which benefited Meals on Wheels. On Jan. 24, Central Market in Fort Worth will host a class called "B44: A Pop Up Restaurant" starring Daniel Olivella, chef-owner of B44 in San Francisco.
Pop-ups are often held in funky surroundings, with dim lights and communal seating. The hardship engenders a Survivor-style camaraderie. You bask with pride among your fellow marathon diners, knowing, as you eat this plate of pork belly scattered with individual Brussels sprout leaves while balancing on your wobbly chair, that this scenario can never be duplicated. So you take loads of photos on your iPhone to post on your Facebook page, showing you were there to all those who were not.
You can't eat tweets, but social media ousted food as dining's top trend, with restaurant patrons consulting tools such as Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare, Gowalla and Yelp to report where they're going and what they're eating.
"It has a sort of underground element that gives you 'cred' with your friends," Maldonado says. "Having the information has a certain degree of one-upmanship."
Few restaurateurs practice the art of social media more proficiently than Jay Jerrier, owner of Il Cane Rosso, the Deep Ellum pizzeria that sets up camp at Times Ten Cellars in Fort Worth every Thursday night.
Jerrier has built a devout following due in no small part to the endless stream of Twitter and Facebook messages he sends out, posting specials, photos of new menu items, shots of VIP visitors and more.
"Without social media, we wouldn't have even gotten on anyone's radar screens," Jerrier says. "Because of our social-media presence, a lot of people can reach out to me. I can even take reservations using my iPhone or iPad. Obviously, you can't do it without a passion for food and ingredients, but without social media, we would be a totally different restaurant."