Oklahoma City’s downtown dining scene is an example of the city’s growth as a foodie hub and the continued movement toward locally sourced foods and higher quality.
“Today, there are so many more restaurants and neighborhoods,” said Kurt Fleischfresser, director of operations for Vast at the top of the Devon Energy Tower. “There is so much more competition today that the quality has been elevated.”
Restaurant sales in Oklahoma have increased by 180 percent since 2000, according to the Oklahoma Restaurant Association (ORA). Oklahoma City has seen a lot of that growth, including in downtown, which has transformed in recent years to a holistic dining destination.
“Neighborhoods are often tied to a group of restaurants,” Fleischfresser said. “New restaurants mean new and growing neighborhoods.”
A growth in local restaurants not only means more options for dinner, it also helps diversify the local economy. One in 10 jobs in Oklahoma are in food service, according to the ORA.
“When you look at the economy in recent years, one of the biggest trends is a growing retail sector,” said Cathy O’Connor, president of the Alliance for Economic Development of Oklahoma City.
The biggest trend in local dining might be the increase in options, but downtown restaurants also embody national trends of an increased focus on locally sourced menu items, environmental sustainability and creativity.
“It’s only natural that culinary themes like local sourcing, sustainability and nutrition top our list of menu trends for 2015,” Hudson Riehle, senior vice president of the National Restaurant Association’s Research and Knowledge Group, said during the release of the association’s top trends to watch in 2015. “Those concepts are wider lifestyle choices for many Americans in other aspects of their lives that also translate into the food space.”
The National Restaurant Association’s survey also revealed the top trends from 2014, many of which are embodied in the downtown restaurant scene.
“The What’s Hot in 2015 survey found … items that gained most in trendiness since last year in the annual survey included underutilized fish, doughnuts, ethnic condiments, grass-fed beef, brown/wild rice, and grilled vegetables,” a release about the survey stated. “Items with the largest drop in ‘hot trend’ rating included bruschetta, kale salads, nose-to-tail cooking, hybrid desserts, and house-made soft drinks.”
Many of the new restaurants to emerge downtown in recent years have proclaimed a commitment to locally sourced items, which can give a restaurant a unique flavor.
“I am looking for fresh and local … but I also want this to feel like Oklahoma,” said Jonathan Krell, chef at Park House, which, like Vast, is one of several fine dining establishments new to downtown in recent years.
However, downtown isn’t all fancy tablecloths and table manners, as the district offers a variety a of other options ranging from family favorites like pizza and hamburgers to less traditional fare like oysters and sushi.
The diversity of the downtown dining scene will be celebrated next week during Oklahoma Gazette’s Downtown Restaurant Week presented by Downtown OKC, Inc. from Jan. 18 to 24. Participating restaurants are offering special menu items and prices to give customers the chance to try new dishes and experience the growing offerings of the downtown restaurant scene.
As Fleischfresser considers what trends might develop in the local dining scene in the coming year, he stated a continued interest from consumers to try new dishes and eat more sustainably.
“I think people are buying into the idea of local,” Fleischfresser said. “Obviously, when they sit down, they want to have good value. But I think you will see local restaurants continue to improve, and the customer’s pallet is going to appreciate good stuff.”
No matter what new dishes might become popular, Fleischfresser said the biggest trend in local dining, especially downtown, is the growing number of establishments that are turning the neighborhood into one of the region’s top food destinations.
“The atmosphere we have today wasn’t in Oklahoma several years ago,” Fleischfresser said. “There are a lot more dollars being spent on dining than there was just even a year ago, and I think that will continue into the future.
Print headline: Scenic dining, The burgeoning restaurant scene means more than great food for the city.
Trends to watch in 2015
According to the National Restaurant Association, the following are emerging restaurant trends in 2015.
• Environmental sustainability remains among the hottest menu trends. In 2015, food waste reduction and management is at the forefront of restaurant operations. Composting, recycling and donating are all tactics of food waste strategies growing in popularity.
• Hyper-local is playing out with restaurant gardens and house-made concepts, such as ice cream, cheeses, pickles and bacon. Restaurants are producing more menu items from scratch.
• Pickling is a growing trend in 2015, with many restaurants exploring house-made pickles, ethnic flavors and specialty vinegar.
• Global focus for many restaurants in 2015 includes experimentation with ethnic ingredients and ethnic street-food from around the world.
• Children’s menus are becoming more gourmet, as many restaurants are shifting the kids’ menu from hotdogs and hamburgers to more adventurous offerings featuring more whole grains, vegetables, oven-baked items and entree salads.