A lot’s happened since the days of one-size-fits-all side dishes. More consumers are seeking meatless menu selections, and offering an assortment of sides is one strategy for accommodating them. The whole local and farm-raised movement has put a strong focus on vegetables and fruits, increasing their availability. The health benefits of items like grains and legumes have become common knowledge. And menus that are designed to encourage sharing and small plates, which can easily encompass items that are similar to traditional side dishes, have become much more popular.
All this and more means that if you’re not treating side dishes seriously, you’re missing out on a sales opportunity. This means both à la carte sides and the accompaniments to center-of-plate proteins, and the meat and three have gotten much more interesting.
Veggie Grill, a budding chain with a plant-based menu (PDF), may be vegetarian but it’s still got the side dish thing going on, from the Cauli-Mashed Potatoes & Gravy to red cabbage slaw. Seasons 52, the healthy grill headquartered in Orlando, may not have à la carte side dishes, but look at what comes on the side (PDF) of the entrées: roasted asparagus; broccolini; and sun-dried tomato-mushroom pearl pasta. And students at Case Western Reserve in Cleveland, where food service is operated by Bon Appétit Management, are treated to on-the-side options that range from roasted squash to curry rice salad.
New Veggies Are Coming on Strong
Items like Brussels sprouts, which used to be considered too strange for comfort, are now hot, new menu additions, from fast-casual to full-service restaurants and more.
Root vegetables such as parsnips and varietal carrots
Greens such as mustard and kale
Seasonal specialties like pea sprouts and corn
Chickpeas, lentils, and edamame (soybeans)
Here's An Idea: Cheese sauces from Chef-Mate® and Trio® elevate a green vegetable like string beans or broccoli into a specialty side dish.
The Potato Rules
Spuds have always been standard side dish fare, but today the offerings have been ramped up with specialty potato varieties, flavor additions, and prep and presentation improvements—or many of the above.
“Smashed” for a more rustic texture
Fries made with sweet instead of white potatoes
Enhanced fries with dusts, dipping sauces, or poutine-style toppings
Fingerling and baby potatoes
Flavored mashes and mixed vegetables mashes (ie, parsnip-potato)
Scalloped and other gratin-style preparations
Get Started: Stouffer’s® Scalloped Potatoes can be customized to create a signature side dish, by adding bacon, onions, sourc cream, additional cheese, or other flavorful ingredients.
Grains Get Interesting
Americans have discovered grains—not just for their health benefits but also for their delicious flavor and intriguing textures.
Grits, particularly artisanal
Ancient grains: Farro and quinoa
Couscous, including Sardinian and Israeli
Specialty rices, such as brown basmati and Forbidden Black
Tip: Many grain dishes, including those with quinoa, contain protein, especially when paired with beans or legumes—making them ideal for vegetarians or vegans.
That Little Something Extra With Sandwiches
This is where the special pedal hits the signature metal, offering texture as well as flavor, and a distinctive addition that no one else offers. Many sandwich specialists have discovered the appeal of coleslaw as part of the sandwich itself, which adds not only a refreshing bit of acidity, but also a pleasing crunch and color. Variations such as red cabbage are fair game.
Potato chips or fries in the sandwich
Artisanal or housemade pickles
Sauerkraut or kimchi
Fruit (dates, fruit butter, apple slices)