The future of food: Local experts predict what’s in store for Boston’s restaurant scene in the 2020s

Restaurant professionals weigh in on what trends will be in when you're dining out this decade.

Local experts predict some interesting changes in Boston's dining scene during the coming decade. –Adobe Stock

It isn’t easy to look five years into the future of a city’s dining scene, let alone ten. A minimum wage increase, changes in licensing laws, rapidly shifting trends — any one of those can swiftly alter the course of Boston’s restaurant industry, with a ripple effect that lasts for years. If we’re surprised on a regular basis by the abrupt closures or sudden neighborhood booms that proliferate local restaurant news, who knows what the next decade will bring?

It could bring a lot, actually. Boston.com asked six prominent restaurant professionals what the local dining scene might look like in the 2020s, and their answers paint a future that, for the most part, holds positive transformation. From a thriving Downtown hub to highly personalized restaurants, here’s what to expect in the next decade.

Boston will lead the cocktail and beverage industry 

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Ezra Star, general manager at Drink

“Ten years from now Boston will continue to be on the forefront of the cocktail and beverage industry. Having offered up new licenses and reduced their cost, the city has made young, eager bartenders excited to open up some small and unique places that rival any other city in America. Downtown has once again become the hub of Boston nightlife, with many new places opening in Post Office Square. New hotels have joined the scene as well, giving Boston some beautiful classic-feeling hotel bars.”

Neighborhood restaurants will re-emerge

Douglass Williams, chef/owner at MIDA 

“I think the smaller town neighborhood thing is going to come back. I know that sounds cliche, but I think it’s cliche for a reason. To have the little tiny shops scattered in a row booming with different things that you actually want to use, not just another dollar shop or another coffee shop. Not even just chef-driven things, because chef-driven things are risky and niche and don’t serve the whole neighborhood. I think the really rustic kind of kitchens like Brassica Kitchen [in Jamaica Plain] — I think you’re going to see a lot more of those smaller, independent [places] that know how to cater to the neighborhood … Everybody can’t be downtown, and I think that neighborhood-y shops serving high-quality food, world-class service are going to exist in neighborhoods more. That’s important. Sometimes you can’t go far from home, you can only walk to a place. And to be able to walk to a Brassica or walk to a place in the neighborhood that’s really doing it on both levels, I think that is going to start to re-emerge.”

Chefs will open more highly personal restaurants

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Irene Li, chef/owner at Mei Mei 

“[One piece I read] was talking about the generations of restaurants that represent different ethnic foods, and what it basically said was that the first wave was immigrants from those countries who cook that food both to serve as a comfort from home, but also they have to adjust it to American palates. Then you have the wave of Western chefs who vacation somewhere, fall in love with the cuisine, and then bring it back to the city they come from. And then finally you get the generation of restaurants where these chefs are expressing their very specific point of view about a certain type of cuisine. 

“I think that we are in all three phases at once in Boston [right now]. I’m very much hoping that we continue to deepen that level three, highly personal, highly situated restaurant experience. I think that aside from Mei Mei, some other examples of that would be Tanám in Somerville and Dakzen in Davis Square. Being ‘authentic’ is just a construct that we use. The reality of being a child or grandchild of immigrants is that you are of both cultures and you are also more and different than that. That, to me, is really exciting food, and the kind I hope we see more of in Boston.”

Tastes will rapidly shift to better reflect a city of students and professionals

Josh Lewin, chef/owner at Juliet and Peregrine 

“I think that we’ve already seen [a shift in diners’ tastes]. We’re starting to see more students staying because there’s more interesting opportunities happening in Boston, whether they’re emerging industries, places where we’ve become almost flagship in biotech and technology start-up type ventures. And that means the student base that used to come here for an education are also coming here for [professional] opportunities and that’s kind of new, so that changes things immediately. Also the fact that so many different types of restaurants exist almost for the first time in Boston, that changes what diners can be exposed to. There are more [cuisines] for people to try, therefore people are trying new things, therefore they’re more likely to take a chance on a restaurant, where a decade or half a decade ago you wouldn’t do that.”

Public transportation will have to improve for food service industry professionals

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Juan Pedrosa, chef at Lolita Cocina and Tequila Bar 

“I’m hopeful that the next 10 years brings as much excitement and opportunity to this city as we’ve seen in recent years. When I travel and experience how other cities have developed, I bite my tongue, since my thoughts are always: I wish Boston could do this, but better.

“For such a charming city, I can understand the apprehension to take on new challenges in a small footprint, but Boston is growing, and demand to hold up our end of the bargain does not go unnoticed. I’m hopeful public transportation will ease the way for those who rely on hospitality as a means of income. There are echoes from those who want to work later into the early morning and I’m sure if Boston had more accessible dining options, we could compete with the big cities. Food aside, can we just get everyone home safely and in a timely manner?”

Restaurants will be re-defined by food halls and ghost kitchens

Bob Luz, President and CEO at MA Restaurant Association 

“The definition of ‘restaurant’ will change. Brick and mortar restaurants will be smaller, and fewer will open. The digital world and evolving consumer preferences are resulting in an array of restaurant models aimed at giving customers what they want, when and where they want it. Some restaurants will morph into a hybrid model, offering counter service, full service, takeout and delivery, and meal kits. The delivery-only restaurant is on the rise through virtual restaurants and ‘ghost kitchens.’ New food halls will make it easy for people both to eat and to shop for food they can take home. No more Sbarro and Panda Express – James Beard Award nominees and the like will be prevalent. Boston clearly is witnessing this revolution in 2019/2020.    

“Off-premises opportunities will drive industry growth. The increasing demand for off-premises meals is transforming the restaurant industry and operators will need to find ways to tap into this new revenue channel. Delivery orders are booming, and business models are shifting fast to find ways to serve that customer base. The shift affects everything from restaurant design to marketing, tech investment, operations, and site selection.”

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