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Back to the Future 

Looking ahead to 2008

Go ahead ask. Shake the Magic 8-Ball: What will 2008 bring to Charlotte's food scene?

I predict more steak houses will open in Charlotte. Yeah, I know. That was easy. With the national economy tanking, people won't eat out as frequently on their own tab. But as long as corporate expense accounts keep flourishing, large national corporate cattle emporiums such as Del Frisco's and Capital Grille will thrive.

But 2008 may feature a local high-noon steakhouse shoot out. Just as Del Frisco's ratcheted up the dollar mark for swanky meat market interiors, new players, perhaps even star chef outposts, may eclipse the old, leaving some with the necessity to reinvent themselves or fade away.

In the new year, more Charlotteans will get on board the locovore movement. (The word locovore, alternate spelling localvore, did just win best new word of 2007 from the New Oxford American Dictionary.) Community Supported Agriculture waiting lists will get longer, but in turn, local farmers will grow more produce to sell at area farmers' markets and restaurants. Consumers are aware that eating locally makes sense. The food tastes better, and it doesn't have to travel as far to get to the table.

In her best-selling book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life author, and now-Virginian, Barbara Kingsolver writes, "The average food item on a U.S. grocery shelf has traveled further than most families go on their annual vacations." Depending on how the drought further affects our farms, the Piedmont area is graced with a long growing cycle and bountiful produce. It may take more planning to eat locally, but worth it.

Small plates -- aka tapas or mezze -- will continue to find their way onto more Charlotte menus. As we become more health-conscious, the idea of loading up the plate will give way to having a variety of tastes. Yet, paradoxically, one night in 2007 I dined with visitors from the Mediterranean at a "Mediterranean" style restaurant in SouthPark. The guests were perplexed by the menu offerings. I told them it was Am-Med -- Americanized Mediterranean dishes. One diner, a professor, asked why Charlotteans didn't prefer the same taste profile that had been successful for 5,000 years. Good question.

Just as the ancient pomegranate is enjoying new celebrity, our community will continue to rediscover a food and reinvent its presentation. You can't fault chefs for being creative.

One food posed to enter the culinary repertoire is the yumberry (the marketing name for the yang-mei), a pitted Chinese fruit with a bumpy red skin and flesh rich in antioxidant compounds. Although currently the fruit may not be imported from China, the juice is available via Frützzo, whose company president has pronounced it the "new pomegranate."

As restaurants become more green, the Styrofoam to-go box may become the dinosaur of the industry. New cardboard boxes (Price's Chicken Coop was right on the money all along) are appearing in the more upscale restaurants, recyclable and undyed.

With the local economy not looking so rosy anymore -- the sub-prime fallout, job loss, increasing gas prices, the drought -- diners will turn to predictable foods. While all restaurants may be in for a bumpy ride, ethnic eateries will be harder hit. Those with a large expat population to support them and those cuisines currently in demand (Japanese, Thai) should be fine. But that unusual one-of-a-kind offering, those places that make Charlotte unique, may struggle.

This will be further exacerbated by the proliferation of chain or franchise operations openings. Charlotte was named the nation's No. 2 market for entrepreneurs by Entrepreneur magazine. But with the high cost of rent and the ever-decreasing piece of the dining pie, making a go may result in a dead-end.

The growing emphasis on healthful eating will continue. Flat breads will flourish. But with the rest of the nation focused on portion control, will the all-you-can-eat buffets become history here? "My reply is no," says the Magic 8-Ball. Will we move away from trans fats? It is certain. Ban foie gras? Very doubtful. Even those transplants from Chicago, which outlawed foie gras, seem unwilling to comply with this. Become more aware of high fructose corn syrup? Cannot predict now. Consume foods that claim to have positive even medicinal effects on health? Yes -- definitely.

Furthermore, we can expect more restaurants -- even upscale ones -- to offer smaller menu selections with downsized back-of-the-house operations. Everyone will tighten the belt in 2008.

One final prediction: With the 2008 U.S. presidential election looming ahead, pollsters will go agro in North Carolina, predicting the election by the yields of our state's red and blue berries -- the blueberry and strawberry. These are, after all, the state's official berries (named by the 2001 General Assembly). While North Carolina strawberries are not among the nation's top 10 yields (according to the 2002 Census of the Agriculture), North Carolina's blueberry yield is fourth in the nation behind Maine (for wild blueberries), Michigan and New Jersey. Blue, by the way, represents a Democrat win.

If you don't believe me, shake the Magic 8-Ball: Signs point to yes.

Have a restaurant tip, compliment, complaint? Do you know of a restaurant that has opened, closed, or should be reviewed? Does your restaurant or shop have news, menu changes, new additions to staff or building, upcoming cuisine or wine events? Note: We need events at least 12 days in advance. Fax information to Eaters' Digest: 704-944-3605, or leave voice mail: 704-522-8334, ext. 136.

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