2021 was a pivotal year for the culture of dining, one where diners happily braved freezing temperatures for the comforts of hospitality and learned a little more about what it takes to run a restaurant. Above all, though, diners showed time and again that the need for community connection and a sense of welcome are a vital part of our culture.
After two pandemic-filled years that forced us apart, people have never been hungrier for human connection. For many, restaurants function as community hubs, so it’s no surprise they play a critical role in bringing people back together.
Analysis of current OpenTable data strongly suggests that the era of isolation and social distancing is leading into a new year that’s all about connection. From the return of bar seating to supporting restaurants as they become more sustainable, 2021 OpenTable data shows that 2022 is ushering in an era of dining culture that brings us all together once again.
The trend: The restaurant business will become more sustainable.
The data: 18 percent of diners say they are willing to pay more for food and beverage items.
Pre-pandemic, many diners were blissfully ignorant about how the restaurant business operates. Now, nearly two years’ worth of news stories covering industry issues such as the supply chain and labor shortages has left the dining public more educated.
The result is that people have a heightened awareness of what it actually takes to run a restaurant — from restaurant workers putting their safety at risk to feed us to restaurants needing government bailouts to stay afloat, it’s all been laid bare, good and bad.
The silver lining is that diners are eager to meet restaurants where they are for a stronger future. In a 2021 OpenTable survey, 75 percent of diners said it’s important that restaurants provide fair wages and benefits to employees and 18 percent of diners said they are willing to pay more for food and beverage items.* While these numbers are positive signs for change, there is still more work to do to continue to educate diners on the need to pay more in this new environment, allowing restaurants to make the changes they need for more sustainable futures for their businesses and employees.
The trend: 6pm is the new 8pm.
The data: Early-bird reservations are up 8 percent as a percentage of total dinner reservations.
When the workday is done (even at home!), people are ready to get out and spend time socializing with other people. Compared to pre-pandemic reservation times, more people are booking tables in the hours before prime dinner hour — or what used to be considered prime dinner hour. These early-bird reservations are up 2 percent nationally compared to 2019, which represents an additional 1,000 reservations for every 50K reservations in 2019.
This could be because more people are working remotely, often by themselves. LinkedIn’s chief economist recently told 60 Minutes that the percentage of remote jobs posted on the career site has increased from 1 in 67 pre-pandemic to 1 in 7 today. People clearly want a change of scenery, a great meal, and (most important of all) some company. And they don’t want to wait until 8pm to get it.
The trend: Date night is back.
The data: Reservations for two-tops and four-tops are up 3 percent as a percentage of total dinner reservations, while single-diner reservations are down 15 percent.
Recent years have been tough on romance. Whether it’s long-partnered couples with increased anxiety around childcare or singles wanting fun and carefree meetups, date night has been through a period of decline.
Thankfully, in 2022, date night is coming back strong. Reservations for cozy two-tops are up 3 percent compared to 2019. Double dates are also trending, with reservations for four-tops up 3 percent as well. Meanwhile, single-diner reservations are down 15 percent, signaling the desire for connection while dining out. Couples are returning to their neighborhood bistros and marquee eateries alike to enjoy the intimate, romantic settings that restaurants have always excelled at creating.
The trend: The bar rises again.
The data: Bar seating is up 225 percent.
One of the most missed scenes of everyday life — a bustling, convivial bar — is returning to restaurants across America: Bar seating is up 225 percent compared to 2019.
For a long while, many people preferred to avoid the bars, which can be high-traffic places where you’ll cross paths with restaurant staff, your dining companions, and strangers alike. Turns out, in 2022 that’s exactly that kind of crossroads of humanity people are longing for most, shared places where they can connect meaningfully indoors and in person and be open to the serendipitous meet-cutes for which bars are justifiably famous.
The trend: Year-round outdoor dining becomes the norm.
The data: 82 percent of people want to see outdoor seating options continue to grow.*
In the pandemic era, the popularity of outdoor dining rapidly exploded. According to OpenTable’s most recent diner survey, 82 percent of people want to see outdoor seating options continue to grow.
Many cities and towns freed restaurants from onerous permitting and other restrictions, clearing the way for expanded patio spaces, sidewalk seating, and charming dining areas erected in parking spaces. Outdoor heaters and sheltering structures have proliferated in order to make dining al fresco comfortable in cold or wet weather. And diners need the flexibility as new variants emerge to find that community connection where they feel comfortable.
There’s no doubt that the pandemic has altered many things about restaurants and diners forever. As everyone moves ahead into a still-uncertain future, it’s comforting to know that at least one fundamental thing hasn’t changed: Togetherness and connection will define the new normal.
*OpenTable surveyed over 21,000 diners in the U.S. and Canada on the OpenTable network between February 7, 2021 and February 15, 2021. The James Beard Foundation surveyed nearly 300 of its restaurant partners in the U.S. between February 8, 2021 and February 23, 2021.