The following are five top dining trends, as observed by Benchmark Hospitality properties.

Trend 1: Build Your Own Meal

Today's consumers are educated in the kitchen and discerning in the restaurant. This is sparking a trend toward customer freedom while dining out: building their own entrees. Guests are getting involved with assembling and accenting their own entree plate at restaurants, suggesting alternative side dishes, and more. Forward-thinking chefs welcome this consumer involvement, often by offering a menu of suggested pairings.

Trend 2: Excellent Cuisine for $20

An excellent meal does not have to cost a month's grocery budget. Restaurants are taking leaps toward more affordable yet wonderfully creative menus, sometimes by featuring less expensive cuts of meat that are exquisitely seasoned and prepared.

Top restaurants are taking the lead and holding prices to around $20 per entree, making up the difference in volume and creative cooking techniques. Brisket, clod steak, bottom round, duck, and seafood such as squid, bay scallops, clams, and mussels are being featured at affordable prices.

Trend 3: Focus on Flavor

Ever been to a tuna sandwich tasting or had tastings of clear soup varietals using seasonal ingredients? Believe it or not, this is a strong trend that may have its roots in classic caviar tastings, when small samplings were common at first-rate Russian restaurants.

Today, mini sandwiches featuring albacore with seaweed salad, a miniature tuna burger, and cured ahi with cucumber relish can be a delicious and fun luncheon experience. Small glasses of potato leek soup, shiitake mushroom, and consomme with simple croutons, a trio tasting, is becoming popular. The idea is to increase interest in flavors.

Trend 4: Mundane “Snacks” Now Homemade and Fabulous

Authentic French bistros, Italian trattorias, and American restaurants are creating simple yet delicious “snacks” to help guests take the edge off while ordering and kicking back before dinner.

Customers, having discarded their Atkins diets, are snatching these up and requesting more. Even mundane popcorn is being spiked with flavor, such as highly fragrant truffle oil; potato chips are given panache by adding roasted garlic and other seasonings; and common oyster crackers are transformed with fresh herbs such as thyme, oregano, and rosemary.

Trend 5: Fresh and Uncomplicated

The freshest ingredients are coupled with simple, uncomplicated preparations. This trend is so hot that many chefs have redesigned their kitchens, bringing prep areas out to their guests. In these exhibition kitchens, guests can select the freshest ingredients, in some cases straight from the chef's kitchen garden.

With seafood, diners select fresh from the daily catch: shrimp, clams, lobsters, whole eviscerated fish, and more. Hot cauldrons stand by simmering with herbs, citrus, and mirepoix. The chef plunges requested ingredients into the flavorful court bouillon, followed by the selected daily catch, and then serves the dish with seasoned drawn butters and plenty of lemons. It's a feast for the eyes and the body, fresh from the ocean, right out of the kitchen garden and onto the plate with no masked flavors or long production techniques.