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Ethnic Dining Trends in the United States

According to a 2000 “Ethnic Cuisines” survey by the National Restaurant Association, consumers are nowadays dining out not only for special occasions but as an integral part of their daily lives. Nearly half of American who enjoy dining out reveal that they search constantly for stimulating new tastes, and that ethnic cuisine is where they look.

To a great degree, compared to a similar survey conducted in 1994, these diners agree that the Italian, Mexican and Cantonese Chinese foods served in the United States are more like constituents of American food than they are in any way foreign. Ninety percent of those surveyed have tried them, and fifty percent eat them regularly. Given that there are degrees of “authenticity” in regard to all ethnic cuisines, consumers report that these top three are so familiar to them as not to frequently bring up the question of authenticity. A telling sign of this trend is the fact that standard non-ethnic restaurants now frequently offer variants of these cuisines on their own menus.

In the case of Italian food for instance, one American diner may consume spaghetti and meatballs in a marinara sauce at a local restaurant without even noting that it is Italian in origin. Another diner may seek out Italian themed restaurants and expect the olive oil to not only be extra virgin, but to also come from a specific region, like Tuscany. A third may specifically seek Italian-American comfort food, but only that of the highest quality. The cuisine, whatever the standard, is no longer exotic.

The 2000 survey also indicated that Hunan, Mandarin and Szechwan variations of Chinese cuisines, German, French, Greek, Cajun/Creole, Japanese (including sushi), Indian, Soul Food, Scandinavian, Caribbean and Spanish cuisines have at least been the subject of experimentation by more than 70 percent of the diners. Since the original survey in 1994, the German, Soul Food, French and Scandinavian categories have declined as the others have risen.

Diners under 40 who live in metropolitan areas tend to drive these cuisines, with two demographic cohorts being predominant. “Internationalists” want the authentic experience of foreign dining, read up on the culture involved, attempt to pronounce the names of the dishes properly, are willing to use different utensils like chop sticks, and in general seek an experience that expands their cultural horizons. “Urban Professionals” want a fun experience of new foods and tastes but with copious explanation and not too much comfort-zone stretching.

On the other hand, the cohort designated “Social Diners” are looking for an appropriate atmosphere in which they can entertain and enjoy the company of friends. The restaurant choice is less important; if ethnic, it had better be both comfortable and accessible. “Convenience diners” are looking for economical dining choices, frequently use takeout services, but are not inclined to experiment.

Outside of the top three cuisines that were once foreign, spurred by immigration, a great stratification of tastes and food offerings has occurred. Chinese food is no longer just “Chinese;” diners now go out for Hunan, Szechwan, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Mandarin, Cantonese, Mongolian Barbecue and other specialty variants.

According to the federal Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), between 1981 and 1996, nearly half a million Indians immigrated to the United States; at the same time consumer awareness of Indian cuisine jumped 74%. India, like China, is a vast and highly diverse country, hence American diners have a choice of several types of cuisines: North Indian, South Indian, Tandoori (clay oven), Bengali, vegetarian, and many others. Immigrants from other South Asian countries like Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh have added their own spices to the mix.

INS statistics indicate that 394,000 immigrants from Caribbean countries immigrated to the United States just between 1995 and 1998; the availability of Jamaican and other Caribbean cuisines (Dominican, Cuban, and Haitian) in American cities has increased proportionally. Many of these stimulating foods are heavily spiced—Jamaican jerk chicken a prime example—and American diners do not, as they used to, automatically insist that the heat or the spice be reduced; they have a greater taste for, even craving for, piquant foods.

This taste for spice is a mushrooming phenomenon in America: immigrants, those from Thailand being a perfect example, bring in new spicy offerings, Americans become addicted, they crave more, and come to support a greater number and variety of restaurants that in turn support the diner’s urge for such taste stimulation. Thai restaurants are now widely found in American communities, even outside the largest cities; the same is true for Vietnamese cuisine. Becoming more sophisticated, American diners now know that Indian food and Korean food, both “spicy,” offer widely different taste experiences nevertheless. Specialty ethnic restaurants serving authentic food are kept going both by the immigrants themselves and by significant numbers of non-immigrant diners; both groups demand authenticity.

Authenticity requires authentic products; ethnic groceries and supermarkets supply them, and, as with restaurants, non-immigrant Americans looking for ever-wider food stimulation bring in important extra business. Years ago these businesses were small, often foreboding places where the English language may not have been spoken. Today, they are often identical, except for product choice, to the modern American supermarket with its scanners and credit card processors. In Albuquerque, New Mexico, a city of half a million inhabitants with an Asian population of only a few percent, several large “Asian Supermarkets” and dozens of smaller markets thrive. One immense market has special sections for fresh fish, meats, and vegetables at the back of the store, with large aisles each dedicated to different ethnicities—Chinese, Japanese, Thai, Indian, Vietnamese, Korean, Filipino, Malaysian, Indonesian—as well as a full aisle dedicated to every possible variety of dried Asian noodles, and several other aisles that feature imported cooking implements and dishes.

While Asian foods may lead the charge in ethnic dining, it is important to remember that more than half of all foreign-born Americans are from Latin America. Mexican food is well known (both in Americanized and more authentic versions), but increasingly American diners are enjoying the cuisines of El Salvador, Peru, Argentina, Cuba or Brazil. The festive “churrascaria” rotisserie restaurants of Brazilian origin are so popular now that a number of regional and national chains now thrive.

Wherever groups of immigrants form sizeable communities, restaurants follow. Seattle, Washington, for example, now has a number of Ethiopian and Somali restaurants to add to its already varied ethnic mix. The several hundred thousand sun-seeking British expatriates and retirees in Florida and Southern California support many a British pub, complete with darts and fish and chips, and grocery stores selling Walker’s Shortbread and Typhoo Tea. The Irish bar and restaurant is alive and lively in many a city. Middle-Eastern restaurants thrive in Detroit and Brooklyn.

Immigrants from Europe and their descendants have still their influence on American eating. Every major city has French and Italian restaurants, cafés and pastry shops. German food is still popular in cities like St. Louis, Cincinnati, and Milwaukee, Polish food in Chicago and other Midwestern centers, Portuguese food in Boston and southern New England, Scandinavian food in Minnesota, Russian and Greek food in New York and many other areas. You can buy authentic Slovenian products at groceries in locations as diverse as Colorado, Illinois, Vermont, Oregon, Texas and especially in the Slovenian-American heartland of northern Ohio, where in Cleveland you have a number of restaurant choices. No ethnicity is too small or obscure not to support a thriving food culture somewhere in the United States.