As the weather heats up, restaurants will naturally be turning to stone fruits, wild salmon and other hallmarks of the summer to entice guests. But several trends not specific to the season will also likely hit their stride this summer, ranging from popular new beverages to specialized service to new culinary techniques.

Cider: The next generation

Hard cider’s popularity is accelerating, according to research firm GuestMetrics, which analyzes point-of-sale data at full-service restaurants. Cider sales in restaurants grew by 40 percent in 2012. But year-over-year sales in the first quarter of 2013 jumped by 70 percent, the company said.

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“Ciders obviously have made a huge jump in the market,” said Joe O’Connor, beverage director of Big Night Entertainment Group, which operates six restaurants in the Boston area. “They are appealing to all and easy to drink,” he said, adding that they’re particularly popular at brunch and in the early evening, and as a bonus they happen to be gluten-free.

Several restaurant chains added cider this spring, including 223-unit California Pizza Kitchen and 66-unit Smokey Bones. The Counter, a 37-unit casual-dining chain based in Culver City, Calif., offers cider, too, and 1,550-unit Chili’s also recently marketed hard cider.

This summer we are likely to see second-generation versions of cider, according to Anthony Norkus, the craft and specialty grand manager at Louis Glunz Beer Inc. in Lincolnwood, Ill. “We’re going to see a lot of experimentation with cider,” he said, such as barrel-aging and the addition of hops near the end of the fermenting process, adding a floral aroma that can be found in beers such as India pale ales.

Chef's tables: The special treatment

New fine-dining restaurants are few and far between these days, but as chefs with high-end experience open more casual venues, they still want outlets to express their fancy side. So many of them have set aside special tables where they can work their culinary wizardry for those customers who want to see that kind of a show.

Since many restaurants have open kitchens these days, it’s easy to set up counters at their edge where foodies can watch the action and get special treatment.

At The Storefront Co. in Chicago, chef Bryan Moscatello has set up a 13-seat J-shaped Kitchen Counter that loops from the main kitchen to the mixology station and on to the pastry area. Guests can order a three-course or six-course meal, or do a three-course cheese or dessert tasting.

“Some people have been here eight, 10 times and have never eaten in the dining room,” Moscatello said.

Customers with particular penchants for cocktails or desserts can sit in front of those stations, where they can talk to the bartenders and pastry chefs and get extra tastes of what they are working on.

Not only does the Kitchen Counter give guests the specialized experience they’re looking for, but it also gives Moscatello and his team a chance to use items like beef tongue or lamb neck that they get when they buy whole animals, but don’t get enough of it to make an actual menu item out of them. The counter also gives them a chance to perform operational tests on items — making sure the pickup doesn’t take too long or require too much burner space, for example — before putting them on the main menu.

Executive chef Phil Rubino uses his five-seat Mamma’s Table for a similar purpose at Moderno in Highland Park, Ill., testing out cocktails and food in a private enclave with its own lighting controls and a private curtain.

At Niche in St. Louis, the four-seat Chef’s Counter is for guests seeking special tasting menus. And the six-seat Kevin’s Table at Gunshow, Kevin Gillespie’s new casual restaurant in Atlanta, serves a similar purpose.

As more high-end chefs open middlebrow restaurants this summer, you can expect to see similar vestigial places for fine dining.

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Smoking: More than barbecue

Grilling is always a popular summertime activity, as is barbecue — which Southern cooking aficionados define as cooking with smoke — but smoke is weaving its way into a growing array of items these days.

Florian Wehrli, executive sous chef of Crystal Springs in Hamburg, N.J., attributes that in part to improved technologies, such as the “smoking gun,” which can be used to inject smoke into sauce and other unexpected places.

But old-school smoking methods are in play, too. Wehrli also covers seared meat with herbs and garlic and wraps it in hay, which he soaks in white wine and then lets smolder in the oven, imparting a sweet, smoky flavor.

E. Michael Reidt at Area 31 in Miami, is smoking grains, cheeses, salt and grapes, giving them a flavor many guests associate with bacon, without having to add any meat.

Mike VanBuskirk, executive chef of Cobalt Restaurant in Vero Beach, Fla., smokes items to add to his eggplant purée, tomato jam and other ingredients, and Danny Trace, the chef of Brennan’s of Houston, is smoking soft-shell crab for the season.

Mark Bibby, vice president of culinary at Smokey Bones Bar & Fire Grill, based in Orlando, Fla., anticipated the growing popularity of smoke late last year, when he installed smokers in each of the chain’s 66 locations and introduced a smoked prime rib whose success exceeded management’s expectations.

By adding bold flavor and highlighting chefs’ creativity, unconventional uses of smoke speak to many trends and will likely be particularly widespread this summer.

Local: Version 3.0

In independent restaurants it’s now assumed that local, seasonal items will be used when they’re available — some chains have worked on introducing such items for years. So to distinguish themselves, chefs are beginning to add something special to their local stories.

For example, Brian McPherson, chef of Jackson 20 in Alexandria, Va., uses kaffir lime leaves from a special tree in the restaurant’s garden that he got from a monk at a Lao Buddhist temple in Virginia. He uses those leaves to infuse olive oil that he drizzles on his big eye tuna carpaccio with pickled radishes and herbs that, naturally, are picked from his garden.

Don’t have any Lao Buddhist monks with gardens in your neighborhood? Don’t worry; there are other approaches, such as what executive chef James Rigato does at The Root Restaurant & Bar in White Lake, Mich. He completes his local story in a more holistic manner by, for example, pairing a beer from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula with whitefish caught in Lake Superior.

You can expect to see more of that kind of multifaceted local sourcing this summer.

Contact Bret Thorn at
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