For some time, restaurants have been tweaking or adding dishes to incorporate better quality ingredients. Now, many are taking a similar approach to another mealtime staple: bread.

Chefs across all segments are exploring a variety of artisan breads—many are even baking them in-house—and using them to elevate sandwiches and entrées, and even serving them as a standalone course.

Pretzel is the fastest growing bread variety on menus. However, recent research from Datassential indicates that the next big bread is likely to be brioche, the French pastry-like bread. In the last four years, pretzel bread grew 94 percent on menus, while brioche grew 89 percent. Other top trending breads include walnut bread, potato bread, arepa, puri, bao, bialy, wheat pita and grain bread.

“Operators are adding more inventive breads that add texture and flavor to sandwiches, breakfast dishes and appetizers,” said Jana Mann, senior director for Datassential. “Pretzel dough's salty finish and brioche's slightly sweet taste add another level of flavor to dishes. These breads also speak to premium ingredients demanded by foodie patrons.”

At Pazzoria, the bakery connected to Pazzo Ristorante, in Portland, Ore., chef John Eisenhart bakes a variety of artisan breads daily, including brioche and potato rosemary bread, for sandwiches or as an anytime item.  For a savory breakfast item, Eisenhart rolls out brioche dough and fills it with premium ingredients, such as speck and fontina or spinach and Parmesan, then folds the dough like a cinnamon roll before baking.

“People like these particular breads due to their simplicity and approachability—they can be eaten at any time of day,” said Eisenhart. “Heck, I just had a grilled potato rosemary roll with chocolate gelato last night.”

Also baking brioche is John Aversa, head baker for Bagby Restaurant Group, which operates four different restaurant concepts in Baltimore. Aversa makes brioche for Fleet Street Kitchen’s Foie Gras Torchon appetizer with brioche pudding, blueberry-black pepper ice cream and smoked maple Banyuls. He also makes pretzel bread for the Merguez Pretzel Bites with lamb sausage and fennel-fines herbes mustard for the more casual The Tavern Room.

Brioche may be French, but it isn’t just for fine dining. Select major chains have also been experimenting with the elevated bread. In December, Wendy’s replaced its popular Pretzel Bacon Cheeseburger limited-time offer with the Bacon Portabella Melt on Brioche. Also now offering burgers on brioche are Jack in the Box and Friendly’s.

Chef Erik Niel of Easy Bistro & Bar in Chattanooga, Tenn., believes so strongly that bread should do more than complement a meal that he not only bakes it in-house, he also dedicates an entire section of his menu to it.

“We do not offer free bread service, which is certainly not the norm in the South,” said Niel. “We charge a small amount for the bread course and our servers use them as a table starter, mid-course, et cetera. This was our way of trying to provide greater value in the bread arena.”  

A few of the current offerings include brioche, potato levain, focaccia, duck fat challah and spring onion fougasse. In addition to a separate course, Niel uses his homemade breads in some dishes, such as meat and cheese plates and mussels, and as carriers for burgers, chicken sandwiches and lobster rolls.     

Bread is also its own course at Flight in Washington, D.C., where chef Bradley Curtis offers a basket with housemade buttermilk cornbread, Parker House rolls and New England brown bread. In addition, Curtis offers a duck sandwich on a pretzel bun.

Though artisan bread baskets currently appear on just a handful of fine-dining menus, it’s a trend that is likely to grow, said Mann.

“The bread basket is the perfect place to showcase the pastry chef's talents with both the artisan bread and compound butter and spread accompaniments,” said Mann. “With rotating offerings, customers have a different experience with each visit. The bread basket also turns into a higher quality, upscale bread service.”