You can tell a lot about a restaurant — and a culture — by its desserts. A bizarre but reliable economic indicator, America’s desserts have always reflected what was going on in the world around them. Whether it’s war cakes made with water and spices to distract you from the lack of eggs or Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s molten chocolate cake that screamed ’90s decadence, desserts, maybe more than any other course, reflect our values and tastes. It’s what we’re willing to treat ourselves to in good times or bad. And it reveals what we consider to be a treat at all.
Since Eater was founded in 2005, the world of restaurant desserts has changed dramatically, turning into a venue for wild experimentation. Below, we chart the biggest dessert trends of Eater’s lifetime, showing how tastes have evolved (and sometimes not) over the past nearly 20 years.
2008: Cereal Milk launches an empire
Christina Tosi invented or popularized a number of household-name desserts — Compost Cookies, Crack Pie (now Milk Bar Pie), naked cakes — but her Cereal Milk, which she initially developed at Wylie Dufresne’s wd~50, reshaped the dessert world. The flavor (sweetened milk steeped with toasted cornflakes) was simple enough to spread like wildfire, including to copycats. It could be used in nearly any dairy-based dessert. Tosi used it to build an empire.
Starting with the kitchen at Momofuku Ssäm Bar and then Momofuku Ko, she squeezed herself into a corner of David Chang’s chef-boys’ club to produce nostalgic-yet-intellectual desserts like Cereal Milk panna cotta. After that came Milk Bar, multiple locations, a warehouse prep space — but as Tosi revealed in 2018, she didn’t want to make a Starbucks-like chain. Her expansion was broader — retail partnerships, ghost kitchens, chain collabs, rare celebrity status for a pastry chef — amorphously seeping into the fabric of American sweets. As Ssäm Bar closed and Chang’s legacy becomes more conflicted, Tosi’s Cereal Milk as a branded concept has slipped the surly bonds of the kitchen world altogether. Describing the first reaction to her panna cotta in Momofuku Milk Bar, Tosi sums it up: “Everybody loved it, everybody knew it, nobody saw it coming.”
2010: When desserts were fancy
In 2010, Alinea chef Grant Achatz redefined what a dessert could be by simply forgoing the plate. His legendary “tabletop dessert,” which is still on the Alinea menu today, involves a slew of elements — sauces and gelees, glitter made from strawberries, and sleek chocolate orbs — artfully swished and swooped all over the table right before diners’ eyes. Achatz himself has described the iconic dish as “theatrical” performance art, proof that dessert can be more than just a sweet finish to a meal.
Other chefs remained inside the borders of the plate while embracing the same modernist aesthetic, which has become a mark of the “fancy” dessert that’s still with us. You know one when you see it. There’s a little swoop of sauce, a sliver of cake or a quenelle of ice cream, maybe a little “dust” made from cookies, a few elegant dots of gel or an ethereal cloud of foam. Perhaps there’s a lacy toile stuck into the top as a crunchy flourish, or a shock of fuchsia from freeze-dried raspberry powder. The composed little plate (CLP for short) was a staple of the dessert menus of the 2010s, a departure from the stodgy chocolate cakes and boring tiramisu at the upscale dining destinations of the ’90s.
The popularity of CLPs ushered in a new era of terminology as desserts became more intricate and involved. Crumbled cookies were now “soil,” and orbs of chocolate became “pearls.” Molecular gastronomy techniques ruled the day as chefs spherified fruit juices into “caviar” with sodium alginate and used nitrogen to add flash-frozen elements (and a cloud of fog) to the plate. Chef Massimo Bottura’s iconic broken lemon tart — inspired by an actual broken tart — requires both a thermal mixer and a Pacojet (a special ice cream machine that costs upwards of $8,000) to prepare.
The CLP has appeared in various forms throughout its reign. Among the most iconic — and complicated — is Heston Blumenthal’s botrytis cinerea, a dessert named for a type of fungus that can produce the “noble rot” in grapes, which is essential to the production of certain sweet dessert wines. Served at his acclaimed restaurant The Fat Duck since the early 2010s, the dessert is the definition of over the top, involving 80 ingredients, 55 steps, and 23 distinct elements, including a chocolate sphere filled with pear caramel, citrus yogurt, a fried churro, nitrogen-dipped grapes, and aerated saffron.
Other CLPs are more restrained on the plate. At Las Vegas institution Sinatra, a tiny fedora made from chocolate mousse is an obvious homage to the restaurant’s namesake, paired with a sleek panna cotta infused with Jack Daniels and served over a bed of orange suprémes. At Austin, Texas, sushi institution Uchiko, domes of butter-infused pastry cream are frozen, coated with crunchy cornflakes, and fried, then served with toasted milk ice cream and whipped chocolate cream before being finished with a thin, crispy shard of meringue and a dusting of espresso powder. Cap’n Crunch crumbs add both textural contrast and a cheeky, nostalgic flair to this composed plate of “fried milk,” which has been a staple of Uchiko’s menu since it opened in 2010.
2015: The overloaded shake captures Instagram
The “epic bacon” era of food creation in the 2010s, sort of a culinary Pimp My Ride (“yo dawg I heard you like meat, so we put meat on your meat”) found its way into the dessert world via brands like Big Gay Ice Cream and Crumbs cupcakes. But perhaps no restaurant embodied the lowbrow excess of the time like Black Tap Burgers & Beer, whose over-the-top milkshakes were a viral success, leading to lines around the block and countless imitators.
Viral milkshakes had their origins in Australia, but the ones at Black Tap solidified the trend. Chris Barish, son of Planet Hollywood founder Keith Barish, founded Black Tap in 2015 in New York City. It quickly expanded across the U.S., then to international destinations like Singapore and Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, after its loaded milkshakes started drawing crowds. The milkshakes were designed for the Instagram era, rimmed with frosting and garnished with M&Ms, Oreos, Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, and other treats. One came topped with an entire ice cream sandwich, another with a whole slice of cake. It was ridiculous, and though the $15 price tag when Black Tap first opened (the cotton candy shake goes for $19 now) may have seemed hefty, they were meals in and of themselves.
Once these milkshakes proved to be a hit, it was hard to find a dessert that didn’t seem to be three desserts piled on top of each other — unicorn lattes, chocolate chip cookies served with raw cookie dough, ice cream in churro cones, “birthday cake” croissants. Black Tap hit at a moment when the recession was easing and millennials raised on the Food Network were all primed to claim their love of food as a part of their identity; coupled with the rise of image-based social media, every meal became an opportunity to post. And though the milkshakes have faded in popularity and more demure desserts have taken their place, the world they catalyzed remains. Every meal is an opportunity to post.
2016: The trompe l’oeil seems like a thing
At Noma, the “world’s best restaurant” from chef Rene Redzepi that is slowly pivoting to a DTC vinegar brand, visual gags are part of the appeal. Plating has always been a consideration since the restaurant opened in 2003, but beginning around 2016, whimsical trompe l’oeil desserts became a regular part of the menu: toast that looks like a crab, fruit leather that looks like a beetle, all showing off the pastry chefs’ technical skills and mastery over their tools. Dessert is no exception, with Noma serving things like caramels resembling sandy starfish, toffee made to look like duck feet, a flower pot that is actually cake.
Trompe l’oeil has been a popular trick of the “molecular gastronomy” set, infusing a sense of humor into what otherwise could be painfully serious tweezer food. It pairs the technique of the early 2010s with whimsy and drama that photograph well for social media. Noma is the standard-setting example, but other haute cuisine restaurants like Le Bernardin, Ardor, Empellón, and Le Maurice embraced the dessert-that-looks-like-something-else. Now, it’s easy to find on menus, whether it’s a lemon cheesecake that looks like a lemon at Bad Roman, corn jelly that looks like a purple corn cob at Chifa, and the banana dessert at Jungsik by Eunji Lee, who later went on to open renowned New York City dessert house Lysée.
2018: Shave ice moves from the cart to the restaurant menu
Once relegated exclusively to the world of casual street food stalls and kitschy snow cone stands, shave ice’s fine dining moment started five years ago and continues today. These fancy riffs on fluffy shave ice are decidedly different from the crunchy cones of syrup-doused ice you remember from childhood, amped up with multiple layers of flavor and global influence, thanks to the broad slate of influences that is the backbone of this trend.
In 2018, at now-shuttered Los Angeles restaurant Nightshade, sous chef Max Boonthanakit devised a towering cloud of rum-raisin-flavored kakigori, garnished with vanilla sabayon and torched chips of crispy meringue.. Earlier in 2023, at Bar Futo in Portland, Maine, matcha kakigori crowned with cherry blossom cream graced the spring dessert menu. New York City may be the epicenter of the trend, with spots like Seoul Salon serving up banana milk shave ice and chef Brian Kim’s Oiji Mi offering bingsu garnished with strawberry and elderflower.
It’s a trend that thumbs its nose at fussy, overly composed desserts in favor of fun and (literal) levity. Shave ice is light, refreshing, and endlessly adaptable, making it a particularly excellent way to end a meal. What’s more fun than diving spoon-first into a fluffy pile of shave ice — especially when you know that it won’t leave you clutching your overly full belly after a big dinner?
2023: Savory desserts take another turn
Take a look at a dessert menu in 2023, and you’re likely to see at least one option that leans savory: sunchoke creme brulee at San Francisco’s Rosemary and Pine, bay leaf ice cream at Foul Witch in New York, a cocktail version of kakigori inspired by elote at Wild Child in Kansas City, Kansas.
Savory desserts have been lingering at the periphery for years (centuries even), but they have broken into the mainstream with increased frequency in the last decade or so. In 2011, Oddfellows launched specifically to concoct “wacky” savory ice cream. Then came the meats: In 2013, Chicago’s Fat Rice offered pork floss crisped-rice treats while Austin chef Kyle McKinney served grilled foie gras and duck fat funnel cake. By 2018, dessert maestro Natasha Pickowicz was on the trend with artichoke chocolate parfait.
There have been plenty of naysayers along the way, so sweet and savory go on competing for the spotlight like an after-dinner Hegelian dialectic. Every year brings new grievances about performative gimmicks, especially as monolithic brands try to cash in (see Van Leeuwen’s ice cream flavored like Hidden Valley ranch dressing, or onions for the movie Glass Onion). But pastry chefs will likely trade petit fours on the subject for a long time to come.
Yifan Luo (she/her) is a Baltimore-based illustrator who specialize in editorial narratives, comics, and slices of life exploring current events, personal stories, sustainability, and food.