5 Restaurants who are making their odd menus work

It doesn't get much better than dining out. Whether diners want to treat themselves to a nice night out or go hard on a bowl of the spiciest ramen they can get their hands on, they'll always be able to find the perfect restaurant for their current cravings. When it comes down to the age-old decision of "where do you want to eat tonight?", it can often be difficult to keep your restaurant top of mind. Because it's human nature to be indecisive, we turn to Yelp and other food reviewers to help make the decision for us. More often than not, you'll see boilerplate comments about the chicken parm or the spaghetti bolognese. Maybe the 7 ounce porterhouse stood out a little. But when it comes down to it, people will always default to the last place that met their standards.

So how do you BECOME the new standard for an excellent dining experience? Among the calm seas of conventional cuisines, a handful have risen to stir the tides. These brave few risked it all to stand out in a vastly placid market. Differentiation is key to any business' strategy. It's how you position yourself opposite your competitors. What you bring to the table that they don't. These 5 restaurants live and die by the spirit of differentiation, and they're a great place to start if you're looking to spruce up your menu.

1. Straw

Some businesses go for the customer experience angle and create a fun and unique theme for their restaurants. Some businesses aim to create a product that will innovate an old classic to jaw-dropping levels. San Francisco's very own Straw does both. Straw attracts customers from all over the Bay Area with their one-of-a-kind strategy of bringing the carny life to food lovers. Don't you want to tell all your friends you ate dinner in a tilt-a-whirl? And as if Straw needed more attention grabbing characteristics, their menu is equally as special. I myself have fallen prey to their renowned "Ringmaster", a burger with two glazed donuts for buns. If that is too daunting, maybe the fried chicken monte cristo is more your speed. Perhaps most importantly, despite the carnival theme, there are zero scary clowns. But just like the food coma that followed, I've embraced Straw for what it is, a titan of innovation and a beacon of hope for out-of-the-box restaurateurs.

2. Mac Bar

Our next visionary comes to us in the form of a familiar face. Mac Bar in NYC has created nothing short of a beauty pageant for what might be the oldest comfort food in the book. Mac Bar offers dozens of variations of the 2 ingredient dish, ranging from the mac stroganoff to the margarita mac. Mac n cheese is likely one of the most frequently seen items on the national menu, but Mac Bar saw an opportunity where few others thought to look. With every item on the menu revolving around one culinary pastime, Mac Bar has New Yorkers flocking from all corners of the city to dive face first into a bowl of cheesy glory. It is a considerable risk to comprise the foundation of your business around a single item, but the Mac Bar is living proof that taking bold risks can have a tremendous payoff.

3. Bantam Bagels

Everyone loves bagels. It's more than a fact, it's science. Our friends at Bantam Bagels prove that if you can dream it, you can achieve it, literally. The idea for a filling-stuffed bagel came to co-owner Nick Oleksak in a dream. You can't make this stuff up. After a short round of testing, this simple idea turned breakfast for the on-the-go customer upside down. Now rated among the top 3 bagels joints in NYC, Bantam Bagels has taken the market by storm and shows how a simple tweak on an old classic can represent amazing returns. It also doesn't hurt that Laurie Greiner of ABC's Shark Tank took a personal interest in Bantam Bagels and hopped aboard the team. Just more proof that ingenuity gets recognized and rewarded accordingly.

4. Elevation Burger

When quality meets quantity, you get Elevation Burger. Elevation Burger took an almost cartoonish novelty, stuck it on a plate, and people came running. At the top of their value chart lies authenticity and sustainability. Between the grass-fed beef and the organic ingredients, Elevation Burger has positioned themselves as an industry leader in lean and clean food. Which, you know, helps if you're stacking patty after delicious patty of meat in between your buns. Instead of going to Elevation Burger once just to tell your friends that you stared a 10-patty burger in the eye and fought valiantly until your inevitable defeat, customers are coming back time and time again because they believe in the health-driven mission of owner Hans Hess and the outstanding quality.

5. -321 Ice Cream Shop

It's only fitting that we end the list on dessert (even though I've always been a dessert before dinner kind of guy, and also intermittently throughout the day). Well get ready because ice cream just got a scientific infusion. -321 Ice Cream Shop has gone all in on the customer experience front and offers ice cream lovers a truly unique visit. Scraping ice cream out of a tub was too easy for the folks at -321. Instead, they bring fresh ingredients over to you and BLAST it with liquid nitrogen, leaving you with a creamy custard-like bowl of ice cream. To quote -321's own webpage: "our method is based on the belief of boldly abandoning tradition." With 2 more locations on the way, we can only hope -321's growth and success reaches us (me) over on the West coast.


Remolding convention to create a truly unique experience for customers seems to be a common quality among our top 5 innovation honorees. Once you take a leap of faith to establish yourself as an innovation leader, you'll never have to worry about standing out in the crowd of Yelp reviews again.