n the '80s, we traded soggy Chinese carryout and greasy barbecued ribs for take-home roasted leg of lamb encrusted with pesto and pasta salad with sun-dried tomatoes and artichoke hearts.
Now, in the '90s, gourmet takeout can be almost anything we want it it be -- from top-quality versions of simple fare like meatloaf and bread pudding to low-fat, low-calorie meals prepared with diet as well as taste in mind.
These days it's easier than ever before to get the same quality prepared foods at home that we have learned to expect from our restaurant mania of the past decade. More and more local food retailers are getting into the gourmet carry-out business -- from caterers and restaurants with sister take-out shops to supermarkets with real chefs on the payroll.
In fact, the gourmet-to-go business has evolved with our lifestyles. Some gourmet carryouts are now open as late as 10 p.m., and some offer fax machines that allow shoppers to receive menus and place their orders with minimal effort.
Despite the dismal economy, industry sources say that in the next few years takeout is expected to become a $100-million-a-year business. And one of the hottest mini-trends nationally is the takeout shop and gourmet deli next to a sister restaurant -- such as Linwood's Gourmet Express, the sister shop to Linwood's restaurant in Owings Mills. According to Restaurant Business, a trade publication, these sister shops are prospering because they "dovetail with consumers' busy lifestyles and provide no-tip, no-nonsense alternatives for gourmets suffering from restaurant burnout."
Whether it's restaurant burnout or just the too-tired-to-cook syndrome that's the motivator, consumers are flocking to carryout and they are more informed and more demanding than in the past.
Janis Talbot, co-owner of Morton's, says the keys to '90s takeout are "lighter" and "back to basics." Not too long ago, the fat-filled Roquefort chicken salad was a hot seller. These days customers want to know the fat and cholesterol profile of each dish.
"What surprises me is people know what to ask," she says. "Five years ago people wouldn't have known one oil from another. And they wouldn't touch meatloaf. Now they want home cooking like oven-baked chicken and old-fashioned potato salad. It's still a tad upscale, but it's also emulating what mom used to make."
In upscale Ruxton, Graul's customers are also asking for more basic food like meatloaf and Italian sausage, says George Janouris, manager of meats and prepared foods.
"We wind up being the moms for everyone out there," he says. "Younger people just aren't cooking like their mothers did."