As the New Year closes in, diners from all tiers of the restaurant market will be looking for the next hot item in the culinary world. Robin Uler, senior vice president of food & beverage, spas and retail services, and Brad Nelson, vice president of culinary and corporate chef for Marriott International, Inc. (NYSE: MAR), give their forecast for what's up and coming on the dining front in the coming year. Uler and Nelson are responsible for identifying and implementing culinary trends for 2,700 hotels in many of the world's greatest cities.

Robin Uler and Brad Nelson's Top Food Trends for 2006:

1. Back to Basics and Sized to Order
Gone are the days of starched collars, jackets and ties, and three-hour dining experiences. Guests are looking for great food served with friendly, professional care in a "buzzing" contemporary environment that offers a "sense of place." Menus will reflect this as well. Chef-crafted plates of varying sizes create a variety of tastes and flavors, and allow for a more social, casual dining experience than traditional "courses." Also, this allows diners to "graze" and determine portion control.

2. Breakfast is Back
The 'most important meal of the day' is becoming even more important. Approachable comfort food, eggs cooked to order, and healthy options with 'good carbs,' low in fat and high in protein and nutrition are starting diners' days. French toast and waffles are a growing trend. Big, fluffy buttermilk, blueberry and apple streusel pancakes, sweet and savory waffles, and flavorful French toast are being seen more and more in restaurants and catering. New takes on breakfast basics, such as the Lemon Souffle Pancakes that are found at the restaurants of Renaissance hotels, are becoming more and more popular.

3. In Good Company
Communal tables have become a staple in many contemporary restaurants. But that will be taken a step further with the advent of 'gathering areas.' Many food and beverage arenas will be the new living room/dining room. Enclaves for small groups and quick quality snacks and beverages will be making their way into the hospitality industry. These will be community gathering places as well as havens for harried travelers.

4. Takeaway
Takeout service at full-service restaurants and related venues is growing, as the combination of stress and lack of time, but with a sense of wanting the best, is leading the market's drive for more upscale foods that can be quickly delivered or purchased and consumed on the run. Many upscale markets offer this already, but this will expand into the restaurant realm. Note that restaurants will be sure to have items available to go that adapt well to traveling.

5. From the Kitchen to the Bar
With the advent of more and more premium spirits on the market and the push for evermore creative cocktails, the pairing of food and spirit in one will be on the menu. It is now as important for the bartender to be a trained 'mixologist' as it is for culinary professionals in the kitchen to be trained chefs. From the appetizer paired with a special cocktail to tea- and truffle-flavored vodkas, food and drink will be a bar and restaurant menu highlight. Look for premium liquors to be paired with freshly squeezed juices and herbs, as in the thyme Cosmo or basil Mojito.

6. Healthy Food ... Not Diet Food
As Americans becomes more aware of nutrition combined with waistline watching, diners are seeking healthy options on menus. Individual preferences and needs vary and trendy diet fads come and go, so menus are reflecting a variety of healthy dining offerings, from low-carb to low-fat to lower calorie, depending on preference. At full-service Marriott hotels, for example, a 'Fit for You' program allows diners to select a healthy meal based on their preference, whether it be low- carb, low-cholesterol or low-fat.

7. Soft, Comfortable, Hip
The pendulum will start swinging away from the very angular, overly retro or stark look of many restaurants in favor of the softer and more opulent ambience. Clean, not Victorian, but comfortable and contemporary, utilizing funky domes, cut crystal, etc. for service. Gone will be the sparse white plates, replaced by a more elegant but comfortable feel.

8. There's Always Room For ...
Highly flavored gel squares and desserts made with gelatin sheets and fresh purees are popping up on tables. From Chef Gordon Ramsey's Rhubarb Parfait to gel bites that taste like fresh mango, key lime and other exotic fruits to the return of aspic, it's okay to admit we all love this childhood favorite and can now enjoy the slightly more sophisticated version. Puddings too are making the transition. Flavors like Amaretto Bourbon spiced rice pudding are taking diners back to childhood favorites -- but with a more creative twist.

>b>9. Heritage -- Boomers Are Beginning to Remember ...
Foods from Scandinavia and Eastern Europe -- cured salmon, goulash, stuffed cabbage and the like will make an appearance but with a contemporary twist, perhaps with a 'new' kind of cabbage or Spaetzle. Look for a representation of this type of cuisine with a more modern element.

10. Non-'Engineered' Product
More and more diners are looking for purity of product. The 'micro-green' ... well, not so much. Diners will be looking for a more 'natural' product, like buttery Boston lettuce and sweet bib varieties. Menu items will be 'ingredients-based.' Fresh, wholesome and locally grown. Foods that are true to the actual product and true to its roots. Many chefs are utilizing their local farmers, purchasing product grown practically in their own back yards. Some, like Melissa Kelly of Primo in Tucson, Ariz.; Rockland, Maine; and Orlando Fla., cultivate their own gardens on the restaurant grounds and are attuned to utilizing the 'whole' product -- no waste.

11. So Long Amuse-Bouches!
We taste while shopping in the market, so why not when dining? When visiting an upscale grocery or even bulk foods store, tasting is almost essential, whether it's the fresh fruit, the cheese or an item on sale. Look for chefs to send out samples of signature appetizers and side dishes in small tasting portions, showcasing the chef's style and creativity through a real menu item.

As senior vice president of food & beverage, spa and retail at Marriott International for more than 10 years, Uler's insights regarding everything from restaurant menus and design to cocktails and snacks have been closely followed by colleagues in the industry and enjoyed by millions of guests. Nelson, vice president of culinary and corporate chef for Marriott International, has been in the industry for close to 30 years, serving in both independent and hotel restaurants.