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Dining Gen Y-style

Food writer Larissa Dubecki takes a look at the latest emerging trend in dining.

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No reservations. Loud music. Dingy lighting. Tattooed waiters. Small plates. Share food. Cutlery optional.

All hail the new breed of restaurant. The genteel sound levels and snowy linen of traditional dining are so passe. Now, it is all about night-clubbish eateries with tightly packed diners picking at food on plastic trays.

So who do we blame? Gen Y, that's who.

The age group between 18 and 31 is proving an unexpectedly passionate legion of restaurant-goers. They have embraced the restaurant as the new social hub, in the process turning the industry's dial to informal. Any time you are seated on a bar stool instead of a comfortable chair, strain to hear your companions talk and are confronted with a placemat menu of sliders, tacos and tricked-up street food, you have Gen Y to thank.

''The good news is they're a new generation of customers - fresh meat,'' said Roslyn Grundy, co-editor of The Age Good Food Guide 2014. ''The bad news is all they want is burgers and the volume turned up to 11.''

Tightening profit margins mean fine dining is struggling, but smart operators have spied the potential in targeting younger customers. Gen Y, many yet to fly the family nest, have disposable income to spend on socialising; those living independently typically lack the space to entertain at home. And it is a global phenomenon. As British food critic Nick Lander writes in The Art of the Restaurateur: ''A new market of restaurant-goers … increasingly use informal restaurants as public spaces to meet in the early evening rather than going home.''

Davis Yu, owner of Melbourne's 1980s-themed Mexican street food eateries Touche Hombre and Touche Hombre Electrica, describes his modus operandi as: ''Flavour over fast, fun rather than loud, vibe over tablecloths. Character and personality is the key.''

He ought to know his audience - he is only 23. ''We want something that is exciting, fun, that does not require weeks of advance bookings, spontaneity, a place that you can be back over and over again,'' he said.

He described his Gen-Y honeytraps - all neon signage, retro games consoles and noise - as ''a place to hang out rather than a place to be seen at … Gen Y's idea of a commissioned decorative artwork is street art.''

Jess Ho, the 25-year-old social media and branding consultant to Chris Lucas' restaurants Chin Chin and Baby, believes younger diners take a meta-perspective on restaurants. ''When you can go to a restaurant that offers more than dining, people are willing to stay,'' she said. ''They turn a place into an extension of their living room.''

The food trends of the past year speak straight to the Gen Y influence: American barbecue, tacos, burgers, baos and souvlaki. It is street food of all creeds and colours, which suits a dining scene that is less about the big splash-out, more about leisurely incrementals.

It is a ''let's see where the night takes us'' philosophy, a movement aided by all of those snack-heavy, sharing-friendly menus. It is also commitment-phobic - there's that no-bookings policy again.

The Age Good Food Guide 2014 will be available for $10 with The Saturday Age this weekend from participating newsagents, Coles, Woolworths and 7-Eleven stores, while stocks last. It is also available in selected bookshops and online at theageshop.com.au for $24.99.