`HUMBLE'' is the word to describe this year's new restaurants, and the same goes for the food they serve. Modest, unassuming restaurants far outnumber the formal, super-expensive restaurants of the expense-account era. Today's new restaurants are casual and comfortable, and are called bistros, caf'es, trattorias, brasseries, neighborhood restaurants, and diners.
``It means that everything's getting back to basics,'' says Clark Wolf, a New York-based food consultant. ``The strongest trend is not in any one ethnic food right now, but in neighborhood dining, around-the-corner restaurants serving home cooking.''
``People today are looking for real food, the tried and true, something substantive,'' he adds. ``We're going away from fads. We're in a period where we're welcoming the warm, familiar kinds of food.''
The current enchantment with mainline American cooking, farmhouse fare, is partly a reaction. West Coast cookbook writer Marion Cunningham, Craig Claiborne, and Julia Child all agree that the ridiculous surprises created as nouvelle cuisine have turned people in the opposite direction, toward simple dishes.
Recapturing that simplicity in food is also part of a search for roots and identity. America's food heritage is closer to the cast-iron skillet and the rolling pin than to the pastry tube and the souffl'e dish. Simple food also represents a better value.
What makes a dish an old-fashioned favorite varies from coast to coast. At Poor Richard's Tavern in Ogunquit, on the Maine coast, the menu of co-owners Robert Maurais and Richard Perkins lists Yankee pot roast, stuffed haddock, curried shrimp, roast beef, and Richard's meat loaf, along with home-made soups and creamy chowders. Prices are in the $10-to-$16 range.
Other restaurants have a more upscale idea of home-style dishes. At Chicago's Prairie Restaurant, for example, the home-style Midwest cuisine has been researched for historical authenticity.
All foods are from the surrounding area, but it's as if your grandmother is in the kitchen, and she's just finished a course at the Cordon Bleu in Paris. A burgoo (an old-style country stew) is made of buffalo, rabbit sausage, and winter vegetables, cooked with classic French technique.
The Prairie menu lists lake trout from Lake Superior and coho salmon raised in Minnesota. Real mashed potatoes are served with baked walleyed pike or Dubuque pork chops.
Indian persimmon pudding with dried blueberries heads the dessert list, with sweet potato cheesecake, walnut torte, and butterscotch-raisin meringue pie. The d'ecor at Prairie is in the Frank Lloyd Wright style. Main dishes cost $11 to $21.
Even ethnic food specials are apt to be the simple, family dishes or ``peasant food'' favorites such as tacos and burritos from Mexico; pizza, polenta, and risotto from Italy; French onion soup; couscous from Morocco; and bubble and squeak, Yorkshire pudding, and shepherd's pie from England.
You can be sure of no unusual seasonings and no exotic sauces at Gene Street's Good Eats Caf'e in Dallas. ``We serve traditional foods like Southern fried chicken and Southern fried steak with down-home-style side dishes like potatoes, beans, `dirty rice,' and onion rings,'' says Mike Miller, restaurant manager. Also featured: Barbecues, steaks, burgers, fresh-baked biscuits and corn bread, and homemade chocolate or strawberry cake for dessert.
All this simple fare doesn't mean the day of self-indulgence is fading. There has been a phenomenal growth in the fancy-foods industry. An ounce of caviar or a half pound of ultra-fine chocolate has become an affordable luxury for shop-pers dismayed by escalating housing costs or cars they cannot afford.
Today's supermarkets have gourmet food sections. Markets in small towns all over the United States sell premium ice cream. Mail-order meals, gourmet meats, seafood, and sweets are shipped coast to coast for those who want to splurge for celebrations or entertaining.
``America has dozens of new food fads every month, but we seem to use up our fads the way we use up our television and movie heroes - they're in the limelight for a very short time,'' says Irena Chalmers, a New York book publisher and writer. Her recent ``Good Old Food'' contains time- and effort-saving versions of nostalgic dishes.
Marion Cunningham, on the West Coast, says families never tire of good home cooking, with dishes made from fresh food, cooked simply and carefully. ``In other countries people enjoy their specialties whether it's fondue or coq au vin, and they serve it year after year because it's such truly good food.
``Certainly the trend toward home cooking is a real back-to-the-stove movement. Chic food fashions are on the wane,'' as is the emphasis on the chef as a big star, Cunningham says.
``It's good to see more Amer-icans beginning to cherish their family dishes,'' she concludes.