By a nose, American dollars spent at restaurants and bars outstripped those plunked down in grocery stores in January, a first since the Census Bureau began tracking data in 1992.

“It’s been happening over the last 20 years gradually, but it’s really accelerated in recent years,” explained Mark J. Perry, the University of Michigan economics and finance professor who created the above diagram for conservative think tank American Enterprise Institute. Spending in restaurants has kicked into high gear “especially in just the last five or six months,” he added.

Think about it this way: More than two decades ago, Americans spent $162 in groceries for every $100 they spent in restaurants. But this past January, they spent nearly equal amounts of money in both places: $50.475 billion in restaurants and bars, and $50.466 billion in grocery stores.

Perry attributes the numbers to dropping gas prices, which have left many people with more disposable income. But it’s unlikely that a single factor is to thank for the trend. “I think it’s a combination of a recovering economy and changing eating habits,” he said, extrapolating that “the millennial generation [may be] more likely to eat out than cook at home.” Perry also noted that dining in restaurants simply isn’t the once-in-a-blue-moon event it used to be.

“The role of the restaurant has changed in society,” he said. “It’s less of a special occasion [destination], and even for some people, like me, eating out is an everyday occasion.”

Martha Hoover, the founder of sprawling Indianapolis restaurant empire Patachou, goes one step further: Restaurants have earned a role in society that is equal to “work” or “home.”

“I think there’s been an explosion of independent restaurants, which are normally in neighborhoods,” she said. “They’re usually smaller, more intimate, and more personal, and I think these restaurants have created a true ‘third’ place beyond home and work. You have this third place that’s also an extension of your community.”

Routines have changed, Hoover continued. “If you’re talking about a family of four that wants to eat dinner together every night, they’ve transferred their kitchen table to a restaurant table,” she said. “Of course, as a restaurateur, I think it’s remarkable.”

So does San Francisco restaurateur Anna Weinberg, who with husband James Nicholas founded the eateries Cavalier, Marlowe, and Park Tavern.

“We’ve seen a huge shift in San Francisco,” she told Yahoo Food. “I’ve seen people who treat restaurants like they do in New York City: as their kitchens.” Weinberg attributes the change to people working longer hours, leaving them with little time to prepare their own meals. Grocery shopping, too, can be a pricey proposition if one develops a predilection for organic and local fare.

“It doesn’t cost me any less to go to Whole Foods [than a restaurant]—in fact it costs me more,” Weinberg said. “I might spend $32 on a good steak [at the grocery store]. It costs me less in my own restaurant.”

Weinberg also noted that nearby companies have begun using her restaurants as meeting places, which she believes is part of a larger trend. “We never used to open our restaurants between lunch and dinner, because it didn’t seem worthwhile,” she explained. “But we do now because people use them for business meetings. They’d rather do it at our communal table, drinking a cocktail, than their offices.”

Weinberg says the overall shift from eating at home to dining in restaurants has affected how she plans menus: There are more salads in the mix, to accommodate the “ladies who lunch.” Also, her daily menus change more often, to appeal to repeat customers.

To sum up, Weinberg described an average lunchtime scene at her New American bistro Marlowe: Table after table of young men, casually dressed in t-shirts, all from neighboring technology companies. They’re not necessarily foodies, but they have money to burn. For many, it’s not the first time they’ve dined at Marlowe that week.

“We’re kind of like their mom’s lunch,” Weinberg said with a laugh. “I just can’t imagine seeing these kids in a supermarket.”

Source: Yahoo! Food