New Year’s Eve at Cozy Royale called for caviar. So the Brooklyn restaurant put a mound of it on fried whole onions — sliced, splayed, and blooming. “Every single table ordered it; [so] we decided to keep it,” says owner Brent Young (who’s also a co-host of Eater’s video series Prime Time). More familiar than it is fancy, the blooming onion is an obvious fit on Cozy Royale’s menu of steak and spinach artichoke dip, and an easy sell at $15, paddlefish caviar included.
Battered, fried onions, with their segments fanned out like flowers, have long had a spot in America’s heart. Or at least they have since around 1988, when Outback Steakhouse trademarked the phrase “bloomin’ onion.” (The chain’s parent company is aptly named Bloomin’ Brands.) Chili’s countered with the “Awesome Blossom” in 1990, and Lonestar Steakhouse unveiled its “Texas Rose” in 2000, according to MEL Magazine’s dive into the dish’s origins. Flowering onion blooms are also a staple of fairs, where onions are among the tamer things hitting the fryer.
In recent years, new takes on the format are steadily popping up in restaurants across the country. The flowering onions don’t stray too far from their roots at Patti Ann’s, a homey reimagining of the Midwest in Brooklyn, or at Ronnie’s, which brings riffs on standard chain restaurant menus to LA. D.C.’s Pogiboy takes more liberties, borrowing flavors from sinigang, a tamarind soup from the Philippines, serving it with crab fat mayo. Whether with straight-from-the-’90s styling or a more experimental twist, these new blooming onions are a highbrow-lowbrow wonder. They exist somewhere between comfort food and stunt food, present and past — and, bonus, you can eat them with your hands.
Chef Mei Lin, who now owns Daybird, laid the groundwork for the current trend when she put a blooming onion on the menu at her now-closed LA restaurant Nightshade back in 2019. With this, Lin made the blooming onion “relevant,” according to LA Magazine. Inspired by the flavors of tom yum soup, it was dusted in a powdered mix of lime leaf, lemongrass, and tamarind, and served with a coconut ranch dipping sauce. She chose it as a conversation piece, meant to call back the ones she shared with friends while growing up in the Detroit area. “It is something so interactive and fun and really down to earth — you know, doing something very lowbrow,” Lin says. On some nights, there was an onion on every table at Nightshade, she recalls.
Alas, she had to take it off the menu after two or three months. “It just ended up being too crazy,” Lin says. She and the staff would have to pick through cases of onions, finding the ones with the not-too-round shape that ensures they’ll lay flat on the dish, and then cut them by hand (an industrial-grade “flowering onion cutter” can be an investment). With up to 40 orders a night,