How exciting is the thought of chicken for dinner? The answer depends almost entirely on the image that pops to mind when you hear the word chicken.

If you’re conjuring up a vision of a tender breast that’s been dredged in a spicy batter, deep-fried to a golden brown and served alongside mashed potatoes and gravy, you may find the prospect of a chicken dinner very exciting, indeed. If, on the other hand, you’re picturing the pedestrian dieter’s dish of a boneless, skinless chunk of unseasoned baked or broiled bird accompanied by a few broccoli florets and a small side of brown rice, your enthusiasm is probably quite measured.

Chicken is the solid but mostly unremarkable utility shortstop of meat proteins—reliable, efficient, versatile, workmanlike, and predictable. It’s a blank canvas for talented chefs and menu developers who can effectively color its subtle flavor with any number of marinades, rubs, sauces, or seasonings. And it’s rarely controversial; a chicken dish is the safe go-to on any complex or challenging menu, a beacon of familiarity and comfort for the less-adventurous diner.

Chicken is clearly great at function, which accounts for why U.S. consumption has more than doubled since 1965, from 34 to 87 pounds per person per year. The question is, can it also be, you know… fun? In a word, yes. In three words, snacks, entrées, and dessert. Yes, dessert. Stay with me here.

Snacks: Poultry in motion

While quick-serve aficionados have been making meals of chicken sandwiches, nuggets, and tenders for decades now, the idea of chicken as a snack food still hasn’t quite hit home among mainstream U.S. diners and nosh mavens. But at San Francisco’s Hog & Rocks, whose raison d’être is ham and oysters, a platter of chicken cordon bleu nuggets with ham, cheese sauce, and bread-and-butter pickles offers just the right volume, configuration, and flavor combination to address a between-meal craving.

Other outlets, including Sticky’s Finger Joint in New York’s Greenwich Village and Murray Hill neighborhoods, have elevated the once-humble chicken finger. It’s both through a commitment to higher-than-usual quality standards for this particular nibble (the company’s website boasts of fresh, never-frozen, antibiotic- and hormone-free source material) and an extraordinary range of creative and occasionally outré dipping sauces, including Thai sweet chile, chocolate-chipotle barbecue, wasabi aioli, and sriracha ranch.

Finally, we’re seeing a wide range of different takes on chicken jerky, which is among the most portable and convenient snacking options out there. At a time when protein-fixated consumers are looking for snacks that deliver satiety and flavor, it’s not too big a stretch to imagine chicken or burger chains offering signature chicken jerky snacks for sale at the counter. Recently, some smaller marketing-savvy jerky manufacturers have been working to appeal more to women with smaller bites bearing complementary flavors such as currant and sesame seed. The options are wide open.

Entrées: Griddle me this

In the entrée category, it’s worth noting that the chicken and waffle combination—long a semi-obscure, primarily regional dish—is getting a serious makeover in settings both upscale and down-home.

In Brooklyn, Talde serves up Kung Pao chicken wings and waffles topped with coconut brown butter syrup. The Healdsburg Bar & Grill in Northern California’s wine country does the dish with a bourbon maple syrup, sausage gravy, and cayenne-spiced pecans. And at Straw in San Francisco, the order of the day is a fried chicken and waffle Monte Cristo, which combines chicken strips, a Belgian waffle, raspberry jam, Swiss cheese, maple syrup, and powdered sugar.

Fried chicken is also getting a modern, ethnically intriguing makeover at Talde, where it’s rendered Korean-style, with spicy kimchi yogurt, cherries, and mint. Chef David Chang of Momofuku fame, meanwhile, has coated his fried chicken with ground ramen noodles and soup mix to apparently glorious effect. Again, chicken’s adaptability and familiarity enables chefs and menu developers to take some unorthodox approaches to innovation and succeed handily.

Dessert: One sweet bird

I’m not going to suggest that Chickensicles or chicken churros are the wave of the future, or that chicken chocolate mousse is on anyone’s short list of divine sweets still to be created. But then there’s ChocoChicken in Los Angeles, whose dessert-inspired batter infuses sweet, spicy, and savory flavors in an utterly unprecedented way. Its ChocoChicken & Biscuit meal combines a coated fried thigh (the coating is a secret), a butter biscuit, sausage gravy, and honey butter. That’s one sweet bird.

And though it may sound strange, Coolhaus in Culver City, California, has taken dessert and poultry to a bold new place with its fried chicken and waffles ice cream. It’s brown butter maple ice cream with maple candied chicken skins and caramelized waffles. It may just be the best use of chicken skin since Colonel Sanders pioneered that secret recipe all those years ago.

So, can chicken be fun, new, novel, different? Again, I say absolutely. All it takes is a willingness to let your imagination fly the coop and take this versatile bird to some altogether different destinations.

Consumer Trends, Desserts, Fast Casual, Marc Halperin: Resident F&B Expert, Menu Innovations, Sandwiches, Story