Have you been noticing lately that the small plates often outshine the entrees on restaurant menus?
For this week’s column I look at the issue — something I see as a sea change in the way Americans are eating out. Other food writers have weighed in on the issue lately:
The most excellent Besha Rodell, late of Creative Loafing and now the lead critic for LA Weekly has this to say:
Pete Wells, restaurant critic for the New York Times, grouses:
“…many dishes served at allegedly tapas-style restaurants simply don’t split well. Either they look like a car crash by the time you’ve divided them in four, or your portion ends up being so small you hardly get to know it before it’s gone.”
Here’s what I have to say:
I love my readers, even when they have problems with me and my restaurant reviews. They complain I pay more attention to wine than beer, that I give desserts short shrift and that sometimes it seems like I could live my whole life on Buford Highway eating Asian food.
Lately, there’s been another quibble, which goes something like this:
“Kessler: Again with the small plates? Don’t you ever eat a normal-sized portion of anything?”
My two most recent reviews explored The Spence, Richard Blais’ new restaurant where the shareable appetizers best the main courses, and then Shoya Izakaya, the Japanese pub where the 300-item-long menu offers only small plates.
I’ve been enthusiastic about many of the small-plates restaurants around town, from the tapas bar Barcelona to the cocktail lounge The Sound Table. I best liked the appetizers and smaller plates on the menus at The Lawrence and One Eared Stag, and I found the five-course tasting menu at Woodfire Grill beat the more traditional menu of salads and mains.
The fact is I always eat this way because that’s what I do. The first rule of Restaurant Review Club is there’s no ownership to any dish. Everything gets passed and shared at my table because I need to try everything.
But here’s the rub: Everyone else is starting to eat this way as well. Stick a fork in your main course, and then pass it along. The entree is just about dead.
I remember way back in the early days of the Reformation (by which I mean 1988), when I was in cooking school near Washington, DC. One of my classmates got an externship with a hotshot school alum who had just opened a restaurant called Tastings. This place specialized in what was then called “grazing.” Waiters solemnly explained the portions were smaller than normal, and that each guest should count on three items apiece. Sharing was “encouraged.”
A few years later, my part-time ventures in food writing had turned into a full-time job, and I found myself at my first professional conference. Several newspaper food editors were leading a kind of topic slam — throwing out ideas for potential stories.
“What about the tapas trend?” one asked. “Just about played out?”
“Absolutely!” one gray-haired editor called out. “Everyone is getting sick of it. You don’t get any food!”
Some hated the co-opting of the Spanish word. Others thought it was better than the dreaded “small plates,” which sounded so pretentious.
“Why not just call them what the are? Appetizers.”
“What they really are is a ripoff.”
Despite the predictions of the food-writing brain trust, small plates didn’t go anywhere but onto more menus. By the time I moved to Atlanta in the late 1990s, I noted restaurants had begun to subdivide the first section of their menus. Some appetizers were labeled “appropriate for sharing” while others were rechristened as “first courses.” Some folks still wanted their bowl of soup or green salad before the meal; others could be convinced to get “something for the table” with their cocktails.
But the expectation was still that everyone would get an entree.
My wife was an early adopter of the two-appetizer meal. She found most entrees too big and, frankly, too boring. At first, waiters responded with surprise and typically brought both her appetizers with the first course and then offered her an empty plate with entrees. But after a few years, they began asking which item she preferred first.
A few years ago I noticed richer kinds of meat and shellfish were starting to show up among the appetizers. Small portions of braised beef short rib or a lone sea scallop made perfect sense at the beginning of meals. The whole gastropub movement furthered this trend. You could eat a slider and give your stomach that happy hamburger feeling. Or a bite of shrimp and grits in the most outrageously buttery sauce.
Now, I’m seeing so many menus that offer a couple dozen starters to consider and then maybe a handful of entrees. I look around and I see forks flying at many of the tables around me.
Sometime this fall we should see the opening of KR Steakbar from Kevin Rathbun, which promises “small plates steaks.” In other words, the most iconic of all entrees in America — the steak — is getting ready to miniaturize.
Sounds great to me because I can never finish a whole steak. There’s too much else to try.
- by John Kessler for the Food & More blog