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Is the entree dead?

Pork belly buns at Kaleidoscope Bistro & Pub (Becky Stein)

Pork belly buns at Kaleidoscope Bistro & Pub (Becky Stein)

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:

“… the tapas trend has done for American dining what no other trend has done, at least not as pervasively, and that is to make eating out more communal and less formal.”

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

50 comments Add your comment


August 27th, 2012
9:55 am

Variety is the spice of life. Whether it’s called tapas or dim sum or just plain appetizers, small plates are fun. I’ll be interested to see if they can pull it off with steaks.


August 27th, 2012
10:55 am

good timing, John. Went to One Eared Stag Saturday, and we did exactly what you describe in your post. The entrees looked great, and I had mine picked out, but there were too many items on the list of apps/small plates/whatever that we wanted to get as well. I really wanted to try the Hot Chicken, which turned out to be bigger than I expected, so after my wife and I shared our first ones, we just went back to the apps list and experimented some more. Much more fun, although I’ll likely go back for entrees at some point, maybe if we eat with others. We do the same thing at places like Serpas, Bocado, and Iberian Pig. It’s more exciting to have more things to try, and you can cover more of the cocktail menu with a mix of drinks, instead of a bottle of wine.


August 27th, 2012
10:59 am

The idea of everything on one plate is (IMO) uniquely American. I suspect that is the result of the way we Americans eat dinner…a half dozen bowls/platters of potatoes, green beans, chicken, cornbread, etc. passed around so people can load up their plates. One can also look to the Sunday brunch at local restaurants or even the all-you-can-eat troughs where people go to get a week’s worth of nourishment in one meal. Knowing HOW to eat is as important as knowing WHAT to eat……..


August 27th, 2012
11:22 am

I prefer a classic entree with sides and the option of having a small appetizer or salad prior. Too often, “small plates” are inconsistent in portion and overpriced. You end up with too much or too little food. Not everyone wants multiple forks in their meal and it’s work to divide everything while hot. Plus, the tables at some of the new restaurants are too small to accommodate all of these plates. Not a fan of this trend.


August 27th, 2012
11:31 am

I hit Local Three on Friday and enjoyed a mish mash of small plates. I love it because I want to try everything I can. I really liked that they had three sizes of desserts. I am a grazer….I’m good with it. As long as my tablemates don’t push my fork away everything is fair game.

Ned Ludd

August 27th, 2012
11:47 am

Look forward to lots of small reviews. Great trend, we are fans of dining at the bar and choices are usually limited to sharing a small choice of appetizers. It is worth noting that a friendly bartender can turn many entrees into a ’snack’ sized portion.


August 27th, 2012
12:53 pm

I do take issue with this paragraph:
“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.”

Maybe among the dining cognoscenti that this is the case, but not among us more lowly folk. The average restaurant serving the average person is still cranking out entrees, and I suspect always well.


August 27th, 2012
1:02 pm

Matt beat me to it. I’m optimistically hoping that your use of “everyone else” is simply a bit of hyperbole. If you’re actually serious, I’ll just figure that you’ve reached the point of being sadly out of touch with the reality of the majority of Americans.

Positive Polly

August 27th, 2012
2:37 pm

I like this. American restaurants blew up the size of their entrees somewhere along the way and that wasn’t a good thing…


August 27th, 2012
3:15 pm

I think the cartoon character Marge Simpson summed up tapas very well: “Ah, the meal that never comes.” I participated in the tapas “movement” years ago since it was something new. However, you can certainly put me in the “over it” group. As one person already noted, the table layout/size is not always very appropriate for this “sharing.” I am up for sharing an entree sometimes if I know it is large, but that sharing between me and ONE other person, not the table.


August 27th, 2012
3:50 pm

Boy, shlopping this piece together doesn’t look like it took very long!


August 27th, 2012
4:03 pm

My family likes the Golden Corral where we can eat a lot of small plates or larger ones to if we want. They have a chocolate waterfall and you can put pretty much anything in it. Mostly it’s for deserts but if your sneaky you can put roast beef in it. the chocolate fried chicken is good too. I wish they had some of them pork belly buns like in the picture. Those would be real good in the chocolate waterfall.


August 27th, 2012
4:08 pm

While I do like the idea of sharing food and trying different things I wonder if the “small plate” trend is just about increased profits for the restaurant. We ate at that Tapas place at Phipps and while I enjoyed the meal I wondered when the bill came where our extra food had gone to. Surely they had charged us for a plate or three that we did not receive, but no just less food and more money.


August 27th, 2012
4:11 pm

I dislike this pretentious trend. What’s wrong with eating your own food, and not spreading germs? My father would have scolded us as kids for this type of behavious, and now the dining glitterati say everyone is doing it?

Paul J

August 27th, 2012
4:14 pm

I prefer actually a plate for main dish and saucer for other viands and desserts. I think with this set, everything would be so clear and appealing.


August 27th, 2012
4:14 pm

I hope entrees are dead and small finger food plates are here to stay.

I’m getting tired of watching people eat with their fork upside down, like they are iin Europe, but instead are lazy to eat the correct way.

You ALL look like cowboys at a chuckwagon eatin grub.

Yeah..that’s YOU!

Bonwahi Kolakamehdi

August 27th, 2012
4:18 pm

Where I come from all portions small. I have eat after ten miles of walk and that for no more than stale ugali with matoke. I was glad to have it. When I come to united states I go to macdonald with friend Taopi and they not serve me because of food boner. Lasted for three days. I slept outside and Taopi bring me hamburger food. I love america.


August 27th, 2012
4:33 pm

Uhh, small plates is so two decades ago. The new thing is having a trough that everyone can lean over and eat as much as they want. It saves water by using no dishes and really makes dinner a lot of fun.

Boris Yoebekwicz

August 27th, 2012
4:38 pm

Good point Frank. Or we could just go for broke and form a Human Centipede.


August 27th, 2012
4:40 pm

This is also a great idea to use at home.


August 27th, 2012
4:45 pm

@Fred, you crack me up with your Golden Corral chocolate waterfall… Too funny!

Id Est

August 27th, 2012
4:55 pm

Food-snob crap. The majority of Americans, eating at chain restaurants, don’t know what you are talking about and could not possibly care less. “Foodies” should adopt cannibalism; then we’d be shet of them soon enough.


August 27th, 2012
5:08 pm

Good point, Id, if we all ate at chain restaurants then we could all be fat overweight slobs like so many Americans (and their kids).

Leave my entree alone

August 27th, 2012
5:21 pm

I love food. I love to eat. If I want small, I’ll get it. If I want two appetizers, I’ll get them, and have done so. But leave my main meal/entree alone. Folks are stripping us of everything we have known and loved! By time entrees become en vogue again, I’ll be dead. Stop now. Do this in thirty-five years.


August 27th, 2012
5:32 pm

Bocado+4 people+the entire appetizer list = pure heaven

Chris Demaree

August 27th, 2012
5:35 pm

I HATE small plates!!!!!!
If I go out to eat, I want a HUGE, HEARTY, several course meal! I don’t want to daintily graze on my date’s leaves and twigs!!!!

large marge

August 27th, 2012
5:39 pm

I like a challenge when I hit the feedbag. Whether it’s a free meal or t-shirt for eating the whole hog, I’m game.


August 27th, 2012
6:01 pm

My problem with the whole “small plate” thing is ultimately you get less for more of your money. Sure, the five-course tasting menu at Woodfire was a great idea, because anything they make is amazing and worth trying. But that’s not the same thing as buying four $9-$12 plates and still being hungry.


August 27th, 2012
6:04 pm

Oh, and I love all the people complaining about “food snobbery” on JK’s blog.

Do you even know what you’re reading? Go elsewhere if you don’t want serious discussion about high-quality dining.


August 27th, 2012
6:20 pm

Oh yeah, I gotta eat three or four servings of tapas to get close to full. By then, I’ve dropped what, 40 bucks?

Yeah. Tapas is great all right….for restaurants to serve us a la carte instead of a decent plate where all of the elements have meaning.


August 27th, 2012
6:31 pm

I love eating small plates. I get to try many more different things and experience the chef’s creativity.

Mark in the City of Decatur

August 27th, 2012
7:12 pm

If you’re into healthy (”raw”) veggie appetizers, then we’d call ‘em that French word, “Crudités”.

I’ll gobble up crudités only if they’re fancy little sandwiches on white bread rounds with watercress or thinly-sliced cucumbers and a smear of fancy (dill, garlic, smoked paprika, etc. flavored) mayonnaise (on both insides of the bread).

Rather labor-intensive for such fattening little goodies but you do get the raw thing. So healthy, that one thing. I can eat a million bread-wrapped little raw veg sandwiches.

Sharing is fine but sometimes I want a nice piece of fish I can call my own with some kale cole slaw and possibly a few real Southern hushpuppies, french fries, or fried onion rings.

I’ll eat anything, almost, but prefer organic, locally grown, seasonal shoots, leaves, and tubers. With a fattening sauce or spicy flavors. Served at least warm.


August 27th, 2012
7:49 pm

If you want an awesome meal at an affordable price, go to Cheddars in Gainesville. Everything from Chicken Pot Pie & Shepard’s Pie ribs & steaks. Most of the entree’s can be shared because they are just huge. Two people can eat really well for $30. I am in no way affiliated with Cheddars. I just think they know how to treat you right. Serving you great food for a reasonable price! Hard to beat in these hard economic times. Look at how the restaurant landscape has changed in the last few years. Outback once upon a time didn’t serve lunch. Didn’t even open the doors until 4 PM. Chili’s Applebee’s and O’Charleys doing 2fers? A lot of restaurants are doing what they have to these days to survive. Cheddars has been doing that from day one but not with gimmicks!


August 27th, 2012
8:12 pm

The plates and people get bigger the farther you go OTP.


August 27th, 2012
8:31 pm

Just returned from Laguna Beach and completely agree.


August 27th, 2012
8:39 pm

Two things…

1. I agree with the person who said that there is a concern that small plates are being pushed on us to make money versus being an actual “trend”.

2. I have noticed most entrees have unimaginative sides/garnishes to go with the protein of the entree on the plate. Most proteins I have ran into are cooked and prepared very well and taste pretty good. The side/garnish has been lacking in imagination and seasoning to make the total entree memorable and for the side/garnish to accentuate the protein.


August 27th, 2012
9:05 pm

glad to see it, been eating this way for years. prefer to try several things…especially at a new restaurant….rather than putting all my eggs in one basket with an entree. was a time when waitstaff couldn’t grasp fitting 3 apps into the flow if others only got an entree or an app and entree. now doesn’t seem to be as much of an issue. don’t get as many weird looks either…


August 27th, 2012
9:43 pm

I prefer to eat from the appetizer menu when I go out to some restaurants…much like Kessler’s wife, I find many entree portions to be more than I want to eat…and too, yes some appetizers are more appealing than the entrees…go figure…

Also, as a person who waited tables…it is not necessarily more difficult to serve people apps as entrees…after all…part of being a server means catering to the reasonable request of your clientele with panache, efficiency and exactness in order ‘to insure prompt service’ (TIPS)…

Finally, do we really need to eat more than 16 oz in one meal?…and if we do have multiple courses…would not smaller portions of a variety of palatable pleasures be more satisfying than a gluttony of waste from what we will not eat?…


August 27th, 2012
10:57 pm

Whatever. Just be glad you have a choice.


August 28th, 2012
2:39 am

Since the appetizers are typically sized about what I would want my entree to be anyway, having a selection of 2 or 3 of them seems about right. And I still have some left to take home. But, then, my waist is not larger than my inseam, either.


August 28th, 2012
5:02 am

Every once in awhile I waste 5 minutes of my time reading one of Kessler’s ego rants. Sure John, regular entree’s are going away, because you say so. All of us must fall in line behind a high powered trend setter, such as yourself. Look around John, you write for the AJC, an insignificant dab of excrement, that is part of fading genre called newspapers. It is you, and your type of smug self importance that is hastening the demise.

Keep up the good work John, your work is needed.


August 28th, 2012
5:15 am

Old Timer you make me laugh. Laguna Beach is a fun place, but as far as restaurants go, it’s a wasteland. It’s one big tourist trap of overpriced places, scorned by the locals, except for a few local breakfast places. Serious diners that live there head for Newport for dinner.

What’s next from you? All the fine dining establishments in Myrtle Beach you love?


August 28th, 2012
10:07 am

An important point that hasn’t been mentioned is that sharing food and small plates really only work if 1) the whole table is interested, 2) inclined, and 3) compatible with each other.

My wife and I routinely strategically order so that we each get to eat a little of everything (different proteins, veg, starch, leafy green, carb, etc) and pass entree plates across the table if necessary. This works fine in pretty much any restaurant, whether Pizza Hut or Eugene. However, I’d never try this with someone whose taste in food doesn’t correlate with mine.

Another point is that it’s becoming tough to gauge portion size. This happened at Spence last week, where we ordered two small plates and what we thought were two mains, but then a “main” came out first, followed by small plates, followed by the other main. And then we were still hungry, so we ordered another small plate – worked out fine.

I can see how some hungry people want a big personal plate of food, but for those of us who are secure in knowing we can always get more food if we want, small plates make sense.


August 28th, 2012
10:35 am

Wow, LeRoi! Why are you wasting time reading and writing in this “insignificant dab of excrement, that is part of fading genre called newspapers?” I think your “smug self importance” is showing.


August 28th, 2012
12:21 pm

LeRoi is apparently one of those people who can’t do it or say it IRL, so he has to settle for anonymous online trolling. Phhht.


August 28th, 2012
4:46 pm

I’m one of the people who consistently says “Again with the small plates?!”

I’ve been known to go to one of my favorite restaurants and have two appetizers from the bar menu as a dinner, but I’m not sharing it, and I’m not acting like dinner should be some sort of children’s tea party except none of the seats are occupied by teddy bears. “Oh, you MUST try this.” “DO have another spring roll.” “More tea, Mr. Cuddlekins?”

What is wrong with going to a restaurant and ordering items that create a coherent meal, eating what you ordered for yourself one dish at a time, and enjoying conversation about other topics with your dining companions?


August 28th, 2012
8:46 pm

Hey Kessler, Please stop kidding yourself and our current patrons. As of recent (past 6 years), all chefs working in the industry and coming out of school developing new menu’s have all been bridled and held back by one thing….. The Economy! This is the one and only reason “small plates” are where they are. Get ready America, Fine Dining is about to make a mean renaissance, it will be bigger, more detailed, more complex and tastier than anything ever experienced. The nation, foodie or not,
is smarter more interested and more educated about food than any other time in our countries history. The food driven public will soon be insisting that the industry oblige them. This renaissance will make 17th century Grande Cuisine look like a Kindergarten Cafeteria. Its coming! Like-it or not, America is finally getting away from the garbage food created by big industry and we are going to require greater more intelligent sustenance, beyond what “small plates” can offer! Watch and see, I will eat these words if I am wrong.

[...] as of late. Thank you, student loans! But the title of this piece caught my attention: “Is the entree dead?“ Traditional Spanish [...]

Is My Entree Dead? | EYES IN

August 30th, 2012
11:05 pm

[...] Continue reading the article HERE [...]


August 31st, 2012
8:39 pm

More expensive. You forgot more expensive.

Tapas is nothing more than a way to sell half the food for 2/3 of the price. Profit!

Screw tapas.