How small plates have conquered America’s menus

I’ll take six…
I’ll take six…
Image: Reuters/Carlo Allegri
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One pizzetta, topped with prosciutto and cut into a few pieces to share. Five charred asparagus stalks underneath a poached egg. A finger of raw sablefish, succumbing in seconds to colliding forks. Toasty breadsticks and sauces for everyone to dip them in.

If this is dinner, where is the main course?

“Small plates dining” has been making noise at American tapas bars and on high-end tasting menus for at least a decade, but it now appears to be entering the mainstream. Ten years ago, all five of the inaugural James Beard Award nominees for Best New Restaurant hewed more or less to America’s traditional menu format dividing starters and mains; of last year’s nominees, you’ll find only one—San Francisco’s 60-seat Rich Table, which cultivates a spontaneous and communal vibe notwithstanding its traditional menu structure. On the other end of the dining spectrum, big chains like Friday’s and Olive Garden are reworking their menus to feature small plates, too. Underlying this trend is the restauranteurs’ belief that small-plates dining encourages consumers to have a more entertaining night out—and also a more expensive one.

Subtly, “small plates” often means two things at once. The first aspect is “dishes for sharing”—which represents a chance for us restauranteurs to push you, our guests, into more conversation and conviviality. We’ll do whatever we can to get you to have a better time, because success for us requires that we move beyond serving delicious food and into the business of creating compelling experiences.

“I want to create a space where people are forced to interact with each other,” says Charlie Hallowell, who opened his third Oakland restaurant, Penrose, earlier this year, featuring a “small plates” style menu. “I’m really interested in throwing a party.” Hallowell’s approach works – his restaurants are full every night they’re open.

A “small plates” menu also usually means that the dishes aren’t timed by the kitchen – instead, they’re cooked as soon as possible and brought to their table in whatever order they are completed. This tends to get food to the table as quickly as possible, which makes for happy guests. And, eschewing coursed meals allows some restaurants to save money by not employing an “expediter” to coordinate the cooks’ timing. That makes for one fewer job on the payroll, in an industry where labor is almost always a business’s highest expense.

More importantly, between fast ticket times, tables that turn more quickly, and the rowdy chaos of guests ordering and eating at a rapid pace, small plates offer crowded venues the promise of increased revenue. One San Francisco small-plates chef I know says his guests spend a lot more money in less time, due to their food arriving so quickly. “They keep ordering more and more because they don’t feel full yet,” he told me, “and then suddenly they’re stuffed, they’re ready to leave, and they have a really big tab.”

Creating big guest checks is important because even successful operators like Hallowell struggle to get revenue high enough to cover the costs of both premium ingredients and livable wages for their employees. “Part of the small plates thing is that we’re all trying to figure out how to get as much food out,” Hallowell says, “how to get people to buy as many cocktails as we can, because we’re all trying to figure out how to make it. The starting rate for cooks hasn’t risen in 20 years, and if you look at menus at Chez Panisse, entrees have gone up only $2 in 20 years. But housing prices here have tripled. We’re serving locally farmed, organic food, but we can’t charge what it costs, because people go to the grocery store and they see prices for crap food that’s all government subsidized.”

As important as revenue is, there’s yet another reason small-plates dining is so popular with restauranteurs: small-plates dining is the kind of dining that many of us in the restaurant industry most enjoy. That’s partly because the small, focused, high-quality dishes evoke the tasting menus of our industry’s most celebrated chefs—Rene Redzepi, Thomas Keller and others. And it’s also because sharing plates with friends is how we express our joy of food and hospitality when we’re not on the job. If you dine out with industry people, you know what I’m talking about—it’s assumed that everybody will share every dish that’s ordered, and if you try to order something just for yourself, your companions may well forget and eat off your plate anyway.

So, yes: small plates dining is a format that is good for our finances. But don’t overlook its emotional impact on those of us who run restaurants. We may at first scheme these kind of menus because they produce more revenue, but in the end we come to love them because they produce more togetherness.