Rant: Small plates, big pain

We met friends at a trendy restaurant recently. The waiter explained that the plates were "sharing size". When asked to clarify, he said, stiffly, "Somewhere between tapas and a full portion. We suggest three mains and three starters per table."

We then entered into the tedious selection process, to ensure everyone wanted each dish, because we were sharing. Eventually we selected seven dishes.  

It's bad enough to negotiate with one person ("If you're having the duck, then I could have the lamb and we'll get a red, but if I wanted the oysters..."). 

Four or five people takes ordering into the foodie equivalent of fractals. My choice, salmon tartare, was approved. 

Two plates arrived; 45 minutes passed, then came two salads, then the other three all at once. Le Duc said, "I'm not having any salad." Others heard him say this. But he wanted a taste, then suddenly hoovered half the plate without noticing.  

When my salmon came, Le Duc and his Falstaffian buddy hit it like seagulls on a hamburger. I liked it, but the fragment I ate made a definitive opinion impossible.

Dessert was a tiny ramekin of something toffee. I left the restaurant thinking about where I could grab a slice. Our share cost the equivalent of four solid meals at a good Mom and Pop joint.

I want my meal, dammit. Small plates are fine in their original incarnation, as bites that tide you over until a later dinner or mitigate cocktails, but they are unsatisfying when shared four ways.

Before the small plates fad, restaurants provided a sort of Marxist menu that ranged from 22 oz. steaks to a nice light piece of fish: to each according to his needs. Your courses, chosen to accord with your appetite, came in a comforting, choreographed procession.

Now, a table is expected to share fitfully-appearing food that fits in the palm of a hand, served in whatever order the mysterious "The Kitchen" decides. Apparently The Kitchen likes long breaks, perhaps to catch an episode of "Girls".

And it's yucky, hygiene-wise. I'd rather swap microbes by kissing my friends than by commingling in communal plates for hours.

I've put my hungry foot down and told Le Duc that I'll share two ways, but that's the limit unless of course it's Chinese, but they give you lots.

Naomi Klein and Avi Lewis were dining there with their moon-faced baby; since they made the excellent documentary, "The Take", might they follow that with "The Plate", exposing this dining delusion?

PS. The style part

So, what did I wear to this non-meal? A Mongolian lamb-trimmed sweater-jacket, black jeans and a grey cashmere tee. No worry about jeans feeling snug after "all that food"!



Anonymous said…
I agree, Duchesse! One of my favorite restaurants, flavor-wise (very creative Mexican) does the small-plates-sent-out-when-the-chef-decides thing. I find that it works for a couple with similar taste in food, but is ridiculous for a group--someone is always left feeling greedy or hungry! When we dine out with others, I'll share a platter of appetizers (don't really like filling up on them anyway) but prefer to have an entree to myself.

Rubiatonta said…
Small plate, as interpreted in North America, are a scam. I never think there's enough for more than one person.

When we go out for tapas here in Madrid, we order a "ración," which is a rather hefty serving, designed to share. For four people, four raciones will do the trick nicely, five or six if they're REALLY ravenous. That said, they don't all come out of the kitchen at the same time, but since we're not in a fancy restaurant, it's expected.
Adrienne Shubin said…
This is one of my husband's biggest pet peeves. He hears "plates to share", "tapas", or "small plates" and he turns on his heel. It's funny when you think about it. Why would you share tiny plates of food with other people? Wouldn't it be smarter to share great big platters of food?
What I really don't understand is why the "small plates" still have close to the same price, if not the same price, as an entree at a comparable restaurant. LIke Rubiatonta says, it's a scam.
Unknown said…
Wish you were nearer ... in my real life, I own(along with the Huz) and operate a tiny little rural pub in the middle of nowhere. But we do the standard Marxian menu and cling to "big food, our recipes, and fresh as we can get it." We're slow, but fabulous, and everyone goes home as full as they wish. Sorry you went home hungry and grossed out. Not a happy trend.
Susan B said…
With more than two people - no way. But le monsieur and I sometimes find that if we don't have an appetite for a full meal (or are on vacation, having a late lunch and will be going out to dinner later), three small plates are perfect between the two of us. But for four? Non!
How very disappointing...
I like to share with my daughter or husband or BFF but any more than that and it gets complicated.
Chinese being the exception.
SewingLibrarian said…
My husband won't even share with ME! He detests places like this. I've shared with GF's, but we've ordered lots of plates. As you say, it gets expensive quickly.
Duchesse said…
C.: I hope more people tell restaurants they don't want it.

Rubi: I didn't want the mall at once but at one point it took 45 min. for the next installment!

Adrienne Taylor Shubin: Yes, a way to drive up the cheque. What I really resented was the waiter telling us "the plates are to share". I wanted to ask, "What if we don't"?

JaninJabbit: Sounds like my ideal place! The food was not gross, just the germ-mingling.

Une Femme: Agree, and especially in France i have ordered two appetizers instead of two full courses, but not to share! (In France that used to get you the fish eye but not anymore.)

Gretchen said…
I personally find this the most asinine way to feed a group of folks. I'll only do this with a good girlfriend, with the understanding that, if the plate is good, we order a second one. I think dim sum and Spanish tapas are interesting ideas and small plates are a clever way to decide if you'd like a full meal of something, but dammit, if I want dinner, I want to eat it without everyone else barging into it. Let's hope this trend (and foams, and other ridiculous "food") dies a painful, immediate death.
materfamilias said…
Too funny! I do enjoy tapas/small plates with a compatible crowd, but that is a very limited group. Some people turn the selection process into a very protracted negotiation. Interesting that when we had pintxos (the Basque version of tapas) in San Sebastian this spring, people we tended to get a small plate EACH rather than trying to share. I agree with Adrienne -- why share the tiny bits? (plus any visual/sculptural effect gets smashed as soon as you try to split into 4 or 5!)
I do like getting a chance to sample from others, though, and get cranky if Paul decides to order something I was going to get. . . why doesn't he know that he's supposed to provide me some variety?!
materfamilias said…
And I note your comment to Sue about sharing getting the fish-eye in France at one time. Still does, for us, from the Male half of a Parisian couple we sometimes dine with when we're there. P. has been known to chide that one is ruining one's palate. . . and I have to admit to goading him just a bit by deliberately tasting from Paul's plate.
Anonymous said…
What a place!!!
I hope you expressed your disappointment to the waiter / owner...
Anne (Playing with Scarves)
Anonymous said…
So glad Gretchen mentioned foams--an unappetizing and pretentious idea that I, too, wish would disappear, along with bland sous-vide cooking, artistic smears of sauce, and cloches of aromatic smoke...

Silly fads aside, though, North American restaurant cooking has vastly improved in my lifetime. There were 3 or 4 decent restaurants in our city when we moved here 25 years ago; now there are hundreds, and more in the suburbs. The trend toward freshly prepared organic local produce, and mindfully raised and harvested animals and fish is a welcome improvement, too. (Bless you, Alice Waters!) Even near our house in the mountains a few intrepid chefs are making great food, and we support them by eating in their places as often as possible, especially in the off-season. The daughter of a restauranteur, I know how hard it is to make a living this way. Those who do it for love, and do it well, are to be cherished.


P.S. Thanks for feeding our curiosity with those fashion details at the end of your post!
Swissy said…
I couldn't agree more. And my husband would even agree more than that , if it were possible. We very rarely eat out, but when we do do, we love our local brasserie. They serve meals in the French sequence, but are relaxed about variations. They always have on the menu soups, quiches, salads for little meals. And the place is fun! Innovative! As for the cheque: no run-ups here.
Duchesse said…
Gretchen: Sharing with one person with whom you are comfortable is fine (though really I prefer to leave it at a taste) and dim sum feels different because the items are little separate bits, not something that has to be divvied up. So maybe this is "dim sum run amok"?

materfamilias: Yes, I have long seen tapas ordered and eaten by the intended recipient. Ah yes, the French dining disapproval. This is the dark side of an intense food culture: codifying and telling others how to manage their palate and appetite.

playingwithscarves: No, I did not as I was in another city and my friends chose the restaurant. They did see the flaws in the place, though.

C.: I'm anti-foam and silly smears, too- almost as much as the recitation of every ingredient as the plate (cooling rapidly) is placed in front of you. I've worked in restaurants and know the economics of making a profit. There are many places in my city who serve the kind of food you describe and those are the places I'll ardently support.

Swissy: See you there!
KSL said…
Yuck - despise it also. Precious, affected, etc. It was never intended as a meal. Tapas are in bars in Spain, where you're sitting, drinking, chatting, and small plates of food come out from time to time.
No one goes out for dinner for Tapas.
lillyanne said…
Yes. Oh yes indeed.
Kristien62 said…
The most enjoyable tapas experience was in Georgetown. We were visiting and stopped in for a wine and a treat. We ordered a few plates at the bar and it was lovely. The worst was also in D.C where we went for dinner and they brought ALL the plates at once to our tiny table. I was afraid to move for fear of knocking off a plate.

Another trend here is to feature locally sourced foods which I support wholeheartedly. However, it gets old when they announce each thing brought to the table along with where and what enterprise produced it. Like advertising at dinner.
Duchesse said…
Kristien62: I actually like tapas but not split into miniscule shares. And why don't they put all that provenance info on the menu so if a diner is interested he or she can read it?
Anonymous said…
Yup, I'm with you on expensive and small tapas/ plates.

If the tapas are cheap and plentiful then I'm quite happy to share. Four of us had an absolute feast at a place that went out of business a few weeks later 'cos they couldn't make enough money. Really sad that they closed down as the food was incredible! (drools quietly)

Mardel said…
tapas in bars yes. But I otherwise try to avoid those oh too trendy small plate places, which always leave me grumpy and ravenous
KSL said…
However, I do usually order two appetizers, instead of a main course when I'm out for dinner. I find the appetizers more interesting, and it's an easy way to maintain portion control.
Duchesse said…
Mardel: Tapas are wonderful and I can make a whole meal of them, but I don;t like dividing them four ways.

Kathy: Yes, especially in North American where portions are often so large, 2 appetizers make sense.
V.O. said…
Girl, I've got your back entirely: I was just grousing about this new "small plate" scam with friends. It's awkward to order, and my observation is that everyone is left feeling a little put out in one way or another -- whether for reasons of disappointment, hunger, hygiene, or finance. As an anthropologist, I'm always amazed by how restaurants can take food practices (e.g., sharing a small meal) out of their cultural contexts, re-frame them, exploit them, and destroy their social-cohesion functions. As always, your blog provides refreshing observations and candor.
Duchesse said…
V.O.: Your comments intrigue me; I would love to have dinner with an anthropologist-you- willing to talk throughout. My friend (who picked the resto) said, "Well, you don't *have* to share", but I bowed to perceived norms. And really, when did all this come about?
V.O. said…
I'd love to have dinner with you, dear Duchesse! I'm teaching a food & culture class next semester in which the students have to examine food culture issues -- I'll suggest that someone research this contemporary Western shared plate thing!

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