The case against small plates

June 28, 2013

Centuries ago, in the Andalusia region of Spain, bar patrons would cover their glasses of sweet sherry with bread to keep flies from flying in. The bars started putting cured meats on top of the bread, turning the fly-protection devices into delicious snacks. A food revolution was born: From “tapa,” the word for cover, tapas were introduced to the world.

Which is why, in Washington in 2013, I can’t get a decent meal.

Small plates can be delicious, just like a Saturday Night Live sketch can be funny. (Deb Lindsey/For The Washington Post)
Small plates can be delicious just the way a "Saturday Night Live" sketch can be funny. (Deb Lindsey for The Washington Post)

Small plates have gone from novelty — an exciting new way to eat dinner! — to cliché, a tool for punishing those who just want an honest meal and, really, an affront to civilization.

In the most interesting and bustling stretch of restaurants in Washington right now, 14th Street NW, there are by my count seven establishments, all with delicious food, that offer that food primarily as small plates (The Pig, Masa 14, Estadio, Cork, Etto, Ghibellina and Bar Pilar). Several more are on the way. This madness must end.

The economic case for small plates is compelling for the restaurants themselves; most notably, the chefs can focus on making each order when it comes in and can send it out whenever it is ready. But the very things that make small plates appealing for a restaurant's chef and owner make them terrible for diners.

To wit: With a conventional entrée, the chef enters into an implicit agreement with the customer. You, Mr. or Ms. Customer, will order an entrée. I, the chef, will provide you with a properly sized portion of food for an adult human. It will be reasonably balanced nutritionally, with a mix of protein, starch and vegetables. It will be appropriately seasoned so that you might eat the whole thing. And the dish will arrive at the same time as your dining companions’ dinners.

Small-plates restaurants take each of those obligations and put them on the shoulders of the diner! You want to eat a quantity of food well-matched to the appetite of an adult human? That’s your problem, bub — and if you haven’t eaten here before, you’ll have to guess whether the grilled sardines are a heaping plate of fishies or a dainty, delicate snack.

Do you want to sequence your meal -- for example eating lighter, colder things like a salad or crudo before moving on to heavy, hotter dishes?  That is also your problem. Better plan ahead and order in waves.  Otherwise you might well get your grilled pork loin before the gazpacho, which just won’t do.

Nutritional balance? That’s up to you, too. If you want a mix of protein, starch and vegetables, you’ll have to make sure your order contains those elements. If you don’t manage an appropriate balance, that’s your problem.

And in terms of flavor, chefs put themselves at an advantage when they offer only small dishes. They can provide cheap thrills, loading their dishes with salt and fat in ways that pop on the palate but would become gross if you ate a whole dinner-size portion. Think of it this way: There are plenty of "Saturday Night Live" sketches that are hilarious when they last seven minutes but would be unbearable if stretched into a two-hour feature film. Tapas are a "Saturday Night Live" sketch; a proper entrée is a full-length movie.

And the sharing. Dear God, the sharing. You order from a menu the things you want to eat. In a small-plates restaurant, there is no sense of ownership. If you’re in the mood for shrimp, you order the shrimp dish. Yet social convention demands that you readily share your shrimp with the entire table! It’s one thing if you are eating with close friends or loved ones. But it becomes just awkward and weird if you are having a business meeting or are on a first date.

So chefs of America: Embrace the entrée. Embrace the challenge of creating a dish that is balanced and enjoyable, arrives at the same time for the entire table and meets the nutritional needs of your customer. The dining experience is not about you and your convenience. It is about creating an enjoyable place where people will come and spend their hard-earned money. The small-plates phenomenon is a fraud, wrought upon all of us.

But we cannot just wait for chefs to come around to this view, America. We must demand it: adult-size meals for adults.  When a waiter begins a meal by explaining, in a chipper voice, “We have a small-plates concept here, so you’ll want to order two to four dishes per person,” the proper response is to stand up, proudly and confidently, and bid that restaurant, and its inherent selfishness, a quick goodbye.

Update: For an opposing view, here is Matt Yglesias at Slate.

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