Get a group of frequent restaurant-goers together, and soon enough their note-sharing will reveal the small things that can diminish an otherwise nice experience. Are we talking #FirstWorldproblems here? Absolutely. Does that stop us from venting? Absolutely not.
You know the drill: No sooner have you and someone you like squeezed into your two-top table (maximum size four to five square feet, approximately eight inches from the table next to it) and sat through the “Have you dined with us before?” spiel from your server than you hear: “We recommend ordering two to three small plates per person.”
You look down at your table while pretending to study the menu and wonder what kind of Tetris will allow the table to hold four to six plates or serving bowls; two side plates that allow you to “share” each other’s dishes; two sets of silverware; two water glasses; and two cocktail glasses. Oh, and two smartphones, of course. And condiments. Having a bottle of wine or a carafe of cocktails? Need room for that, too.
None of this would be a problem if small plates arrived sequentially. But because they arrive “as they’re ready,” the result is anarchy. Sometimes three items come out at once. Sometimes you’ve only just moved drinks and side plates to make room for the dish holding three Korean short ribs when a long, rectangular tray bearing two deviled eggs shows up, and you have to start reorganizing the table top all over again.
What makes it worse is when chefs decide that pretty-and-Pinterestible trumps practical, so your sauteed kale arrives artfully arranged in the middle of a plate with a fancy aubergine-colored 1
With square footage in the District’s Bloomingdale and Shaw neighborhoods at a premium, I assumed that restaurants were copying airlines: shrinking seats and tables to squeeze even more customers into the same space. But restaurant designers I’ve asked say that’s typically not the case: The standard two-top restaurant table remains around 30 inches by 24 inches. (Space is tighter in bar and lounge areas, where restaurateurs assume that tables will be used for drinks for a good portion of the night.)
The real problem is that the way we eat has changed. In the olden days before tapas, your appetizer arrived on one plate. After you finished, it was taken away and you received a plate with your entree. The amount of space required for tableware and glassware was far less than today, as we dine on waves of bite-size snacks, and the thinking just hasn’t caught up.
Here’s my plea to restaurant owners who plan to serve small plates: Before you open, sit down at a table for two. Cover the top with as many plates as you expect a couple to order. Set out side dishes, silverware, glasses and, for the sake of argument, a bottle of wine and more glasses. Make note of the amount of bare table, and consider whether you want tables to be slightly larger. Your future customers will thank you.