Is this the moment so many eye-rolling diners have been waiting for? Have we passed peak small plate?
No, D.C. restaurants aren't ricocheting back to the meat-and-two-sides entree. Instead, the medium-sized plate -- a dish between appetizer and entree in size -- is rapidly becoming the new size du jour for chefs.
"Small plates were tired," chef Cedric Maupillier of Convivial said. "The term 'small plate' was tired."
That's rather different than the wisdom imparted on Maupillier when he helped Michel Richard open Central in downtown in 2007. He was told Americans like their plates big -- with lots of meat and plenty of sides like mashed potatoes. When the chef opened Mintwood Place in Adams Morgan in 2012, he shrank the size of his portions, which he cut back even more in designing the menu at Convivial.
When the Shaw restaurant opened in November, he was up-front about the fact that its stock-in-trade would be medium-sized plates. He thinks there's an appeal, especially among D.C.'s young, budget-minded diners, in looking at a menu and finding dishes for under $20.
Rob Rubba of the recently opened Hazel in Shaw, which also serves medium plates, said he was similarly motivated by price. Hazel's dishes, ranging from $11 to $17, convey that the restaurant is more of a neighborhood spot conducive to repeat visits, Rubba said, rather than for special occasions alone. Although the per-person cost can end up being around the same as an entree at some metropolitan-area restaurants, medium-sized plates give diners the added benefit of sampling a variety of dishes, which is precisely the way Rubba likes to eat. "I wanted people to be able to try a lot of things," he said.
Medium plates can offer the best of both worlds: the variety of small plates and the satisfaction of a traditional dinner entree. At Espita Mezcaleria, chef Alexis Samayoa offers a range of dish sizes, small salsas and large moles among them, but a good portion is devoted to medium plates of tacos, salads and queso fundido. The result is a filling meal that doesn't feel as excessive as an appetizer-and-entree dinner. After a meal of medium plates, "you're full and you're happy," Samayoa said. "You're not wanting more."
Of course, there are economic reasons behind the trend, as well. Rubba and Maupillier both cited increasing food costs as one reason their style of dishes is en vogue: You can save money and reduce waste by cutting back on portions, particularly when it comes to the elimination of the "center of the plate protein," Rubba said.
Reducing plate sizes also means there's not as much space to fill with superfluous, less cost-effective garnishes and sauces. Cutting back on stylized plating speeds dishes out of the kitchen, which helps turn tables faster -- meaning restaurants can handle a higher volume of diners in one night.
Medium plates further streamline the process, Samayoa said, because kitchens don't have to send out as many dishes as they would at, say, a tapas spot, where people tend to add to their orders as the food comes out, gauging how much they need to eat as they go.
The key is ensuring diners understand the concept -- and most do, according to all three chefs. As Convivial approaches its first year in business, Maupillier said, diners are more familiar with medium plates, and when they're not, restaurant staff are better at explaining the idea themselves. And if after a gander through the menu in this brave new world, you're still unsure of how much to order, Samayoa has a simple suggestion: "Always ask your server."