Dear Restaurant Owners,
The jig is up! Do you think I’m a chump? Do you think I don’t see through you and your small plate menus?
You’re trying to get me to spend more money than I want to! Instead of offering up an individual-sized appetizer for $12 to $15 and an entree in the $20 to $30 range, you’re asking me and my tablemates to each order several $12 to $15 dishes—at several restaurants, recently, we were instructed to order “six to seven” of these small plates per person. It’s been years since I got a 1 on my A.P. Calculus exam, but I’m pretty sure that adds up to at least $80 a pop before drinks, dessert, tax and tip. Why don’t you just put a pistol to our heads and demand that we empty our wallets on the table before allowing us to see a menu?
Now I understand, philosophically, how this small plate movement started: it’s a chance for diners to cover a large swath of dishes, a chance to experience multiple chef creations instead of just two or three. It’s based, I believe, on Spanish tapas: a style of eating that I experienced firsthand when I went to Barcelona in 2009.
Here’s the thing about tapas: tapas are designed to be shared, so they make sense. A big plate of calamari and chickpeas is the kind of thing you can dig into, greedily, with multiple forks while gulping glassfuls of Cava. Tapas make sense.
Gjelina, in Venice Beach, gets that. I went there this weekend with a group of friends and the food was built to be shared. Like this plate of Thumbelina carrots (my favorite dish there), dusted with cumin and roasted until crisp and sweet and then coated in yogurt (along with cilantro and sesame seeds):
We passed this around eagerly along with the salads and pizzas you saw at the top of this post. By sharing all of this food, our table became a tight-knit community of carrot-cheerleaders and pizza-patronizers. This is small-plate eating at its best: it’s fun, it’s festive, and, most importantly, it’s fair. None of us felt ripped off when the check came—I think it came to like $40 a person? Don’t quote me on that.
But that’s not the kind of small plate eating I’m complaining about. My beef is with a new crop of restaurants that sell “small plates” that aren’t really designed to be shared. They look like normal plates of food–a traditionally styled appetizer or entree–except you now have to awkwardly divide up the single basil leaf, peeled grape and eyeball-sized nodule of mozzarella.
For example, here in L.A. we went to a famous small plate restaurant and ordered a bunch of food that was impossible to share. One dish was a single razor clam with a charred ramp and if you’ve ever tried to divide a single razor clam four ways, you know that you’d probably have an easier time conducting your own brain surgery.
If you labeled this dish a “traditional appetizer” and served it to an individual, it would be a major triumph; but as part of a larger small-plate dinner? It not only doesn’t work, it’s incredibly frustrating, not to mention unsatisfying–who wants 1/4 of a razor clam?–not to mention expensive.
Here’s the test of a quality small plate restaurant: if you divided any individual plate by four, would each portion have essentially the same stuff on it? At Gjelina, that would be true; at this new crop of small plate restaurants, not so much.
Which is why I’m done with small plate dining! I’d much rather have my own individual appetizer and entree and dessert than little nibbles of foods that can only be divided awkwardly.
If you think of chefs as artists and food their art, eating small plates is like dashing through a gallery, glancing here and there but never pausing, meaningfully, before a painting or a sculpture; nothing sinks in; nothing stays with you.
I’d rather spend 10 minutes chewing over the Mona Lisa than a mad dash through the Louvre, Chevy Chase style.
So let’s cool it with the small plates.