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The Rise of Small Plates: A Seemingly Culinary Revolution

By Sophia Dearie

 

‘We’d recommend 8-12 small plates to share’. What does this even mean? There has been a cultural shift, where long gone are the days of starters, mains, and desserts. It’s now a free for all. Dishes come as they are ready. No one knows how to portion anything, what cutlery to use or when it’s acceptable to ask for a fresh side plate. Things only get more complicated when you’re dining with people you don’t really know (cough cough, second dates). 

 

The Small Plates Headache


Small plates on average in London can range from £6 - £18. I’m not great at maths, but if a restaurant is suggested 8-12 small plates to share, you’re looking at £48 - £216 to leave a restaurant confused, and more importantly still hungry.  

 

I like the idea of sharing plates, I really do. I am pro seasonal cooking and ever-changing menus - and understand that these are part of the draw of small plate cooking. I have always been a believer that two starters are greater than one main. However, I have a bone to pick.  

 


Small Plates

The thing that irks me the most, is that sharing plates often ends up being the opposite of sharing - it’s a dog eat dog eat small plate world. Three prawns, five people - who's going to forgo trying said prawn in favour of being polite? Six croquettes, four people…it doesn’t add up.  

 

This is by no means a groundbreaking topic, it’s been written about in The Times, The Guardian and The Evening Standard among others.  

 

An Action Plan to Tackling Small Plates


This being said, I recently tried Mountain Restaurant in Soho (same owner as Brat - review coming soon), and they nailed the small plate equation. I was dining with two other people, and whilst we were ordering - our waitress kindly told us, ‘The fresh cheese and anchovy come in two, would you like a third?’. Yes, yes we do. And low and behold, three beautiful portions of toasted dark rye baguette, topped with a glistening mountain of fresh cheese and a singular anchovy and frond of dill.


That is how a small plate should be - a solo eating experience, but a shared dining environment. Another great example of a restaurant that does small plate dining experience well is Bocca di Lupo. Their menu has a dedicated small plate section, where you can order morish sage-wrapped anchovy fritti and plump pork stuff olives by the portion - meaning that every diner at the table gets the same experience.  

 


Small Plates

Things that can be shared easily  

-a well dressed salad with a fair amount of toppings   

-bruschetta (pre cut)  

-a cheese board 

-devilled eggs  

-croquettas (1 per guest please)  

 

Things that cannot be shared easily  

-a poached egg  

-one taco  

-soup  

-a singular scallop (that undoubtedly costs £18)  

 

I love trying lots of different flavours, and small plates allow for that. This being said I don't know if I want to pay £10 for a plate of thinly sliced cucumbers (true story - I shall not name and shame the restaurant…) 

 

My Dad strongly dislikes small plates. So, when we go out to eat, and the waiter comes over, to let us know how the menu ‘works’ - I already know that ordering is going to be tricky. If the whole table doesn’t go the small plates direction, the evening will be a bit disjointed when it comes to the actual act of eating. Not to mention, the improvised timing of the small plates means that the temperatures end up being a bit off.


You may be brought the Caesar salad, and suddenly the lamp chops arrive, and then the grilled bread and the roasted potatoes, and now the table is cramped, the hot food is getting cold, the salad’s fallen on the floor, the bottle of wine is empty, and someone’s crying. It’s just all a bit manic, but maybe that’s part of the joy of this type of dining. 

 


Small plates

Final Thoughts on Small Plates


The question is, do we value choice or satisfaction more? Do we crave a menu that will cater to all tastes, allergens, opinions - or, do we trust that the chef will be creating food that they want to?  

 

Sharing dishes are staple in cuisines around the globe, think of Chinese restaurants with steaming baskets of dim sums being placed on grease-smeared lazy Susans. Delicious parcels of prawns, delicately wrapped, and portioned perfectly per person. No one is splitting a dumpling, everyone is getting their own - and you know what, they are satisfied.  

 

So, to the restaurants - think about the logistics of your menu, ask if we want three pieces instead of two - we will want it, and we will pay for it. To the diners, there’s a time and place for small plates, and a time and place for a three-course meal.  

 

I’m still confused, and don’t know how much to order - but I know I'll have fun doing it.  

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