It’s easy to snack in this town, to taste, to nibble. We have tapas, mezze, cicchetti, and the generic “small plate,” all served family-style, but we rarely, anymore, simply have dinner. Remember dinner? An appetizer, an entrée (with, yes, a starch and a side) and a dessert. Preferably with a bottle of wine.
You can still have that bottle of wine, but at a small-plates restaurant, the rest of the menu often needs more explanation. All small plates, you see, aren’t the same size of small, and family-style service can mean a traffic jam on the table. When a server at one of the city’s new restaurants trots out the tired “Have you ever dined with us before?,” pay attention. You’ll need the instruction. There’s a real skill to constructing a full, well-paced meal of small plates. And as the trend hardens into a permanent fixture on the local food scene — “small plates” quickly made the jump from its traditional place in restaurants like Spanish Bar Ferdinand and Israeli Shouk to creative American Ansill — Philly diners have had to learn how to eat all over again.
Philadelphia chefs, of course, love small plates. It’s a new way of thinking about food in a town often bemoaned for its conservative palate. “It allows you to be more creative, because small portions are less intimidating,” says Jose Garces, who has had success with the concept at Spanish spots Amada and Tinto and plans to use the format at his in-the-works Mexican place in West Philly. (Disclosure: The author is working on a cookbook with Garces.) “You can be bolder with flavor combinations,” echoes Mitch Prensky, who plans to open his not-quite-small-plate modern American Supper on South Street next month.
And then there’s this: “It’s 10 times easier for the kitchen,” Prensky says of the traditional small-plate approach.
Yes, there are more actual plates involved, so the dishwashers are working twice as hard and the food runners are running twice as fast, but as diners accept more responsibility for directing their own meals, the kitchen shoulders less of that stress. At small-plate restaurants, you can find yourself playing the role of chef (How many plates do we need? Which vegetables complement which meats? In what order should we request the kitchen send out the plates?) and waiter (How do we organize the table so that everyone gets a bite of everything?) and diner (Did I get a bite of everything?). And you’re paying for the privilege. Small plates appear to be an elegant way to eat — “European” is the most commonly used compliment — but the dainty dishes haven’t curbed our appetites. We just order more, frequently inflating the check — and the calorie count — above the cost of a three-course meal.
It can be delicious — tasting a dozen dishes instead of just three is a bite of foodie heaven — but it’s also exhausting, making you crave the relaxing, responsibility-free experience of a simple entrée. Thankfully, there’s still the wine.