Family-Style Dining Is Making Philly’s Tasting Menus Fun Again

A new generation of chefs are offering family-style menu options as a modern twist on the traditional tasting menu.

Photo courtesy of Fiore Fine Foods

Multi-course tasting menus aren’t for everyone. Personally, I rarely crave the experience: a hushed, white-tableclothed room, plates served one at a time. It’s a type of dining that obviously has its place in our restaurant scene, but I’m far more partial to a large boisterous table covered in plates and surrounded by friends duking it out for the last bite. Luckily for me (and you!), restaurants across Philly are encouraging this style of dining by offering family-style tasting menus — big plates, small sides — meant to be shared.

At Hungry Pigeon, the center of the dinner menu has possibly the most appealing words in the English language: “Let us cook for you!”

“It kind of started as being the closest thing to eating at our house that we could come up with,” says Scott Schroeder, chef and co-owner at Hungry Pigeon. “If we have people over for dinner, that is kind of what we do.”

They’ll cook for a group of any size for $45 a person. The meal typically starts with oysters, bread and butter, then they’ll send out a selection of small plates, sometimes sending out quantities smaller than a full order so a group can taste a variety of dishes. The meal progresses to pastas, then entrees with a few vegetable sides. Depending on how full the group is, they might send something as simple as a few scoops of ice cream or opt for full desserts.

It’s a style of dining that allows the restaurant to present the absolute purest version of itself as the menu changes from week to week.

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Barlotto bean pasta fajool with Royer mountain

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In Fishtown, Suraya’s ‘Taste of Suraya’ menu helps some guests navigate what might feel like an unfamiliar style of cooking and eating, giving them a framework in which to organize their meal and making sure they have the chance to sample certain menu staples.  At Res Ipsa, the chef’s tasting menu is a chance for the kitchen to show off its fantastic small-plate pasta game.

These options serve as a way to ease some of the more stressful elements of dining out. If groups opt for this style, there’s no required sermon from the server about how many dishes per person they recommend, no worrying about leaving still hungry or being overwhelmed with food, and no surreptitious bill calculating to make sure you’re not spending more than you intended.

At Fiore Fine Foods they offer a ‘per il tavolo’ option which, in Italian, means ‘for the table’ — a sort of build-your-own family-style tasting menu. Guests select which dishes they want from the menu, but the dining experience follows a formula (two aperitivi, two antipasto, two pastas, two meats/fish, two sides, and dessert) that leads the diner through each section of the menu.

“I personally love family-style meals,” says Justine MacNeil, chef and co-owner at Fiore, “and I think it really encompasses what Italian cooking is about… sharing and cooking and family, whether it’s your actual family or your friends.”

While traditional multi-course tasting menus often feel like a power grab from a restaurant – the chef has all the power and expects the diner to fully succumb to it – family-style dining takes the best parts of a tasting menu – generosity and maybe an element of surprise – and combines them with a more approachable sense of hospitality.

Because, at its core, these menus are all about hospitality. About taking care of the guest. And as experiential dining ramps up to wackier, wilder ends, this back-to-the-basics approach is welcome respite from the overwhelming decisions of the world.

“It’s kind of the opposite of fine dining in a lot of ways,” says Schroeder. “I think in a restaurant when you can get people grabbing for the same plate and kind of helping serve each other, it kind of breaks down a barrier with them. They end up talking a little easier, having a little more fun.”