In Defense of Small Plates

Neil Irwin makes the case agains the “small plates” trend that is either sweeping America or else just happens to be sweeping the neighborhood where he and I both live.

Let me stand up for the defense. One prominent line of complaint about the small plates is that this is a bait-and-switch that’s just gouging customers. But while D.C. diners are certainly paying an awful lot for dinner at these 14th Street hotspots, the restaurants are also very crowded. And I’d think the author of a very fine book on economic policy would recognize that one or another the restaurants is going to charge what the market will bear. I recall visiting Portland, Ore., last summer and being taken to a nice restaurant where the low prices actually confused me into thinking they were serving small plates when they weren’t. The difference is simply that Portland is a lower-income city with cheaper rents and a longer history of having good restaurants in it so the market clearing price of a nice meal is lower.

With that out of the way, the case for small plates seems obvious to me: You get to try more stuff. And because you get to try more stuff you get to be more venturesome in your eating. If you’re going to order and eat just one thing then you have to be conservative in what you order; you have to be sure you’ll like it. If you’re sharing a series of small plates with friends, then you have the opportunity to sample things that you’re not sure you’ll like. At Ghibellina last night I shared a dish that featured a puree of chicken livers, anchovies, capers, and vermouth on a slice of bread. She was skeptical, I was enthusiastic, and after eating it I was vindicated (the Red Hen also has an excellent chicken liver puree dish, so I guess this is a trend). At the same time, I wouldn’t want to eat a whole dinner’s worth of chicken liver puree. With small plates, both the chef and the diners can press the boundaries of cuisine. Fundamentally, I think we should see the shift toward small plates as being comparable to the differences between websites and newspapers or between mobile apps and traditional desktop software. By lowering the barrier to entry, you encourage more experimentation and more innovation.

If you step back and think about it more broadly, it’s no coincidence that the really super-duper high-end restaurants of the world almost invariably serve a tasting menu composed of small dishes. The idea is that the chef deserves to be judged by the peaks of his cuisine rather than his ability to smooth-down the corners and avoid any mistakes. By contrast, if you go to Chili’s and you want some ribs they just give you some ribs. Which is great, and I think an excellent reflection of the invaluable role that chain restaurants play in trying to create economies of scale in the food service industry. But the kind of restaurants that Irwin is complaining about rightly see themselves as places for innovation in cuisine rather than innovation in production or business methods and the right way to deliver culinary innovation is on small plates.