By Megan Rowe
Tapas, antipasti, meze, antojitos, cicchetti—call
them what you will, small plates are making a big impact on menus.
Last fall, San Francisco Chronicle restaurant critic Michael
Bauer observed the Bay Area alone had 25-30 small plates places, and
he predicted more were on the way. While San Francisco is arguably
on the leading edge of this transformation, operators across the
country are often dishing up smaller portions in response to
Small plates aren't likely to replace the
tried-and-true appetizer/entrče/dessert ordering tradition, but more
diners seem interested in reinventing what defines a meal. At the
same time, more restaurants are incorporating less generous
offerings as a way to encourage incremental business.
Choice may be the biggest influence driving
smaller portions. "Often, people don't want to sit down to a meal,
they want to eat light and have a couple of glasses of wine," says
Tom Catherall, owner of Atlanta's Here to Serve Restaurants, which
operates Twist, Noche and other themed establishments with menus
leaning heavily on the small. At Noche, where the entrče-centric
menu was recently revamped to include up to 50 small plate choices
for $4-$6, guests typically order four to six small plates apiece.
Sales nearly doubled within one year and the check average increased
about 25 percent as a result of the shift in focus.
"People would rather have small tastes than a big
plate of one thing," Catherall observes. Eating this way also
minimizes the risk of regret over an order. "If you go out to dinner
and order a salad and the $35 veal plate, and you don't like it or
it's overcooked, there you are: That's your dinner," says Quinn
Hatfield, co-chef at Cortez, a hot San Francisco tapas destination.
"With this concept, two of you share five or six plates, so if
something comes your way that you're not in love with, there's
another one right behind."
Not only do small plates give patrons more control
over what and how much they eat, they also accommodate those who
need to watch their spending, but still enjoy good food. "You can
have a piece of tenderloin for $7 or two lamb chops for $9," says
Jose Andres, chef and partner with Proximo Restaurants, which runs
three tapas-heavy Jaleos; Oyamel, which serves antojitos (regional
small plates from Mexico); Cafč Atlantico, a Nuevo Latino concept;
and Zaytinya, serving meze, all in the Washington, DC area. Andres
says a key factor in the popularity of smaller portions is that they
make expensive ingredients more accessible—it's affordable luxury a
That's been the case at Philadelphia's Tangerine,
where a new meze menu rolled out to coincide with a newly renovated
lounge has been a big hit. "We were offering the full menu in the
lounge, but it's low tables, low lit, very sexy, and the tendency is
to lean over small tables. The idea is to force people to have
conversations," says Todd Fuller, executive chef of the Stephen
Starr-owned operation. The menu lists about 20 items—house-made
salami, imported bocarone, smoked feta, shaved prosciutto, roasted
peppers, grilled octopus—for $5 each; the price drops with the
number of dishes ordered.
"We're absolutely getting incremental business,"
says Fuller. The meze menu makes a booked-solid restaurant with a
$46 check average seem a little less daunting to the would-be
customer. "This has definitely opened it up to people who walk by
and see that it's busy but know they can get out of here for less
money," he says.
For Tangerine and other restaurants, serving what
amounts to an extended bar menu encourages drop-in business during
otherwise slow dayparts. Tangerine is looking at keeping the lounge
open for longer hours to accommodate demand. Andres, too, says the
small-plates style is ripe for growth during nonpeak hours. "Our
concept allows us to be the perfect place for people to come at
4:00. When you're waiting for dinner or having a late lunch, it's
the perfect moment," says Andres.
Small plates also encourage a festive atmosphere.
At Wave, a seafood-centric restaurant in Chicago's W Hotel,
refocusing to a shared small plates culture last year was a
deliberate bid to attract the highly social 28- to 40-year-olds
populating the lobby bar. "We wanted them to stay and have a more
relaxed dining experience, not have us dictate when they're going to
get their food," says Kristine Subido, executive chef.
It can be so social, in fact, that at Avec, groups
of friends often wind up sharing the small plates experience with
total strangers. Paul Kahan's casual Chicago wine bar, one of the
pioneers in the small-plates mania that has swept the Windy City,
seats about 50 at rectangular eight-tops and a long bar. The typical
party shares Mediterranean-style plates cheek-to-jowl with one or
two other parties doing the same. Salumi, chorizostuffed and
bacon-wrapped dates, grilled sardines, tapenade, pork shoulder and
other delicacies have guests jammed up to wait for their piece of
tabletop real estate.
More Plates, More Profit?
How does focusing on sales of smaller
plates affect operations? Restaurants that have made the transition
say the change behind the scenes is less noticeable than the job of
explaining and selling the new menu sometimes can be. But for some,
the increase in sales and profits have made the transition
"Instead of doing 300 plates, we may be doing
1,200 little plates," Catherall says. "There is more work, but the
same amount of workers."
If that's true, it's probably because many items
that make sense for small plates can be largely prepped in advance.
At Tangerine, for example, one staffer handles the meze menu five
days a week; Fuller looks for culinary students to help fill the
gaps by plating the cold selections. "The line cooks, because of
their experience, can handle the proverbial shit hitting the fan,"
Fuller explains. "The culinary students can't because they haven't
been there. This provides them experience in the fundamentals of
presentation without the pressure."
When Wave moved to a small plates menu, labor was
redistributed into three lines: pantry and pastry, front and back
line. "Prep time is minimal," Subido says. It has helped that the
original 40-item menu has been trimmed to about 25 choices, and that
the lunch menu, which had consisted of small plates, reverted to a
more traditional style because of slow sales.
"We didn't have a history with small plates, so
we've been finding a fit and doing a little experimenting, " Subido
An enoteca (a 35-seat indoor piazza and a 75-seat
wine bar) on the premises at Osteria via Stato offers a cicchetti
menu to complement the wine choices, and preparation is relatively
simple, says Scott Barton, a partner in the new Chicago family-style
Italian restaurant with LEYE. "A lot of things are already prepared.
If someone orders Parmigiano-Regggiano, that's nothing more than
carving it out of the wheel. A lot of other plates might be prepared
in advance and served at room temperature. They don't necessarily
have a lot of composition to them—that's the key."
Sometimes, all those little plates can add up
quickly. At Rathbun's, an Atlanta restaurant that divides its menu
into small, raw, big and "second mortgage" plates, the 20 small
plates selections were designed to encourage multiple orders, draw
in local college students on a budget and fuel repeat business But
patrons sometimes lose sight of the value proposition for the items,
priced from $4-$7.50. "It's like sushi. You order this and this, say
'send us more of those,' and all of a sudden your bill is $100 for
two. You don't realize how much you're spending," notes Kevin
Rathbun, chef and partner.
From a food cost standpoint, small plates offer
some potential to yield higher profit than more traditional choices.
Wave's Subido has found food costs dropped with portion sizes for
one key reason: less need to purchase full portions of protein.
Small servings of shellfish are standing in for an 8-ounce piece of
tuna, for instance. And even if the cost is the same, as it is at
Twist, where Catherall divides an $18 entrče portion of sunburned
tuna on ancho mashed potatoes into three tapas-size portions and
sells them for $6, "we end up selling a lot more tuna," he observes.
Profitability for small plates, says Randy Zweiban,
executive chef and partner at Chicago's Nacional 27, "is like
anything else. It depends on what the product is. The crab cake is
not going to be as profitable as the pork. It really depends on
what's going on in the dish—it's all got to balance out." He says
perceived value is more important to the guest. Menu prices at the
pan-Hispanic Nacional 27 run from $2.75 for a sofrito-marinated
chicken skewer up to $9.95 for blue crab chilaquiles.
Food costs can be lower, but not always in
proportion to the menu price. Cortez's Hatfield says that trying to
offer the highest quality ingredients at a higher-than-average price
point (checks average $65) has met some resistance. He attrributes
that to a public perception that small plates are a cheap way to
eat. "The difference between a small plate and an entree might be
made up with lower-cost ingredients—more vegetables and other things
that are cheaper. It's tough for us, because a lot of what we offer
is made up of protein," Hatfield says.
Guests sometimes need a little nudge to get with a
small-plates program. Often, menus carry a short intro explaining
the concept and suggesting how many plates a party should order to
feel satisfied. Henry Salgado, chef/owner of the Spanish River Grill
in New Smyrna Beach, FL, says his tapas menu, with dishes priced
between $4-$7.50, is "very easy to explain: We say they are small
bites, maybe a couple of bites a plate. Once you say that, they're
an easy sell."
Fuller says an enthusiastic staff has helped fuel
sales of even the more unusual meze offerings in Tangerine's lounge.
" Because the bartenders and lounge servers are into it, they sell
it to people who normally wouldn't eat," he says. "You get some food
in your stomach, then you drink more, and it becomes more of an
event. The main items—the roasted peppers, marinated olives,
prosciutto, fried calamari—those are what sell. But we consistently
are getting people to try things that they're not familiar with,
Some parties need a little help pacing the order
as well. "We never encourage people to order all at once," Andres
says. "We suggest getting one round and waiting to order the next
One way to expose the unitiated is through special
events; New York's Suba, for example, features wines and tapas from
each region of Spain during monthlong promotions. "It's a good way
to show off things that no one has tried or is familiar with," says
chef Alex UreŇa. Suba also uses holidays to showcase its tapas:
recently, the restaurant served a special $95 "14 plates" menu for
Arpa Tapas Wine Bar in Charlotte, NC, has found
another way to convert its customers: Owner Tom Sasser lets doubters
taste anything for free.
Aside from San Francisco and a handful of other
big cities, can other communities support small plates concepts? It
would seem so. At Andina in Portland, OR, for instance, a broad menu
of Peruvian staples, many of them offered in portions designed for
easy sharing, has won popular and critical acclaim for chef Emmanuel
Tangerine's Fuller thinks the idea of small plates
should be universally appealing. "This is an easy way to advertise
eating better—you eat less and at a more leisurely pace instead of
jamming what you think is an appropriate amount of food down and
feeling comatose 30 minutes later," he says. Who can argue with
Calamari with tomato fondue
Nacional 27, Chicago
Smoked chicken empanadas with salsa and
ancho crema $6.95
Eggplant steak fries dusted with powdered
Cortez, San Francisco
Crudo (raw fish)
Grilled octopus $5
Spanish River Grill,
New Smyrna Beach, FL
Cornmeal-fried oysters with
spicy dipping sauce $6