Appetizers and Small Plates: Eating Before You Eat

Do it at home and it’s called “spoiling your dinner,” but having a snack before your meal at a restaurant is simply enjoying an appetizer. Most meals out with friends would be incomplete without an appetizer or two to share, but how and why we enjoy nibbling on smaller portions is changing, and that’s changing the way restaurants approach the small plate.

The practice of grazing on little dishes goes back to ancient times, and it’s been a practice in some form or another across too many cultures to count. Traditionally, and still in many contexts, the meal starter serves as the first of a multicourse dinner. It helps to slow the pace of a meal and stimulate conversation across the course of a leisurely evening.

Like many of the best elements of American cuisine, we inherited our traditional appetizer from the French. In its native tongue, hors d’oeuvre literally means “outside of the work,” the work in question being dinner itself.

By the time Auguste Escoffier published his seminal Complete Guide to the Art of Modern Cookery in 1903, French appetizer traditions had become predictable enough for the author to prescribe the right way to do it.

“…If omitted, [hors d’oeuvres] should not alter the general harmony of the meal… . They should be composed of light items of a delicate nature and they should not constitute a complete dish in themselves.”

Escoffier also bemoaned the practice of treating appetizers as “nothing more than an expedient to occupy the customer whilst waiting for the preparation of the dishes he may have ordered.”

If Escoffier were with us today, he may be disheartened to browse the menus of our modern eateries with their hearty offerings, like loaded potato skins and deep-fried everything. He may also be disappointed to realize that the appetizer in the modern casual eatery serves primarily to ease patrons’ impatience and ward off hunger pangs, giving the kitchen valuable minutes they need to get guests’ food to the window before they become dissatisfied.

Is the appetizer a necessary part of a restaurant meal when modern table service is focused on speed, efficiency, and getting each guest in and out as quickly as possible? The way diners and chefs treat pre-main portions has been shifting for some time now, a change reflected in several trends still present in the foodservice landscape.

From Starters to Small Plates

Tapas, dim sum, small plates, and antipasti – they’re all variations on a trend that’s been thriving in the restaurant industry trend for at least 20 years. On many menus, bite-size shareables have been transformed and elevated beyond what we think of as a traditional appetizer to include more elegant and versatile “small plates,” distinguished from appetizers primarily by how they’re eaten.

A party of diners can order a handful of small plates instead of individual entrées and turn the meal into a more communal experience. As Eve Zibart of The Washington Post reminded readers way back in the 90s when the term “little plates” began to emerge on restaurant menus, this type of communal dining is tradition in the cultures that we borrow it from.

The most well-known of these customs is the Spanish tapas, a format of dining that originated in Spanish pubs where patrons spend leisurely evenings drinking, socializing, and grazing on savory bites of food ranging from scallops to fried potatoes.

The fact that tapas bars and similar small-plate-centric restaurants continue to pop up in major cities across the United States seems proof enough that the small plate is still being sought out in its own right, rather than just being an add-on to a traditional meal. The focus in this form of dining is more on sampling a variety of dishes and flavors as opposed to filling up on one main course and a side or two.

For diners concerned about their calorie intake and the fact that American restaurant portions have more than doubled in the past 50 years, grazing over a small plate or two at dinner is a sensible alternative to oversized individual portions.

Tapas restaurants and other concepts focused on small plates thrived during the recession. Lower price points let diners enjoy eating out without having to shell out the cash for an entrée. Since small plates often command a higher ticket price than traditional sides, there’s an economic benefit for the operator to offer portions in between the traditional entrée and side dish.

Small plates let chefs be creative with new flavors and techniques, experimenting and getting customers’ feedback without having to commit to a full entrée. Small plates let guests familiarize themselves with new flavors they may be reluctant to order in full portions.

Lilla Callum-Penso of The Greenville News uses American Grocery Restaurant’s Joe Clarke as an example of how chefs can stretch their supplies with small plates. Clarke uses leftover meat trimmings from ribeye steaks to prepare an andouille small plate. This practice is in harmony with zero-waste and locavore trends that value using as much of an ingredient as possible.

Small plates make it easier to offer something for everyone: creative vegetable dishes for vegetarians, smoked meats and sliders for carnivores, and dishes like sushi and shrimp for the seafood lover. Chefs who provide a variety of small plates can design some to be free of common food allergens and others to serve gluten-sensitive customers.

Several national chains have found a way to cash in on the trend. TGIFriday’s and Olive Garden have both tried and moved away from the practice of offering a “small plate” section on their menus, but Cheesecake Factory and Carrabas are both holding on strong to the trend.

Foodservice insights company Technomic predicts that “small plates will continue to rise in popularity, replacing traditional mealparts,” so it’s not too late to get in in on the trend and diversify your menu. Customers are primed to make big changes in the ways they eat, especially when dining out. The small plate is a way to cater to consumers’ cravings for more control over in their dining-out experiences.

Tanner West
Tanner West

A dedicated festival-goer, Tanner West has seen more bands perform live in the middle of hay fields and city parks than most people have probably heard of. Raised on beans and taters, he recently renovated a home and three vintage sheds in the back woods of East Tennessee that serves as a quiet retreat for reading and ready base for hiking and camping trips. Despite being able to craft 500-word descriptions of restaurant equipment, Tanner is a man of few words who described the best meal he ever ate in one word: Coffee.

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