One plate, two plate. Red plate, blue plate. So many plates. Plates everywhere. Especially small plates. DC has definitively caught small plate fever and, good lord, do I wish there was a cure. So visceral, at this point, is my irritation with this cultural misappropriation that I find it hard to articulate it. But I’ll do my best.
It seems like practically every new restaurant opening on hip-again 14th Street is specializing in small plates. Or, if they’re trying for some sort of ethno-street cred, “tapas”. I’m sorry, but tapas are Spanish, which is how we end up with all sorts of ridiculous hypenations: Asian tapas, Czech tapas, Southern tapas, pork-related tapas, and my personal favorite, Latin-Asian fusion tapas. That’s THREE different food cultures to mangle together and make annoying. Good show!
To begin with, there’s how the staff, clearly having been indoctrinated in some sadistic, Jonestown-y, Kool-Aid kind of way, breathlessly explain to you about how very DIFFERENT and EXCITING their special way of dining is. You see, they say, the plates are small (but meant for sharing) and the come out as they’re prepared (when the cooks feel like it) and you should probably order three to four plates per person (way too much, which will leave you as stuffed as your wallet is depleted).
And that’s really the crux of the issue: restauranteurs have taken this quintessentially Spanish pastime—namely, ambling from little wine bar to little wine bar for a few hours before dinner (a necessity since it’s at, like, 10pm) and having an olive or so here or a bit of pan con tomate there—off the streets and taken it indoors where it just doesn’t work, particularly in the grossly excessive, “let’s put French fries on top of this salad” US of A.
Of course, by bringing these small plates inside and insisting that one makes an actual meal out of them, we run into several critical issues. Issue the First would be order anxiety: are we ordering enough? Too much? I never seem to get it right, ending a meal either starving or ready to barf my face off. Despite the recommendations of the cultist—er, waiter—who takes the order, it’s always too much or too little, but spread out over so much time and so many different items that it’s hard to track what a reasonable amount of food actually will be.
Which brings us to Issue the Second: sharing is caring… except when it’s not. Now, don’t get me wrong, one of the pleasures of dining out is getting to see and taste what everyone else is having too. I’m always happy to share a bite from my own (normally-sized) entrée; this is what bread plates are REALLY for. And family-style dining relies on the table to make a smaller number of choices about larger dishes that enable everyone to be happy with their own entrees assembled from those dishes and still share a meal that’s still reasonably balanced and constructed. A meal in which there’s enough for everyone to try everything.
But small plate dining calls for lots of different little dishes that, despite the protestations of the kitchen, aren’t really made for sharing. How are two people supposed to share a single short rib? How are four people supposed to share three meatballs? And it’s kind of against the rules to order multiples of the same dish—you might as well be at a normal, BORING restaurant then—so you’re either cutting small things into smaller pieces and getting yet smaller bits everywhere, or someone in your party’s missing something.
Issue the Third: your order has no order. In reasonable dining establishments, there are clearly defined patterns and sequences for meals. This is a good thing. Pacing is a good thing. What is not a good thing is ordering a random assortment of dishes and then—invariably—having them come to the table in order of heft. Since the kitchen is in charge of when your bevy of tiny bites emerge, the things that take longest too cook—substantial, meaty things, generally—are the last to show up.
And, since at that point you’ve been having dinner for two hours, you’ve hoovered up the last bits of hummus, eaten the garnishes from the salad plates, and emptied the breadbasket. Twice. But, since you’ve taken the server’s advice on how much to order, there’s still another round of all the meaty things that sounded good. And now that they’re finally here, you’re full, but what are you going to do? Even fresh from the kitchen, there’s not really enough to wrap up and take home. So you plow ahead and clean the plate, which, tiny as it is, is too much.
Also too much? The price, which would be Issue the Fourth. With this benighted restaurant-y version of tapas, I swear the price per ounce of food is ridiculously inflated. Because this manner of eating—particularly when you’re making dinner out of it—takes forever, restaurants have fewer seatings and thus need to price their menu accordingly. So, not only are you ordering a ton of tiny things that come out all ass-backwards, you’re paying through the nose for the pleasure. Dire. Just DIRE.
Of course, fine dining is expensive, and I have no problem with that. (Shocking, I know.) What I do have a problem with is poorly executed street foods, irritatingly portioned and annoyingly served, at ridiculous prices. Can we not just have the entrée back, please?