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Small Plates Can Be Awful, So Here’s How To Do Them Right

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Over at Quartz, Jay Porter argues that small plates have “conquered America’s menus.” Actually, he says, they’ve been conquering America’s menus for more than a decade, but apparently, they’ve really conquered them this time. Soon, restaurants will serve nothing but teeny tiny servings on teeny tiny dishes, and meals as we once knew them will be but a distant memory. For restaurants, this is great, because small plates are very, very profitable. But Porter — himself a restaurateur — maintains that small plates are in the diner’s interest, too, because small plates create “compelling” dining experiences.

As a person easily compelled, both by dining experiences and in general, I have long been a fan of small plates, or at least, the small plates of one particular restaurant in the West Village where they do an extremely good marinated mushroom thing. Which isn’t to say there are no small-plate pitfalls. It’s a minefield out there. Here’s how you do small plates right:

Do: be prepared to spend more money than seems reasonable for a dinner made up of tiny appetizers.

Each individual small plate is going to be less expensive than a big plate would have been, true, but also, each small plate is going to be very small. That means you will need many small plates (at $8 each) to give you as much food as one or two big plates, and your total bill will be $8 multiplied by a lot. This is how math works.

Don’t: be afraid to order multiples of the same thing.

Does ordering three marinated mushroom plates make you boring? Probably! But also, this makes you a practical person who appreciates the value of a good marinated mushroom. Is it your fault that this restaurant has one dish that is better than all the other dishes? Absolutely not. If all the dishes were as good as that one dish, then you would not be in this position. However, that one dish is the best dish. Accordingly, you are absolutely within your rights to order as many tiny plates of that dish as you want. You are the customer. You get to order the food you want.

Do: split the check evenly.

As a vegetarian person who generally orders less than my dining companions, because I am delicate, and also very cheap, I am generally all about not “just calling it even.” My kale salad was not $80. But in the case of small plates, there can be no nitpicking about the bill. With small plates, you are in it together. If you didn’t get any of the goat cheese salad, that absolutely entitles you to eat more of the dry-roasted chickpea thing, but it doesn’t get you out of the check (sorry).

Do: take everyone’s dietary needs into account.

Small plates mean you have to care about other peoples’ preferences. If you don’t like caring about other peoples’ preferences, I feel you, but also, you should probably not go to a small plates restaurant with a group. You will seem like a jerk. Luckily, all the plates are very small and you will be ordering many of them, which means it is generally very easy to please everyone, at least a little bit.

Don’t: eat all of the best thing.

The dishes will be wildly uneven and some will be drastically better than other things. Hopefully, you and your dining companions will disagree about which things are the best things, and everyone will be happy. Probably, though, one thing will clearly be the best thing, and you will all want all of it. You will have to share, though, because you are adults.