Metro, Food, Column

Restaurants Are Tapping Into The Social Side Of Dining

I blinked expectantly while she chewed, waiting for some emotion to register on her face. My mom nodded, the delicate skin around her eyes crinkling to allow the delight in her green eyes to radiate outward to the rest of her face. “Mmm, Mags, it’s so good!”

I smirked, pleased with the affirmation. But why? It’s not like I had cooked the delicious flank steak on the sturdy restaurant plate in front of us. Still, I wanted the validation from my mother that I had ordered well, so we could have the appropriate conversation that always follows good wine and better food.

Our dialogue lazily meandered between my mother, my father, and I. We wandered from the present flavors on our palate to past memories of humble gatherings around the kitchen table and grand culinary adventures abroad to those glittery future gatherings like Thanksgiving and birthday dinners and then wandered back again, crossing past, present, and future within the span of minutes.

Going out to eat is social event—food is an easy excuse to gather those you love veiled in the excuse of sustenance. Certain meals transcend that, though. Certain meals allow the food itself to become the event.

My Saturday night dinner with my parents was one of these events, the food-centric conversations commencing long before my mom tasted my steak. Beginning with the appetizers, this was not just an experience we were sharing together—it was quite literally a shared meal.

Any culinary flair our starting cheese board lacked was quickly pushed aside by the dueling knifes and ensuing scrutiny of the appetizer before us. I giggled when my dad thought grapes were olives—humor that was only funny in the palatable moment. Words fell to the side as we simply started to point excitedly with cutlery to the cheeses we got to first, like explorers on a savory voyage, a weird sense of pride developing when we discovered the current favorite cheese of the night.

Nights like my Saturday with my parents explain the rise in popularity of small-plate style restaurants. Restaurant owners across the city are exploring the social style of eating that was previously confined to tapas. It allows diners to have a food experience, not just a meal.

To borrow a term from South End restaurant owner Seth Yaffe, we all have food ADD. It’s hard to settle on one dish on a well-conceptualized menu. But I think the popularity of small plate restaurants is more than just a simple indecisiveness.

Yaffe and another local restaurant owner, Jakob White of Newton’s Comedor, both expressed how small plates make going out to eat feel like a family dinner, whether this recalls past memories for diners or is only something they’ve seen idealized.  Reaching hands and shared forks are okay when the formal barriers of the individual meals are broken down.

But more important than the shared food is the shared experience. When the confines of individual plates are gone, so is the stilted, scripted conversation of “How is yours?” “Good, how is yours?” “Delicious.” (Often followed by an obligatory “do you want to try some?” when everyone at the table is very aware that this is a pleasantry only.)

The conversation begins to mirror a real, family-style meal—fluid, loose, and maybe a little messy. When small plates begin to arrive at a table there is a sudden flurry conversation, the expected navigation of making sure everyone gets to try some but secretly trying to sneak a tiny bit extra for yourself, and then … silence. Well, chewing and quiet “mmm”s, but relative silence, the satisfied quiet that comes when the mind has been filled by chatter other than your own running monologue and your belly will soon be just as satisfied. The best kind of quiet.

Featured Image by Emily Fahey / Heights Editor

October 29, 2014