A few years ago, the conundrum of small plates was only something faced by Spanish dining aficionados. But the likelihood that any hip place with reclaimed wood, Edison bulbs, and/or fusion food does not serve small plates is pretty slim. Done well, it’s a great way to eat. It allows you to try the maximum amount of food possible. Done poorly … well, let’s just say I once had a date at an Asian fusion place in which everything we ordered was in the “sweet-and-sour” vein, from our Brussels sprouts to our three meat-dishes. That ended with me sulking and us leaving an upsetting amount of food on the table. Here are a few tips to help you avoid that:
Go with a group of two to six people. Four is ideal. Two limits the amount of food you can get, more than six and you risk not getting a bite of everything. This group of two to six people should be interested in small plates, or at least flexible. Don’t even bother with the type of people who are going to order their own plates. This is the worst kind of person.
The easiest way to successfully navigate a small-plates menu is a series questions. You can make this seem like a fun game, or you can be accused of being a snobby foodie b—h. Pick your tone, or don’t ask the questions (but proceed with at your own risk).
Ask your server questions, they should be more open to this than your fellow diners. They won’t think you’re high maintenance, they understand you’re on a quest. The two most important questions: 1) Is there any dish on the menu we shouldn’t miss? and 2) About how many dishes per person?
Make everyone take a few minutes with the menu and decide what are the two or three things they really want. Silence is best for this.Try to be the first one done, that way you can lead the questions. “Sooo … what is everyone thinking?” normally goes well. Compare, and hopefully there is a lot overlap, which makes the choice easy. If not, make everyone choose the one dish they can’t give up, and negotiate that. You should probably do all this rulemaking subtly or you’ll be the obnoxious person who makes dinner stressful.
Once you have everyone’s must-haves, then you can work to create a balanced meal. Small-plate menus are normally divided into sections—try to order at least one from each. Other balances to keep in mind: meat-to-vegetable ratios, flavor profiles, hot vs. cold, and price. If you have reluctant vegetable eaters with you, don’t force it. You’ll wind up being the one guilted into finishing a full plate of broccoli, and missing out on the good stuff with melted cheese.
Oh, and always keep a menu in case you want to order more. It’s a small plate, it probably isn’t that many calories, right?
Featured Image by Drew Hoo / Heights Editor