The news that Russell Norman’s Polpo restaurant group is in financial trouble (unpaid £550,000 VAT bill, sites for sale, company voluntary agreement entered into with creditors) was greeted with huge sadness among food nerds. “Polpo was a complete game-changer when it opened a decade ago,” wrote the London website Hot Dinners, without exaggeration.
Norman’s restaurants, which include Polpo and the NY-inspired diner Spuntino, both in Soho, London, defined a new, super-casual style of dining that subsequently swept the UK. Rival operators busily copied their feel: no bookings, dressed-down staff, paper menus, wine in tumblers, distressed interiors.
But Norman’s influence has also been controversial. With his Venetian cicheti snacks, sliders (mini-burgers) and menus of half-portion sharing dishes, he helped kickstart a fad for small plates that inspires fierce debate if not anger everywhere from the Liverpool Echo (“Why small plates need to die”) to the Times (“The sharing plates backlash: where do you stand?”).
Polpo, we loved you. But small-plate menus test friendships, defy logic and ruin dinner. They have to go, and here’s why.
The tyranny of choice
You open the menu. You are confronted with not just a core of small plates, but snacks and nibbles, charcuterie, bowls (tiny bowls or bowl-bowls?), “sharers”, even large plates for the luddites. There is no direction on how you combine these. It is baffling. The table falls painfully silent. Everyone sits there scanning menus so large their distant edges curve over the horizon, until a) keen to save the evening, you put the menus aside (let’s decide later, mates before plates, right?), or b) start negotiating who is going to order what with the intensity of the treaty of Versailles.
People drift. People give up. People despair. Until the waiter arrives, and, panicked, you hurriedly pick all the plates you will obviously like. In that way – your bewildered lack of engagement – the sheer variety of small-plate menus encourages predictable choices. The evidence is limited, but researchers have observed a paradox: the highest sales on huge menus are invariably concentrated in a few key dishes. Where a well-written menu of six main courses might coax you from your comfort zone, small plates, by definition, make dinner boring.
You never quite know what you will get
How are we meant to assess how big and/or filling these dishes are from their oblique descriptions? How small is small exactly? Is the “hake, broccoli, beurre noisette – £20” the bin lid of food that price would suggest? (Spoiler: no.) Is “potato, roe, sour cream – £7” a jacket spud or a jersey royal? Do we need the “sourdough, whipped butter – £4” for ballast? Will we leave hungry?
Big menus = bad cooking
Chefs struggle to excel in one cuisine, much less several. Yet in this small-plate era, at a time when the restaurant industry severely lacks highly skilled chefs, our few competent cooks are being asked to handle Spanish, Italian, Peruvian, Levantine and Japanese dishes simultaneously. Generally, the best chefs stay in their culinary lane and keep their menus snappy.
It all comes in one huge tidal wave
“Just to let you know, it will all come out when it’s ready, guys,” is the mantra. I have given up protesting. You can beg staff to stagger the dishes or try to game the system by ordering in stages. Nothing works. A “check-on, check-out” mentality is ingrained in chefs, and they have no obvious method of gradually sending dishes to multiple tables.
Consequently (in sharp contrast to tapas), those small plates always arrive in an unholy jumble of hot and cold dishes. This leaves you speed-eating the hot ones before they cool (ordinarily, you would eat the cold first), and often means that two people are in and out in 75 minutes, £92 lighter, having barely spoken between inhaled mouthfuls of grilled cheese and bhel puri. You leave frazzled. It is more a mugging than a leisurely meal.
It’s a logistical nightmare
Property costs means restaurateurs often cram diners in at tiny tables in no way designed to take eight small plates. For waiter and guest, rearranging those dishes to fit is like some fiendish 3D puzzle.
Creativity begat chaos
The small plate promised creative liberation from the traditional, restrictive main course (an expensive lump of protein garnished with vegetables and sauces). Now, chefs could create electrifying dishes using two or three components that were gone in a few bites. In particular, using pulses, fermented or roasted vegetables, nuts, seeds, a yoghurt or romesco sauce, they could nail zingy meat-free dishes that would not work in a larger format.
But as in all revolutions, that promise quickly curdled into something ugly and over-zealous. Small plates became not an option, but a fixed ideology. Suddenly, everything from fish and chips to Szechuan noodle dishes had to be miniaturised, whether it was improved or not. Chefs scoured the globe for small plates – bao buns, precise Basque pintxos, Lebanese mezze – that were then ripped from their context and tumbled together on menus, despite, in their flavours, heft or lack of it, these dishes in no way complementing one another.
The anxiety of informality
Small plates, we were told, would foster social cohesion. Sharing would cultivate our better nature. Pfff! From passive-aggressive cutlery skirmishes across the table as you attempt to secure your share of the food, to the tediously diffident British to-me-to-you over the last plancha prawn, sharing dishes is fraught with problems.
Not least because these “small-plate dishes designed for sharing” are often patently not. Chefs will tell you that odd numbers of anything look more aesthetically pleasing on the plate. Cynics know serving three ham croquetas in a restaurant largely occupied by tables of four is a transparent tactic to get you to order a second portion.
Similarly, how do you split a plate of peas, fresh curds and charred lettuce between four without destroying it? And who wants to eat that little of a dish they potentially love? After that early negotiation over the menu, will your mates respect the rules if you each order one dish to eat individually and two sharers for the table? If not, will you make a scene?
Small plates, big bill
Small-plate menus are a clever sleight of hand, a slick marketing trick, in that they appear cheaper than they are. To an extent, we only have ourselves to blame. We are greedy. We over-order. But after a round of nibbles, dips and breads (note: de facto starters), it is also the case that to accumulate the volume and balance of protein and vegetables you would normally eat in a main meal, you probably need to order three of those “great value” £4 to £12 dishes and spend £24, as opposed to less than £20 on one main course. With cocktails and wine, it racks up, and rapidly.
Profit and loss
With such incremental gains do restaurateurs keep financially stretched venues afloat. Small plates have not proliferated as a mere fashion; profit is the driver. Those large menus remove the need for seasonal variation, encourage over-ordering and allow staff to turn tables quickly and serve more people. Furthermore, if the dishes are cooked whole in individual sections (fish, meat, vegetables etc), that removes the need for a £40K-a-year head chef to plate each dish at the pass. Essentially, small plates offer great potential for busy venues to squeeze more profit out of every cover.
Does the diner suffer? Hell, yes. But if we demand better, we must also examine our reluctance to pay more to eat out. You get what you pay for, and, right now, Britain wants restaurants that offer an appearance of value. Small plates are one price we pay for that.