In a rare display of decadence I ate out twice this weekend. Two meals, but about 18 dishes. And no, I’m not a compulsive over-eater, I was just eating the way that most of London seems to be eating right now… small plates.
The small plate phenomenon has been quite astounding. What started quietly with Barrafina and The Salt Yard has over the last year developed into a dizzying array of small-plate eateries, thanks largely to Russell Norman, who in the space of 2 years has opened Polpo, Polpetto, Spuntino and now Da Polpo. The group behind Terroirs are also doing fantastic business (try getting a table there on a Friday), and opened Brawn on Columbia Rd this year.
So why is this method of eating such a success? I put it down to several factors:
1. Food Envy. How often have you been left coveting someone’s lamb round the table when your chicken arrives? Food Envy has spoiled many a decent meal, but if everyone’s sharing their food the problem is eradicated. A bad dish can simply be skimmed over, with diners judiciously choosing to forget who insisted on ordering it.
2. Indecision. The pork belly. No, the goat’s cheese. No, the beef. Oh stuff it, it’s all tiny, I’ll have everything. This is the main factor that keeps me going back to these places – I usually want to try everything. And if it’s half the size, in the words of the immortal Marjorie Dawes, you can have twice as much!
3. Cost. Now, this is a double-edged sword. Small plates are obviously cheaper than main meals, and you generally don’t order starters so in theory this works out better for your bank balance. However, if (like me) you have a tendency to want to order the whole menu, you may find your eyes watering when the bill arrives.
4. Informality. Post-Jamie, Britain has steadily been moving away from stuffy, formal dining. Ever since the Essex-born life coach told us it was ok to let guests help themselves, a new generation of dinner-party-throwers has grown up, who think it’s much more fun to get your fingers dirty than to daintily nibble your filet mignon over a starched linen tablecloth. Small plates allow everyone to get stuck in, they’re conversation starters, they break the ice of first dates and business dinners.
So, if you haven’t tried it yet, I really recommend making a reservation at one of the above. Gone are the days of indefinable meat swimming in oily tomato sauce (I’m looking at you, La Tasca). Today’s restaurants know what they’re doing, and the food is like an endless round of really great starters, which we all know are better than the main course any day…