"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Small Plate Menus–Brilliant Marketing, But Where’s The Ribeye?

I once was taken to an Italian restaurant in Providence; and as soon as I stepped inside, I knew I was done for – plastic grape arbors, wall paintings of Vesuvius, Jerry Vale on the Muzak, and a thick, heavy smell of garlic. 

The menu offered no more promise.  Spaghetti with meatballs, eggplant parmesan, ravioli, and lasagna; wedge of iceberg, and chianti were the standard fare of cheap Italian restaurants from North Beach to New Haven.

The only thing that surprised me was the enormous portions.  The plate of spaghetti and sausage was so huge that the pasta hung over the edge.  The one or two sausages were lost in the tangle of macaroni and the mudslide of tomato sauce.  As the waiter set the plates down in front of us, the whole mass quivered.  For those who had meat or fish – veal scaloppini or flounder stuffed with crabmeat – pasta was side course, but the dishes were only slightly smaller.  They too were piled as high as a slag heap.

No one finished their dinner.  In fact most people only ate half, and asked the waiter to box up the rest.  “Isn’t this place great?”, said the woman next to me, an old Jewish lady who usually came for the Early Bird Special which served the same monumental portions at 25 percent off. “You can eat out and have another whole meal to take home”.

So that was the appeal of Vesuvio. It wasn’t the food that mattered.  It was the quantity of food.  And as long as Guido in the kitchen slathered the mounds of pasta with garlicky, thick, and salty red sauce, the diners were happy.

Durgin Park is a restaurant that has been in business for decades, and when I first went there many years ago, it was known for its thick slabs of roast beef that were so big that they – like Guido Fanelli’s spaghetti – slid off the sides of the plate. The meat was good, but the quantity was what mattered.  Old fashioned high quality steak houses like Sparks or Keens in New York also never scrimp on size.  Most men go for the 16 oz. Porterhouse or NY Strip.  Sides are almost incidental, salads only an interlude, and manning up with a Surf ‘n’ Turf – prime, aged Angus beef and  fresh Maine lobster –. is hard to resist.

French visitors to America have always been appalled at the portions.  No wonder we are so fat, they say. One day while visiting a friend in Paris, I was asked to buy the chicken for dinner.  I calculated weight by American standards and for our small group asked the neighborhood butcher for two large roasters. He shook his head and yelped, “Mais non, Monsieur. C’est trop.  Ça peut satisfaire un bataillon militaire”.  I had asked for enough food to feed an army.

In France the portions are modest; and a slab or pile of anything is offensive and disgusting. The French invented the concept of presentation – the way the food is presented  is almost as important as the food itself.  Our current fascination with drizzle, coulis, scattered berries, and dustings of herbal pollen; and our preference for delicate portions of dorado or pork belly on tiny beds of frisée or arugula are all thanks to the French.  We have taken food architecture way past what French chefs had in mind when the built their creations modestly to display the various layers and ingredients which made them unique and complex; and some San Francisco restaurants serve towering, although small portions.

Diners have begun to grumble and stay away from the more chi-chi restaurants of the Mission where the cuisine has become Baroque, overpriced, and peculiar.  Some of the concoctions of San Franciscan chefs have become so complicated that without the menu, it would be hard to figure out what’s on the plate.  Bits and pieces of meat and fish are hidden in leaves and fronds, buried amidst a tangle of julienned seaweed and peach blossoms.  Tiny quail eggs are secreted in nests of crisped potatoes, and capers are arrayed around a base of redwood moss. 

Back to basics, diners are saying.  Just like the discovery of Pabst Blue Ribbon beer (PBR)  by the hipsters of Valencia Street, hash houses, diners, and chains like Waffle House and Huddle House are fast becoming the new, cool thing.  Anti-trend, retro, and funky cheap, they are the perfect new hipster havens.

Enter the small plate.  In an ingenious marketing move, restaurants are beginning to replace entrees with small, tapa-like dishes.  Jay Porter, writing in Quartz (4.13.14)explains:

The first aspect is “dishes for sharing”—which represents a chance for us restaurateurs to push you, our guests, into more conversation and conviviality. We’ll do whatever we can to get you to have a better time, because success for us requires that we move beyond serving delicious food and into the business of creating compelling experiences.

If a restaurant can create this conviviality without increasing costs, the cash registers will ring.  Serving small, simple, and easy-to-prepare dishes adds interest, diversity, and uniqueness to the dining experience.  The quality of the food recedes into the background and the presentation of the dishes comes front and center.  Diners talk about the food, share and compare, and the fact that the ingredients combined in the kitchen are inexpensive and ordinary matters little.  Everybody wins.

Second, a “small plates” menu also usually means that the dishes aren’t timed by the kitchen – instead, they’re cooked as soon as possible and brought to their table in whatever order they are completed. This tends to get food to the table as quickly as possible, which makes for happy guests. And, eschewing coursed meals allows some restaurants to save money by not employing an “expediter” to coordinate the cooks’ timing. That makes for one fewer job on the payroll, in an industry where labor is almost always a business’s highest expense.

When my children were little and impatient, their favorite restaurants were Hot Shoppes and Hong Fat’s.  Hot Shoppes was a restaurant in Bethesda which catered to families and older people on fixed incomes.  The all-you-can-eat, inexpensive buffets were perfect for both.  No sooner did we sit down when my son and daughter bellied up to the steam trays and piled their dishes high with mac ‘n’ cheese, strawberry crepes, chicken fricassee, pancakes, and bacon.

Hong Fat’s was a dim sum restaurant in DC’s small Chinatown; and like Hot Shoppes no sooner were you seated did the bamboo baskets of steamed dumplings, chicken feet, and pork rolls come around.

Small plate service satisfies both restaurateur and diner.  The hungry diner gets something to eat quickly; and the business owner can move the trade in and out just as fast.  Not only that, when customers dine on small plate dishes, they tend to eat more, so not only do they finish in record time, but they spend far more than they had intended.

One San Francisco small-plates chef I know says his guests spend a lot more money in less time, due to their food arriving so quickly. “They keep ordering more and more because they don’t feel full yet,” he told me, “and then suddenly they’re stuffed, they’re ready to leave, and they have a really big tab.”

The really smart restaurant owners offer small plates of intriguing variety and quality, and especially in foodie cities like San Francisco, know that they have to satisfy the gourmet tastes of their clientele or risk losing them.

As important as revenue is, there’s yet another reason small-plates dining is so popular with restaurateurs: small-plates dining is the kind of dining that many of us in the restaurant industry most enjoy. That’s partly because the small, focused, high-quality dishes evoke the tasting menus of our industry’s most celebrated chefs—Rene Redzepi, Thomas Keller and others.

Redzepi is a foodie superstar and international celebrity known for his foraging menus. Every day he walks the marshes, lowlands, tide pools, and woody forests around Copenhagen for natural ingredients – stalks, weeds, moss, fungus, periwinkles, and wild berries are his favorites.

It is not hard, say versatile chefs, to approximate Redzepi’s dishes with local ingredients by foraging in local farmers’ markets and upscale grocery stores instead of in the wild.  In fact all but the most adventurous eaters prefer something a bit more edible than the often rough fodder Redzepi collects.

Another aspect of the foodie zeitgeist that small plate chefs have understood is the culture of sharing food experiences.  The endless photographs of the most mundane and uninspired home-cooked meal are the currency of social media.  It is more important to share what you have done rather than enjoy it per se.

Sharing plates with friends is how we express our joy of food and hospitality when we [restaurateurs] are not on the job. If you dine out with industry people, you know what I’m talking about—it’s assumed that everybody will share every dish that’s ordered, and if you try to order something just for yourself, your companions may well forget and eat off your plate anyway.

So we Americans have come a long way from Guido’s Vesuvio and Durgin Park. Slabs of meat and spaghetti hanging off the plate are just not comme il faut. Tapas and small plates are. 

The small plate movement is American enterprise at its very best.  Businesses have figured out ways to lower costs and increase revenues by picking up on cultural trends and exploiting them. Restaurant traffic picks up, costs go down, diners are thrilled and everyone is happy; and that, folks is what great marketing is all about.

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