Are Small Plates Meant for Sharing?

Posted by Patrick Maness +

Small plates are meant for sharing — at least that’s what we’ve been told — and for the most part, the small-plate revolution has provided a great way for people to order many different plates and share what they’re eating.

On one level, this seems rather counterintuitive. After all, when most people hear about plates meant for sharing, they think of big, family-style portions — not the delicately arranged, bite-sized small-plate offerings that usually come to the table.  

What gives? Is it possible to share small plates, or is it a myth? Are we serving these offerings wrong? Is there a trick to serving small plates in a way that large groups can share them?

The Americanization of tapas

Small plates in the United States share a common ancestor with Spanish tapas. Like many foods brought across the Atlantic — be it the pizza or the hamburger — we’ve taken them and made them into something uniquely American. In Spain, tapas are more like a snack, something shared between friends at a bar as a kind of appetizer before dinner, which most people don’t eat until 10 or 11 p.m.

“The problem is that Americans ask tapas dishes to do things they weren’t really meant to do,” writes Pete Wells, a restaurant critic for the The New York Times. “In the United States, with its narrow-minded insistence on a mere three meals a day, tapas has become dinner.”

This is where some of the difficulty arises. The food is delicious, but it’s just not filling because it’s not intended to be filling. Pretty soon, plates fill the table and you find something delicious, but you get only a bite before someone else mashes their fork into it. Is there a way to transform this food that was intended to share into a whole meal?


One way those in the food industry can do so, whether operating a restaurant or something else in the hospitality and resort sector, is to offer sharing suggestions in the menu descriptions. A description such as, “best shared between two and three people” would help guide hungry groups.

Another way to help direct people toward heartier options — food that will more fully satisfy their hunger, that is — is to place markers next to these offerings. Chorizo and beef ribs, for example, could be marked as “hearty” in the same way many menus now mark items as gluten-free or particularly spicy.

Think of these not so much as changes to the small-plate menu, but ways to help your customers find the right dishes and the appropriate quantities. By helping them in this way, you can guide and direct them toward an incredible dining experience.

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