Tapas are a large part of Spanish cuisine. These small dishes are a staple in the culture and a means to pass you through until dinner. They’re small because they are not made to be filling: they are beautiful snack foods. Around the mid-aughts, this style of eating became fairly trendy and entire restaurants have been based on the idea of small plating. This isn’t to say they are tapas places but they have a similar feeling of “smaller plates, more to try.” There are a handful of true tapas places in Los Angeles but there certainly are more “shared plate” restaurants in town. From newcomers like Laurel Hardware to Lazy Ox to Wood & Vine, small plates and shared eating is still very much “a thing.” They’ve become folded into the idea of communal eating and farm-to-table dining. They’ve also become synonymous with being places you leave hungry from. The food isn’t bad but the portioning (and pricing!) is all out of whack. Unless you have no qualms about greedily taking what you want from a dish you are sharing with a group, you will make sure everyone gets an even bite of a hard-to-split duck leg or impossibly shareable sandwich. Small plates are not bad but this way of eating is getting really old.
The issue isn’t that the portions are small: the issue is that they are too difficult to share and they are too expensive to be this way. A lot of restaurans seem to be abusing us by making complex dishes that are nearly impossible to break down. At a dinner a week or two ago, we decided to order some sort of rice and fish dish and it came out as a difficult-to-split-in-any-direction food item that left us all having a small taste of a nearly twenty dollar plate. These dishes are essentially high end entrees portioned for children that are being tossed at adults with the explanation, “Have fun sharing that!” These dishes should be things that come easy to stab a fork into to take a portion from but instead become math problems where five people have to figure out how to evenly ration out a little oxtail and potato stew shareable. It’s a terrible joke that leaves you with a half-full stomach and without a hundred dollars.
Yes, when it is just a couple eating, shared plates are not difficult. Places like Animal are made from duos sharing food. Is this a cost effective way to eat? No, it is always a lot of money. You could order a few small plates for yourself when dining at a place like this in a group. Who does that though? Dishes in places like this come out whenever they are ready and one “is never enough.” You’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t. You’d also end up sharing because you’re probably shoulder to shoulder at a communal table. Start thinking of fast food restaurants on the way home, buddy.
There is a small backlash to this already popping up. Places like delightful newcomer The Parish have created anti-small plates that arrive as you imagine them to be: full entrees. Some are more indulgent than others but I remember ordering the fried chicken at Parish and imagining it to be a similar portioning to fried chicken entries as small plate places like Spice Table and Sunny Spot. Instead, you are greeted with an adult’s sized portioning of the dish. It borders on being too much but this is the only plate you need to order. There is no explanation given when you order this dish. A waiter doesn’t tell you, “Well, you know, you should probably order two more $15 dishes because the two $20 dishes you ordered won’t be enough for two people.” This was refreshing.
Perhaps this comes from overspending on a little food or simply going out to eat with friends and leaving unsatisfied because we picked a place that is not good for groups. Maybe it is just a backlash to trendy food establishments milking us? It is likely a mixture of all of the aforementioned. There is a reason that tapas in Spanish cuisine are not intended to be dinner: they are tastes to hold you over until you have dinner. When dinner becomes tastes, it isn’t dinner: it’s just an expensive sampler platter. Like loud restaurants, stringing together a meal of costly tastes is getting old. There is a place for them but they are far too superfluous in the Los Angeles culinary landscape. Let’s try to figure out our portioning, shall we?