Once upon a time, a traditional restaurant menu had the following sections: Appetizers, Entrees, Desserts. These days you’re more likely to see Small Plates than appetizers, and Big Plates instead of entrees.
Yes, in the past decade small plates have gone from being a rarity servers had to explain to the table (you know the spiel, “our small plates are meant for sharing”) to a menu mainstay.
You’ll spot them at restaurants of just about any cuisine and at any price point. At the much-buzzed-about new Veritas Tavern in Delaware, the menu consists entirely of small plates.
Small plates are, by definition, smaller in size than entrees and tend to cost less. Unlike a typical entree, they usually don’t come with side dishes.
One of the first Columbus restaurants devoted to the concept was the now-closed Burgundy Room, a Short North wine bar that specialized in trendy tapas. Today, Burgundy Room co-owner Jeff Benson is general manager at G. Michael’s, where small plates have always been an integral part of the menu.
“They’re almost like mini entrees. There’s a lot of thought and creativity in each dish,” Benson says. “We look at it as you’ve got this limited number of entrees, so this is another way for the chef to explore creatively, to try things he might be interested in doing—but not as a full entree.”
At the German Village bistro, the small plates menu changes seasonally with one important exception—Shrimp and Grits. It’s the restaurant’s most popular dish, a fan favorite that helped cement the popularity of the small plates menu.
“It’s a perfect example of having fun and doing something different with small plates,” Benson says. “Fourteen years ago, shrimp and grits was pretty unique for here. At first people thought it was kind of odd, and now you see it all over town.”
G. Michael’s small plates are famously not-all-that-small, a quirk Benson attributes to chef David Tetzloff.
“He doesn’t want people to get just a couple bites,” Benson says.
At Luce in Powell, where the menu includes cold and hot small plates, the way customers approach them varies by the day. On weekdays, regular customers will often order a salad to start and a small plate as the main course. Couples on dates tend to order four or five plates to share, and nothing else. On the weekends, guests looking for a more traditional dining experience will order a small plate as an appetizer.
“Some people really dig small-plate dining, and some people are confused by it,” says Luce’s chef Phillip Gulis. He’s noticed the concept is especially popular among calorie counters who don’t want to splurge on a full-size plate.
Gulis will often use cheaper cuts of meat—beef tips rather than beef tenderloin, say—to keep prices low on small plates.
“We describe them as small entrees,” he says. “We’re not doing traditional tapas, which are very small portions. Our small plates are in between a tapa and an entree in size.”
Benson loves the concept because it allows him to try more things. “I eat out a lot, and there are always four or five entrees I want to try,” he says. “But you can’t do that because of the expense and just the size of the plates. With small plates, you can try several things.”