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Sunday 20th October 2019

Think “small plates” equal small prices? Think again!

Small plates are less expensive than mains – but less likely to fill a sparrow or mouse

As part of the revolt against three-course meals, lots of restaurants have miniaturised their menus in the form of “small plates”.

Unlike the French and the Italians, who still make time for languorous, multi-course eating occasions, fewer Brits believe that they have time for the relative formality of more conventional meals.

That’s why small plates, along with all-day brunch, are the two eating out formulae that really sell these days. In fact, they keep many restaurants in business.

A cultural rejection of traditional dining etiquette they might be, but the small plates phenomenon has also been driven by economics. In theory, they keep down the overall cost of a meal. No need to sign up for a £20, £30, or £40 menu, or take your luck with the financial vagaries of à la carte.

But in these fiscally austere times, when so many of us are feeling the pinch, small plates indulge the dubious belief that restaurants are no longer a luxury. Worse, they feed the myth that eating out needn’t necessarily take a bigger bite out of your income than eating in.

But as a restaurant critic I have realised, belatedly, that small plates, typically priced from £5 to £12, depending on the pomposity of the establishment, can be furtively expensive. Ordering is inevitably dogged by vagueness that leads to anxiety and miscalculation.

How filling is “small”? How many small plates constitute a satisfying meal? You’re guessing, and left in the hands of your server, whose guidance is usually along the lines of: “Most people order three each”, or similar.

As for those mysterious “bites”, usually priced between £3 and £5, there’s no way to know in advance their proportions. Chances are that because of the nagging worry that you haven’t ordered quite enough, you’ll add on some bread for good measure. So there’s another £3.50 gone in the blinking of an eye. Or a fiver, if it’s proper sourdough and hand churned butter.

So, let’s say you’ve ordered a bite, two small plates, and a share of bread per head, which doesn’t seem excessive, you’ll be heading for a bill of £20 each, no bother. And that’s before you add on a glass of wine, or the service. And that’s a sum that would buy you a very decent, roundly satisfying, set lunch or pre-theatre meal in many good restaurants, often with some alcohol included.

See what I mean? “Small plates” have an insidious habit of stacking up a surprisingly big bill.

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Joanna Blythman

Joanna Blythman

Joanna Blythman is an award-winning investigative journalist, the author of seven landmark books on food issues, and one of the most authoritative, influential commentators on the British food chain. A great believer in basing your diet on whole, unprocessed food that you cook yourself, Joanna is a passionate supporter of independent shops, markets and similar non-supermarket outlets. Guild of Food Writers Food Writer of the Year 2018.

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