By Alysha Khan
Sometimes big trends come on small plates.
Over the past decade, the concept of small plates has expanded from a curiosity to a strong trend that is currently spreading to everything from coffee shops to national chains.
Small plates are shareable portions that give customers a chance to sample more menu items and chefs more culinary freedom.
“Grazing and plate sharing are becoming increasingly popular over traditional meal structures, especially among younger consumers,” said Annika Stensson, the director of research communications at the National Restaurant Association.
The association’s 2015 culinary forecast reported that 56 percent of chefs polled felt small plates was a hot trend while another 22 percent categorized it as perennial favorite. Only 21 percent described it as yesterday’s news.
Stensson said small plates are most common at table service restaurants, but the concept is currently “widening to other areas of foodservice,” including coffee shops, buffets, and other kinds of quick service restaurants.
Soraya Rendon, owner of Chilam Balam on 3023 N. Broadway St., said since she opened her small plates restaurant in 2009, she has noticed a substantial increase in the number of these restaurants across Chicago.
“When we first did it, we were one of the few people that had small plates,” she said. “Everybody now has small plates.”
In 2014, Starbucks announced that it will be offering small plates, desserts, wine, and beer at select locations as part of its new Starbucks Evenings initiative. In Chicago, this menu is available at four Starbucks locations in the city and three in the suburbs.
Starbucks isn’t the only large chain to jump on this bandwagon. In 2013, Olive Garden and TGI Friday’s both launched small plates menu to capitalize on the trend.
Jenn Jones, a software developer who works in the Loop, said she likes eating at small plates restaurants because it allows her to sample different dishes without committing to eating an entire entrée.
“If I only have a taste for something, I can get it and split it,” she said.
What also makes small plates so appealing is the “festive, jovial environment,” it often inspires, said John Coletta, the executive chef at Quartino Ristorante & Wine Bar in River North.
Coletta opened Quartino nine years ago and serves an Italian small plate menu. As a chef, he said serving food this way allows him to serve more variety and create “engaging and provocative” food.
“The rest of the world actually eats this way. It’s only the U.S. that doesn’t really eat this way.”
– Nia Asimis, owner of Nia Mediterranean Tapas
His menu features dishes such as honey drizzled, stuffed dates wrapped in pancetta and pizza topped with braised beef short rib, roasted fennel and walnut pesto. Prices range from $2.25 for olives to $15 for duck prosciutto pizza
“You can have a lot of food of different flavors, textures, preparations,” he said.
Nia Asimis of Nia Mediterranean Tapas at 803 W. Randolph St. said running a small plates restaurant allows her to draw in customers regardless of the country’s economic climate. She opened her restaurant in 2008, at the height of the recession.
“It can attract the best of both worlds,” she said. “Someone might come in, do two plates and be completely satisfied and then there’s others who want to do five or six plates a piece and go overboard.”
But in terms of profitability, Asimis argued that small plates restaurants have no advantage over entrée-focused establishments. At small plates restaurants, diners of different spending levels often cancel each other out, leaving no substantial advantage over more traditional restaurants.
At Nia, prices ranges from $7 for crisp potatoes with spicy tomato sauce to $15 for lamb loin chops with fingerling potatoes.
“In the end, it just kind of becomes an even keel,” she said.
But Asimis said she thinks this culinary trend will continue to grow in the coming years.
“The rest of the world actually eats this way,” she said. “It’s only the U.S. that doesn’t really eat this way.”