Small plates offer refined dining, minus the stuffiness.

Coinciding with the rise in communal dining culture, small plates and appetizers are not only becoming more unconventional, but these complex, composed dishes are outshining entrees. Smaller portions that pack a punch are offering diners the chance to try multiple dishes and chefs the chance to flex their creativity.

“People like variety and to try as many dishes as possible for the amount of money they’re spending,” says Robert Birnschein, former chef de cuisine at San Francisco’s Tratto. “It’s more about the experience now. When I’m out, I buy a bunch of small plates to share.”

Customers realize for an entree price, they get three or four small plates or appetizers and the chance to sample various flavors while enjoying plenty of food, says Guara Pimenta, executive chef at Boston’s Les Zygomates.

Chefs say the growing target market of millennials wants several distinctly different, interesting flavors instead of coursed-out meals.

With consumers seeking out bolder interpretations, trends in small plates and appetizers are leaning toward nostalgic foods with modern twists, international cuisines, vegan and vegetarian plates, strong focuses on fresh, seasonal, local ingredients, and more composed dishes.

1. Nostalgic Noshes

Dishes of years past are twisted into plates with contemporary ingredients that taste better than ever. “What is old can be new again, and the biggest thing is that cool, old-school dishes are brought on with great produce to make them interesting and fresh for guests,” says James Booth, chef de cuisine at Cambridge, Massachusetts’ ArtBar. “Especially now with restaurants going hyper-local with farms and small-batch items with backstories, you get tons of flavor and that works well with small plates and appetizers.”

Pimenta of Les Zygomates says meatballs are big again, but, instead of doing a grandma-style meatball, he takes it up a notch by making chicken meatballs with coconut curry sauce. Another item making a comeback are sliders, Pimenta says, with different proteins like duck and lamb where guests order each version available to try.

At Tratto, the restaurant’s Munchies Menu reflects on childhood freezer favorites, but offering a fun twist on nostalgic, casual junk food, Birnschein says. He did cornmeal-battered-and-fried meatballs with oregano aioli and Cheesy Bleezies—upscale cheese sticks—with fontina, and smoked tomato sauce. To enhance the classic PB&J, Birnschein used Nutella, banana, peanuts, house-made jelly, toasted brioche, and house-made marshmallow fluff. And the restaurant’s Puff-Puff-Pig plate has popcorn popped in bacon fat that’s coated in salted caramel and topped with chopped applewood-smoked bacon.

2. International Inflections

World flavors are feeding guests’ appetite for unique dishes, as well as providing the opportunity for chefs to feature different regions in brilliant ways.

“I think South American and Latin are the hottest trends, so we’ve incorporated those into our small plates menu,” says Christian Frangiadis, executive chef/owner at Spork in Pittsburgh. “Filipino and Hawaiian are big, too.”

Twirling a poke bowl into something familiar yet original, Pimenta serves large diced tuna tartare on a Himalayan salt slab with wontons at Les Zygomates.

Moroccan/Algerian marinades like chermoula are adding spice and depth to dishes like Booth’s shrimp cocktail at ArtBar where the shrimp is soaked in chermoula to create a one-of-a-kind, yet recognizable dish.

Sergio Monleón, chef/owner at La Marcha in Berkeley, California, incorporates North African flavors in a spin on classic Spanish tapas by creating a slider with harissa aioli, cumin-scented lamb, and cucumber.

3. Veg Volume

“Vegan and vegetarian are a growing force to be reckoned with,” Frangiadis of Spork says. “If you don’t incorporate them, you’re leaving out a powerful section of today’s dining population. And because consumers aren’t betting their entire experience on an entree anymore, you can be more flamboyant and bold with your flavors.”

4. Fresh/Seasonal/Local

Chefs say it’s about what you can get fresh from the farms where you live each season, and that diners are more concerned than ever about interesting food backstories and how their food is sourced.

Ryan Keough, executive chef at Spuntino Wine Bar & Italian Tapas in Clifton, New Jersey and Garden City, New York, says he sources each season from places as close to the restaurant as possible including sustainable seafood.

5. Confidently Composed

Presentation, too, has increasingly become key for this move toward shareable plates. “The trend is more composed, elevated, shareable small plates and appetizers,” Monleón of La Marcha says. Even though diners are happy with the move away from formal white-table-cloth courses and toward a community sharing environment, they do not want to compromise quality of service. Elevating what was bar food creates a different full-service experience but with a sharing atmosphere, he says. 

Feature, Menu Innovations