Gone are the days of the typical restaurant guest ordering an appetizer to start the meal, then a full-sized entrée, and then a dessert. Small, sharable plates, also dubbed tapas, snacks, and bar bites, are becoming the norm, with Millennials leading the dietary revolution. As the group of 19- to 35-year-olds has aged, restaurants are taking Millennials’ dining desires—and their discretionary income—more seriously.
“Millennials want to drink some wine and share some [small plates], while they sit and converse,” says Chef David Burke, founder of David Burke Group. “They do not want to sit down for the traditional one- to two-hour dinner.” But the snacking and small plate trend is attractive because it is casual and offers a variety of foods, he adds.
Operators say small bites encourage consumers to spend money they otherwise might not. A group of friends or colleagues might meet for a drink and end up sharing dishes with each other, for example, without feeling they have spent too much money on a pricy, heavy meal.
“The days of one-pound steaks and giant entrées is a little more suited to those over 40 years old,” says Michael Kornick, chef and co-owner of DMK in Chicago. Small plates are such a hot trend that two of DMK Restaurant Group’s restaurants are dedicated almost entirely to tapas offerings. “The menus are designed to have people try a bunch of small things,” Kornick says.
At the group’s mk in Chicago, bar bites include Asparagus and Poblano Soup with Goat Cheese, Fried Chorizo-Stuffed Gordal Olives, Bison Tartare, Wagyu Beef Sliders, and Maine Lobster Skewers.
Small plates force creativity and innovation, Chef Burke says. Many casual and full-service restaurants have become adept at developing small plates that are not only different than any other dish on the menu, but are also unmatched among their competitors. And the presentation of these plates is typically much more creative than appetizer and entrée plates.
For example, at his newest restaurant, David Burke fabrick at the Archer Hotel in New York City, the sharable dishes include Bacon with Maple Syrup, Grill Octo (octopus) Tacos, and Avocado Panna Cotta with blue corn tortilla chips and plantain. At fabrick, plates are even positioned atop elevated platforms on each table, so guests can order more shareable plates and “have more room on the table,” Chef Burke explains.
The snacking movement, which has only developed in recent years in the U.S. but has been popular in Europe for decades, also speaks to the health-conscious mindset of Millennials, who appreciate smaller portion sizes. In a study of more than 1,000 consumers, Y-Pulse and The Culinary Visions Panel found that Millennials primarily choose snacks based on freshness (94 percent), craving (89 percent), comfort (86 percent), and healthfulness (83 percent).
Most snack plates have 2.5 to 3 ounces of protein, and many include fresh produce. “You don’t worry about the calories and how full it is going to make you,” says Luke Rinaman, corporate chef and director of operations for China Grill Management, which operates casual-dining concept East & West in New York City’s Yotel hotel.
Some of the creative small plates at East & West include Harissa Seasoned Lamb Meatballs with Israeli cous cous and Tori Dango Chicken Meatballs, a Japanese-style meatball rolled in sushi rice and Panko bread crumbs, and then lightly deep-fried.
“Hotel guests and others who come in for business do not have to spend a great deal of money to try some things,” Rinaman explains. “I think it is pretty universal, when people dine out, that they don’t know what to order. Small plates allow people to try both dishes and not have to pick one, and they can explore the menu more fully.”
Shareable plates are “less pretentious from a service standpoint,” agrees Chef Burke, who personally enjoys consuming small plates versus big meals. “I want to experience the craft and style of the restaurant, without having to visit five times.”
At casual-dining restaurants, Millennials expect to pay $5 or more for a snack, according to Y-Pulse and The Culinary Visions Panel, but their threshold is often higher for full-service restaurants. Most chefs agree that their small plate average cost is between $5 and $13, and it varies by city and region.
DMK’s restaurants, which are near university campuses, price most of their small plates under $10. In New York City, restaurants are charging between $9 and $12 on average, Chef Burke says.
Snacking and the small-plate trend are not going away anytime soon, chefs and restaurant executives say. “China Grill is focusing on adding smaller plates and snack menus before the appetizer section,” Rinaman says. And, the company is training servers to encourage guests to try a few different snack-size plates, instead of ordering an appetizer.