Small Plates Are Big Business

Cleo at the Redbury in Los Angeles has customers evenly split between men and women.
Cleo at the Redbury in Los Angeles has customers evenly split between men and women. Cleo

Tapas combine ethnic flavors and plate-sharing to create today's hottest fine-dining trend.

Tapas are a little bit like Kleenex, which began as a category-defining brand but is now often used generically. While tapas are Spanish, the food term has become synonymous with virtually all small plates regardless of culinary origin.

Blame it on fusion cuisine, which has blurred boundaries while being embraced by consumers who are looking for delicious dishes that satisfy their palate no matter what the food’s roots.

In Spain tapas can be anything from a small plate of cheese to hot meats and sauce baked casserole-style. The term applies to just about anything served on a small plate.

At Café Madrid in Dallas, which has been open for 22 years and began when the owner fell in love with Spain while on vacation, it’s all about authenticity.

“I fell in love with Spain when I was a teenager. When I would come back to Dallas, I would go through withdrawals,” says owner Donica Jimenez. “I figured the best way to teach other people about my love of Spain was to open up a place that was a little bit like Spain.”

Jimenez says a lot of people judge a Spanish restaurant by the Spanish omelet, or Tortilla Espanola.

“Our biggest seller is the omelet. It is a very simple dish made with onions, potatoes and egg. It is the staple in the Spanish diet. We have a guy who comes in, and that is all he makes.”

Café Madrid has an all-tapas menu, and there are about 40 dishes.

“You might think that a man might find it hard to fill up on tapas, but we have a lot of substantial items with beef, quail and sausage. So they go away satisfied,” Jimenez says.

While Café Madrid sticks to the basics and does home-style, authentic tapas, Jimenez says she has seen a lot of “trendy” tapas places come and go.

“I think it is because they tried to be too trendy and too modern. That is not what Spanish food is about.”

Foodservice consultant Pamela Parseghian says there is more than one reason tapas are popular.


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