Small plates of food.
Liz Clayman

Small plates also can give restaurants the flexibility to utilize premium, upscale ingredients without breaking the bank. 

Why Small Plates Continue to Soar in Foodservice

Rising food costs are ushering in the next iteration of shared small plates. 

Small plates empower chefs with the freedom to explore their creativity in the kitchen, while also offering customers a low-risk opportunity to venture into new flavors and ingredients. Karl Gorline, chef de cuisine at The Woodall in Atlanta, says restaurants can utilize these dynamics to navigate through rising food costs. 

“The cost of goods sold is the elephant in the room for everyone in the industry,” he says. “As an operator and as a chef, you have to responsibly utilize ingredients at this heightened cost point, and that's something you can really lean on with small plates.”

Gorline leverages small plates to present guests with plant-forward dishes that mimic costly proteins using seasonal and abundant produce, including transforming fresh watermelon into a texture that emulates seafood. It’s something he believes customers would be less willing to try in a larger, more expensive format. 

“Bluefin tuna is $26 a pound right now,” Gorline says. “If I was going to serve a center-of-the-plate, grilled tuna steak, we’re looking at $60 from an operational standpoint to be able to execute and not lose money on the dish. When I take this watermelon that’s in season, cut it into little squares, and then lightly dehydrate it, it imitates the texture of tuna. That’s an exciting, fun, and luxurious small plate that the guest gets to experience.”

Small plates make up over half of The Woodall's menu, reflecting its identity as “an upscale gathering place” offering "sophisticated southern luxury." Charred okra is among the top three best-selling items. The dish is marinated in harissa, chargrilled, topped with whipped feta, and served with flatbread. 

“In the south, the growing season of okra and the abundance of the plant is almost infinite,” Gorline says. “We took what is truly the most humble southern vegetable that there is, and by doing it in a way that's different from what folks are normally accustomed to, we’re just selling the brakes off of it.”

Jeff Vucko is the executive chef at Pendry Chicago, where he oversees all of the boutique hotel’s culinary operations. At Chateau Carbide, the property’s rooftop cocktail lounge, he uses small plates as a vehicle for repurposing leftover ingredients that would otherwise go to waste. 

“I can easily take uncooked leftover protein from a banquet and use it to create really fun dishes up there,” Vucko says. “The guest wouldn’t exactly know that it’s a wasted trim of a filet mignon from one of my banquets, but I can save that stuff to create some sort of steak tartare or beef medallion. I think there’s a lot of room for creativity that way with small plates, especially from a food cost perspective.”

On the flip side of that coin, small plates also can give restaurants the flexibility to utilize premium, upscale ingredients without breaking the bank. As an example, Vucko points to a Chicago-style, hotdog-inspired dish on the menu at Pendry Chicago’s lobby bar. The item features Japanese milk bread, truffle gouda sauce, dill-pickled green tomato, and truffle mustard aioli. 

“It’s those subtle luxury touches that allow me to charge $20 for a hotdog, and people absolutely love it,” Vucko says. “Upstairs at Chateau Carbide, there’s cheese and charcuterie plates, but I didn’t just want to chop up some cheese and throw some bread and crackers on there. So, I do a tarte au fromage, which is a little quiche-looking dish. I put some luxury touches with some truffle honey and microgreen on there.”

With less pressure to purchase ingredients in bulk, small plates also grant restaurants more flexibility in sourcing seasonal and fresh produce from local providers. That’s the approach executive chef Jake Whitman is taking at The Pure & Proper in Black Mountain, North Carolina. The all-day eatery offers an extensive lineup of small plates across brunch, lunch and dinner. 

While the menu changes with the seasons, Whitman has some staple shareables that are updated with new garnishes and different ingredients throughout the year. A steak tartare is one of those time-tested favorites. “That’s a really good sharing dish, because it comes with crostinis, so everybody at the table can build their own little bite of tartare,” he says. 

Another standout is the okonomiyaki Japanese cabbage pancake. “We change that one up, too,” Whitman says. “Right now, we’re doing lamb belly, and it comes with a bunch of garnishes, like barbecue sauce and spicy mayo. We slice it up almost like it was a pizza, so everyone at the table can just take a little wedge off of it.” 

When customers opt for small plates to share at the table, the dining experience shifts from individual consumption to a more communal and shared endeavor. Adding alcohol to the mix further enhances the social aspect and also increases the average check, providing opportunities for restaurants to engage customers and boost sales through creative small plate and craft cocktail pairings. Chateau Carbide and Woodall have both embraced this strategy.

Chateau Carbide, described as a botanical-themed absinthe bar by Vucko, strives to create small bites that harmonize perfectly with the anise-flavored spirit. He takes care not to overwhelm the dishes with niche flavors like fennel, tarragon, and mustard, instead incorporating them subtly through vinegars and microgreens, complementing the bar's theme and appealing to a wide range of tastes.

One noteworthy creation at The Woodall involves a mojito made with French green beans. 

“We’re able to take some of the vegetables and get them into our beverages, and share it with some of our small plates,” Gorline says. “You can do some really cool stuff around that, and you can always count on it to be a conversation starter.”