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Trend Watch: The Small-Plates Debate

Yesterday, New York Times restaurant critic Pete Wells had some thoughts about small plates, which is a trend that has, thus far, stood the test of time. And yet the trend-complaint I hear the most is, "I'm so sick of small plates." Wells contends that the intent behind small plates -- that they are easy to share -- is false. He complains that most tapas are too small to share with more than just one other person, and that if a plate of food is good, Wells generally wants more of it than the one or two bites a small plate (particularly a shared small plate) offers.

I tend to disagree, mainly because the tapas trend has done for American dining what no other trend has done, at least not as pervasively, and that is to make eating out more communal and less formal. Our penchant for casual, fun, loud food, for meals where we set the parameters of how much we want to eat and in what order (rather than the fairly stringent appetizer/entrée/dessert format), undoubtedly was set on a foundation of small plates. Want a few more bites of that delicious shrimp that only comes two to a plate? Order another! That's the beauty of tapas. Generally, you get to taste more of a chef's range, as well as have a more immersive and interactive experience with your dining companions.

But the small-plates backlash is predictable, simply because it is a trend, and trends are a form of fashion, and the nature of fashion is that it changes. Some things become staples: Remember the '80s, when people talked about sushi as if it were this silly elite fad? Sushi has become a staple of our country's dining culture; almost no one would now refer to it as a trend. Fondue didn't fare so well (look for a fondue comeback in about three years or so).

So which of our current obsessions will become integral parts of our culture, and what will we turn against? In three years, will we still be obsessing about salumi plates? Or will they go the way of french fries doused in truffle oil? Will bartenders turn up their collective noses in a few years time at Fernet Branca? (Just this weekend, two separate chefs told me they were "so sick of Fernet" and one questioned whether Fernet Branca was really so different from Jaegermeister.)

If this is the year of Asian hipster cuisine (a description that makes my skin crawl for so many reasons), does that signal a leap for Asian food into the mainstream that will forever change American cooking? Or next year will Pete Wells be writing blog posts about the problems with pork belly buns? And what about pork belly? Bacon is over, right? Is its less-cured, more piggy origin meat the next to end up on a Burger King menu and be spurned?

But for now, I think small plates are here to stay, because of all the reasons I've listed above, the most important of which is that there's already proven longevity. (Check out this L.A. Weekly story about the trend, printed in 2003.) There are things about small-plates dining that bother me, but they have more to do with the trendiness than the trend itself: For instance, I just don't want to hear waiters say, "Our menu is made up of small plates, which are meant for sharing" ever again. We get it. You might as well say, "Our menu is made of food that is meant for eating." Now THAT'S a trend I'd like to see go away -- explaining the mechanics of a menu to me as if I'm too dumb to read.

But much like Japan and sushi, Spain's way of eating has infiltrated to the point where we claim it as our own. And much like sushi, there will be a period of derision and then it will be such an integral part of our dining culture than people will cease to comment on it at all.


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