The fallacy of “small plates meant for sharing,” as The New York Times restaurant critic Pete Wells pointed out in his blog post “The Big Problem With Small Plates,” is that a small portion makes actual sharing somewhat frustrating. Unlike Wells, I'm a fan of the small-plates format — I like the ability to taste a broad range of dishes. But if sharing is the main goal of small-plates dining, the smaller size is counterintuitive.
Enter the large plate, or large-format plate, or family-style dish. While roast chicken for two has been around forever, and some family-style dining is inherent to certain dishes and cuisines, large-format plates meant for sharing among more than two people are showing up on more and more menus these days.
At Willie Jane, Govind Armstrong's new Southern restaurant in Venice, a large portion of the menu is devoted to family-style plates that serve around four people. At Bar Ama, Josef Centeno's downtown Tex-Mex spot, you can order a quarter of a baby goat to share with your tablemates (though this dish is something of a unicorn — it was unavailable during all of my four visits). At Roadhouse, the upcoming Hollywood barbecue restaurant from Umami Group, part of the menu will be dedicated to “large-format dishes” such as whole animal heads and whole shoulders of lamb, beef or pork. AOC Wine Bar serves small plates, but also “platters,” which are quite big enough to feed four to five people.
At Chi Spacca, Chad Colby (who has long been a proponent of family-style dining based around huge hunks of meat) is serving giant “bistecca fiorentina” steak for $175, which is certainly meant to be shared, as well as other big share dishes like beef and bone marrow pie.
Huge hunks of meat aren't new to the restaurant world — David Chang has long been serving a whole pork butt, the bo ssäm, at Momofuku Ssam Bar in New York City. The dish is meant to serve six or more people and must be ordered well in advance. So this is partially trend-chasing, partially a small-plates backlash, and partly just something new to have fun with.
But like small plates, there are issues with the large-plate format. At Willie Jane, most of the interesting-looking entrees come in this format, and are therefore both too much food and too expensive for parties of 2. My friend and I ordered the $45 oxtail plate anyway, and got what was a large-ish serving of oxtails, around six to eight pieces. It was certainly enough food for two, and perhaps with sides would have been enough for four. But oxtail is a very cheap meat, and I've had slightly smaller servings at Jamaican restaurants for $5.99. Seafood over creamy grits on Willie Jane's large-format menu costs $70. For three or four people this is not a bad deal, but it highlights the expense of eating out more than regular restaurant meals. It mimics home cooking too much — isn't part of the thrill of going out to eat being able to get your own dish, distinct from your tablemates'? If you want a big pot of food or a big hunk of meat, why wouldn't you make it at home?
Of course, I'm not about to make slow-roasted baby goat at home anytime soon, and the large-format plate works best for dishes that take a long time and are hard to cook. It makes far less sense to me to simply supersize an entree — like seafood over grits — than it does to present something that feels like a shared feast, and which requires some kind of special preparation or sourcing.
It's these things that make me think that, while chefs like this idea enough to make it a trend, it's not a trend that will hang around as long or be nearly as successful as small plates. Where small plates give customers more choices at smaller prices (sometimes), large plates do the opposite. A chef I know in Atlanta opened a restaurant last year with large-format plates featuring heavily in the PR materials and hype surrounding the opening. The current menu has no plates larger than entrees. I asked him why, and the answer was simple: They didn't sell.
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