You’re a savvy investor living in the big city when one day an aspiring entrepreneur shows up with a strange pitch: sell people an inferior product they’ll pay a premium for because you’ve made them think the product is actually superior. Laughing, you shoo the fool away. No one would pay more for less. That’s just ridiculous.
Meanwhile, some sap down the street just dropped $18 on two meatballs. All in the name of the “small plate,” otherwise known as the biggest ripoff somehow embraced as precious and hip.
This past Valentine’s Day weekend, my wife and I were once again suckered by the small plate. We went to Zahav, an Israeli restaurant considered by many as one of Philadelphia’a best. Our reservation, made a month before, was for 9 p.m., the earliest available. It must be transcendent, we thought, to elicit that kind of demand. We excitedly browsed Yelp and bathed in the glowing reviews.
They stuck us at a table around the perimeter, a spot perfect for crowd-watching…and being assaulted by the weirdest and loudest mix of music ever assembled. Pour Some Sugar On Me followed by Mo’ Money, Mo’ Problems followed by Let’s Dance, all piped to a decibel that required diners to shout at each other like grinding 20-somethings just before last call. That’s okay, we guessed. Only a place with such exquisite cuisine could blare the equivalent of birds screeching and still pack the joint.
After being pooh-poohed by the waitress for not knowing every ingredient in every dish by heart, we ordered a bunch of seemingly delicious fare and yelled at one another over Still Not A Player until the food arrived. Everything pretty much looked like this:
It doesn’t matter what these dishes were. It doesn’t even matter that we ate them at Zahav. What matters is that once all was said and done, and every delicate morsel devoured, we angrily paid upwards of $200 to still be hungry. That’s the thing about small plates: it’s not like they’re not good. Zahav serves tasty food. It’s just that you feel like a complete moron after leaving the place.
We felt the same way at the equally celebrated Barbuzzo a year before. The mediterranean restaurant also specializes in the meager meal, and charges an absurd amount of money to serve it to you. You, in turn, pay this exorbitant fee, only to barely get a mouth full before the plate’s empty and you’re fighting off the urge to get a Big Mac later. You make a grand show of eating these droppings, slowly chewing each carefully stacked foodstuff like it’s a limited edition rarity reserved for the palates of champions. When, in reality, you’re dragging your feet because once you swallow your first bite, the meal will be over.
What came first: Spain’s tapas or the small plate? It’s a question only food historians and gullible customers can answer. Or Wikipedia. According to the world’s most accurate news source, small plates became popular around 2000 and in fact encompass tapas, mezze (Turkey’s version of crumb cuisine) and – gasp! – antipasti, which I will pretend I did not see. Doesn’t say when tapas started infiltrating the States, so I’ll trust that it can be classified as a small plate, even if I disagree. (To me, you know what you’re getting into with tapas. You’re not viewing it as a “meal,” but as a snack alongside cocktails. Small plates, on the other hand, bill themselves as dinner. The difference is significant…and much more offensive.)
Whether separated or next of kin, small plates, tapas and other tiny gatherings of ingredients are duping millions of people – myself included. Instead of visiting eateries that serve appropriate and reasonably-priced portions that satisfy hunger and send us home happy, we file into over-hyped establishments to fork over piles of cash for a pile of food that barely fits on our fork. Someone, somewhere is a genius. Everyone else, well, here’s a Sugar Graham o’ Theodore dessert, just $16.