Falling for the Small Plate

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:

A small plate I made in my kitchen in 12 seconds with 3-day-old leftovers.

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.

Rancho del salado with carrot and crunch garnish, $24

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.

Bon appétit!

11 thoughts on “Falling for the Small Plate”

  1. Love this article! Dad and I have also been victims of the “small plate scandal’! Anyone who has ever been to my home will attest that more is so much better and it’s free! I hate to be “scammed” when it comes do dining out!!!

  2. Can’t speak to Zahav, but we go to Barbuzzo pretty frequently and have never left hungry. Pretty regular are the Garces joints as well. I kind of prefer to order a couple of small things, and if I am still hungry, ordering additional. Keeping the flavors varied also keeps me interested in what I am eating. Seems like most restaurants are either small plate or oversized/family style. In that case, I prefer to err on the small and various flavors over 2 pounds of something.

    Your dishes look delicious, BTW. Let me know if you are looking for an investor.

  3. Michael, I absolutely agree with you. I HATE paying huge amounts for a tiny bit of food. I also don’t need my food to be manipulated, stacked or otherwise “artistically arranged”.
    Maybe we eat too much? That, however, is another issue.
    When we had tapas in Spain, they were wonderful, but, we knew they were only a prelude to the large bowl of paella that was to follow.

  4. mike, this article is priceless – loved it – so true, but my favorite was the teddy graham on the plate with the confec.sugar – i was laughing so hard, i was crying – thankyou

  5. When going to a small plate place, you have to get a mix in some foods that will fill you up. It’s like if you go to a sushi place, you don’t just get sushi and expect to be full – you mix in some meat and rice dish so you’ll be full without burning through your wallet. For example at Barbuzzo, I always get a pizza to share with my girlfriend (I suggest the asparagus or brussels sprout depending on the season) along with 2-3 small plates we also share. I leave full and having spent around $50/$60 for the two of us.
    I haven’t been to Zahav (something about the first dish on their menu, a $34 Hummus has put me off) but I’m sure they have some more filling dishes as well. You might enjoy small plates better at a place like Sampan, where it’s more clear what dishes are more filling on the menu.

  6. I’ve ordered both of the tasting menus at Zahav multiple times and have always left stuffed, unable to finish the meal. Especially the lamb shoulder, which a group of four full grown adults would be hard pressed to finish it. It’s freakin’ giant.

    As a reader of most all Philly food news, this post is one of the most ill informed I’ve come across.

  7. To be fair here there are plenty of restaurants that serve tapas but will not leave you hungry for non-outrageous prices. I mean, isn’t it well known that these gourmet restaurants are almost always going to be small portioned?
    The people going to these places are absolute rubes don’t get me wrong but use your own judgment and look at menus before you go somewhere do not just rely on reviews because most of the people making them are foodies who honestly would gush at any expensive dish.

  8. This was posted on Reddit. Specifically the Philadelphia subreddit. That would explain the views, you’re experiencing the Reddit hug!

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