When it comes to food, I don’t usually go in for misty-eyed nostalgia. I’m greedy for gimmickry; my trend tolerance is high. I don’t think everything was better in the days of corned beef and boiled cauliflower, I really don’t. But today, I am here to sound a death knell for a modern-dining institution. I’m slightly surprising myself by this, to be honest, but I think I’m finally over small plates.
They say sharing is caring, and for the past few years I believed them. I've queued up cheerfully with everyone else outside the latest must-eat urban-dining experience, delighted to be served three prawns on a teeny smear of aïoli. I’ve furrowed my brow over menus trying to work out if a dish called “bone, fennel, borage – 8” will be a substantial dinner or a Sylvanian family’s picnic. I’ve waited, patiently, half the food getting cold, so that we can shove all the dishes together into something that looks bountiful enough for Instagram.
I’ve endured all the stomach-based confusion, mentally piecing together all the bits of things you’ve eaten like Tetris to try to work out if you’re feeling very, very full or actually still slightly peckish. I’ve nodded cheerfully every time an earnest waiter has explained that, “the dishes will all come out at, like, different times,” instead of the reasonable response, which would be to yell, “COULD THEY NOT, PLEASE?” And I’ve smiled serenely at the result, a plate of roast potatoes turning up 10 minutes after the rest of the food is finished. “Oh lovely, the potatoes we forgot we ordered!” I have said, believing I meant it. “What a nice surprise.”
It’s a system where every meal is an exercise in diplomatic mediation between the person who doesn’t like sharing, the person who doesn’t like anything and the person who just wants to eat a steak to themselves
But, no more. The tide is turning, even if I have to King Canute it myself. I'm not afraid to be the one who stands up, bangs a spoon against the nearest piece of Falcon enamelware and says: “STOP IT WITH ALL THE SMALL PLATES.”
Now I don’t mean ALL small plates, obviously. Spain, you’re fine with tapas. Likewise Greece, Turkey, Lebanon, anywhere with a mezze tradition – if you know how to fill a table to groaning with a hot-and-cold buffet of delicious picky bits, by all means carry on and forgive me when I end up licking houmous off my elbow. There are some incredible chefs out there doing small plates like mini masterpieces, which all come together beautifully to make a complete meal. They’re to be applauded. But the rest of you, we need to chat.
When did the definition of fashionable dining become looking on, ravenous, while your friend cuts a single meatball into three pieces? How did we get from what’s, in theory, a lovely idea – communal eating for the chronically indecisive! – to the reality, a system where every meal is an exercise in diplomatic mediation between the person who doesn’t like sharing, the person who doesn’t like anything, the person who just wants to eat a steak to themselves and the person who ordered the £18 truffled sweetbreads “for the table”?
And, by the way, restaurant staff, we KNOW you are lying when you say you “recommend four to five dishes per person”. We just feel entirely powerless to do anything except order four to five dishes, because what’s the alternative – risk ending up with no food? Watch our hungry mother-in-law pick forlornly through a single plate of shaved beetroot? Enough with this miserly nonsense.
If you won’t give us starters and mains, give us portion consistency at least. Make it clear whether £7 will buy us a thimble of risotto, or a vast trough. If the only carbohydrate in a dish is five grains of puffed rice, scattered confetti-style over a hunk of meat, then don’t just write “rice” on the menu. Tell us we’ll want some potatoes, too, then bring them at the same time as the meat. Are you writing this down?
Like I say, I don’t believe in curmudgeonly pining for a golden age that never was. Food in this country is by many measures the best it has ever been, and only getting better by the year. I’ve eaten small plates that have blown my mind, dishes of such perfectly-formed restraint and prowess I still salivate thinking about them now. But I’ve also eaten a whole lot of stingy, lukewarm kid-size portions for the price of an M&S meal deal each, and had to get a Pret baguette on the way home.
So, forgive me the nostalgia, and allow me to say… remember when our dinner arrived all at the same time, on the same dish? It was nice, actually, wasn't it? It worked. It did the job admirably. I beg you, let's retreat. Because in these times of turmoil and uncertainty, I believe we need the reassurance of a big plate – preferably with a whole heap of food on it.