The tyranny of small-plate dining: what’s the best way to split these two prawns five ways?

We will think of the 2010s and 2020s as the time the industry went mad and insisted that splitting mini flatbread was the apogee of sophisticated dining

I am not the first – and I will not be the last – to express consternation at the ubiquity of the small-plate restaurant. You know the drill: the room decor is minimalist, with exposed brick, the tables are small and tightly packed. Everything is designed to be shared, maybe 10-12 dishes for five people; wine is served out of tumblers with no stems; the food is usually some kind of take on modern European; roasted cauliflower is invariably on the menu.

It may feel as though these restaurants have exploded in popularity over recent years but they are nothing new. As far back as 2010 the New York Times was already stomping its feet: “End the tyranny of small plate dining,” it said. “Bring back food monogamy! Why I’m fed up with ‘sharing’ plates in restaurants,” wrote The Telegraph six years later. By 2022 the Guardian declared us “out of love” with small plates, as the concept leaves us “confused, ripped off, overwhelmed by choice and often still hungry at the end of a meal.”

Despite the fervent dismissal of the trend, no one has managed to put a pin in it yet. In fact, this mode of restaurant feels increasingly like the norm rather than the exception. Naturally, Dublin is groaning under their weight. Foursquare offers a guide: The 15 Best Places for Small Plates in Dublin. Lovin Dublin has a rundown of “The Best Small Plate Restaurants in Dublin 2019″. Open Table has “27 Best Tapas/Small Plates restaurants in the South City Centre”. Twenty-seven!

Far from encouraging us to slow down, allowing everyone to bask in the communal spirit of a shared meal, it encourages diners to approach the table with speed, intention and stealth

Why, after all this rejection, can we not wrest the culture away from the maw of the plate-sharing restaurant? It has been a whole decade of the world saying “enough!” and yet only last week I was faced with the intellectual challenge of splitting two prawns five ways. Other things that are extraordinarily tricky to share between five? Two lamb chops. Broth. The vitello tonnato looked like a murder scene after it had been beset by five sets of cutlery at once. The waiter might say, “I think the perfect number of green salads for you guys is 3½. And no, of course we do not serve it in such quantities.” It’s hard to know who this satisfies.


I fear, also, that it encourages some of our worst human impulses. Far from inducing us to slow down, allowing everyone to bask in the communal spirit of a shared meal like our friends on the continent, it forces diners to approach the table with speed, intention and stealth. The hunger pangs and the panic set in. Suddenly there is burrata all over the table. The New York Times was right. This does feel like a tyrannical cultural imposition: you will share a small bowl of smoked almonds and you’ll be happy about it.

The Guardian loosely traces the advent of small plates in Britain, and by extension Ireland, to the establishment of the late Russell Norman’s Polpo in 2009. The Italian cicchetti bar, whose first branch was in Soho, captured imaginations and the zeitgeist. It seemed London had entered a brave new world. And so – owing to the human capacity for and love of mimicry – everyone jumped on the bandwagon. Now, bar a few exceptions to the rule, the culinary landscape feels flat and one-note.

True originality is rare. Polpo might be remembered as a first mover. But no one will remember any other restaurant simply for the fact that it was just like every other restaurant of its time. We will think of the 2010s and 2020s as the moment where the industry went mad and insisted that splitting mini flatbread was the apogee of sophisticated dining.

It is hard to know who is going to be remembered by the culture without the clarifying force of hindsight. But a good starting point is to look at those who have the confidence to deviate from the norm and to try something utterly new. I am reminded of a review of Billie Eilish’s remarkable debut album When We Fall Asleep Where Do We Go. “Sparse and woke emo electropop misery” Rod Liddle wrote. The album was unlike anything I had ever heard. I revisit it all the time. Friends still talk about it nearly five years later.

So the small plates revolution – may it die soon – offers us an important reminder to celebrate the original, the renegade, the brave. Perhaps a badly executed version of a new thing will always have more impact than a perfectly rendered version of an established concept.

We are often regaled with ideas about the human instinct for novelty and told that we humans have an endless capacity for innovation. I am not so sure that that is true.

Our heads might tell us to seek out the new, but our hearts and stomachs say: let’s share another plate of tender stem broccoli.

Brianna Parkins returns next week