Just when you thought you’d mastered the intricacies of the ubiquitous small-plates menu, along comes a jaunty new player in the food world’s quest for diminishing portion size. “Snacks,” the latest category to grace New York’s menus, has recently begun sharing the spotlight with Appetizers and Entrées while pretty much stealing that old has-been Sides’ thunder. Suddenly they’re everywhere, from the Michelin-starred Spotted Pig, where April Bloomfield has just added “Bar Snacks” like duck eggs and rollmops to her menu, to Tenth Avenue hot spot Cookshop, where one of the unlikeliest signature dishes is fried spiced hominy, which shares the snack distinction with caviar-topped deviled eggs and grass-fed, air-dried beef. Snacks also mean Asian-spiced chicken wings at Taku, tempura-skewered shrimp at Jefferson Grill, and tea sandwiches at Fatty Crab.
More than an hors d’oeuvre, less than a small plate, “they’re designed to be nibbled while you look at the menu, so you don’t get grumpy,” says Bloomfield. That makes them a blessing for anyone who’s ever dined with the type of ruminative foodie who studies menus with the trancelike intensity of a Talmudic scholar. And a reward for promptness. “We don’t have a seating policy, so in a situation where, say, four out of six people in a party have arrived, we’ll seat them and they’ll order some snacks to tide them over,” says Inside chef Charleen Badman, who recently added snacks like bacon-wrapped dates and radishes with toasted brioche and butter to her main menu. With these premeal morsels going anywhere from $2.50 to $12, a cynic might say that “snacks” are just a ploy by shameless restaurateurs to jack up the check, charging for items previously known as freebies—like olives, say, or the basic bread basket accompanied by two pools of different extra-virgin olive oils you get for $4 at Bellavitae. But Taku chef Adam Shepard views snacks as the natural progression of a user-friendly trend to allow diners to order whatever and however they’d like. Come in for a nibble, the thinking goes, and maybe you’ll order a traditional meal. Whatever the case, snacks are here to stay. Just ask Craftbar chef Akhtar Nawab, who retired the category some months back only to reinstate it upon popular demand. It might irk him to see so many orders of fried chestnut gnocchi flying out of the kitchen, but if they’re filling seats, he’s fine with them filling stomachs too.