Sociologists used to think they could track the rise and fall of the economy by the length of women’s skirts. Then fashion got hopelessly permissive. Perhaps the size of plates is a better indicator. In the dot-com euphoria, dishes had to be tall. Now restaurants boast their plates are small—perfect for a generation downmarketing, pinching dollars, and running from commitment to serious dinner.
As a child, I dreamed that life could be a smorgasbord, and as a restaurant critic, it was. Isn’t someone always saying that appetizers are much more appealing than entrées? So let’s have a glass of red wine and share two or three antipasti and call it dinner, even if we’re not economizing. I feel thinner already.
In flush times, restaurants insist that we do it their way. Now, staggered by a slowdown in traffic, if not by a blinding glow of bare white tablecloths, they’re eager to do it our way … whatever that is. Want to drink dinner with pals in a pub and share just enough spicy fries and crispy calamari to keep from falling over? How about a flight of red wines in tasting pours and a platter of cheeses at an enoteca? Online dating? It’s safer to meet at the bar and share a grilledpizzetta, in case you feel a swift urge to end the evening.
“Blame it on MTV,” says my music-world friend. “We’re used to fast cuts. Four beauties consummate affairs in half an hour on Sex and the City.” If we perch on a stool to eat snippets, no one will get bored. Or broke. Or fat. Suddenly, any Filipino, Korean, and Creole dribble or roll-up is a tapa. Unless it’s a meze (Turkish) or cichetti (as in Venice). Chefs, like the rest of us, have gone global.
For those of us who remember the allure—or was it a blur?—of grazing in the eighties, it seems like déjà vu all over again. Except then it wasn’t just indifference to a full-blown dinner that drove nocturnal nomads from one hot spot to the next—it was a fear of not being in that week’s happening joint. Remember Joanna? Cafe Seiyoken? Caffe Roma? And as one survivor of that frenzy recently reminded me, grazers were often so intent on feeding their noses, they didn’t want to eat anyway. It isn’t new, just newly rampant. I imagine today’s chefs lying awake at night, conjuring tricky variations on the theme: small plates, larger small plates, little bowls . . .
Confused? You won’t be, if you memorize this crib sheet.
Restaurants that serve small plates, only small plates, and nothing but small plates.
At Sumile, the waiter is the drill sergeant. “Everyone should order three dishes,” he instructs. “We definitely don’t gorge you here.” Small plates, clearly not meant for sharing, are all the menu offers in this subtly glowing little room. That’s the deal: small and very small portions, mostly $14 (except for the sliced sirloin with its pine-bough corsage, $6 extra), and shiso yuzu Mojitos. “You’ve only ordered two dishes each!” our waiter cries. Is he hurt or angry? I try to calm him: “We’re going to see how hungry we are after two.” Josh DeChellis’s menu, though uneven, still has its thrills. The cosmic consommé with its float of shrimp. A miracle of barely gelled hamachi with pickled melon and avocado. Sublimely moist chicken in a ragout with snails, cèpes, and vin jaune. But now the waiter’s back, chiding us again for ordering only two more plates. We’ve flunked the test. 154 West 13th Street (212-989-7699).
Amuse appeals to a don’t-tramp-on-me spirit. “It’s all about freedom to choose,” says chef-owner Gerry Hayden. Here, I am content to put together my own meal of roasted-butternut-squash soup, cumin-spiced pork tortilla, and a caramelized-pear toffee cake for a grand total of $25, or to share with a pal the citrus-marinated fluke, a spicy green-papaya salad, macaroni with mushrooms, and wonderful, just slightly soggy frites with chipotle aïoli for $20 per person. 108 West 18th Street (212-929-9755).
At full pitch, with blasting jive music and a packed house, Parish & Co. can frazzle the nerves. Happily, it’s serene the Monday night that five of us settle at two small marble tables in the bar to play with the permissive menu. Most everything comes in two sizes (small, $5 to $17; full-size, $10 to $26). Our troop grew up eating Chinese on Sunday, and so we’re into sharing small plates: roasted-beet-and-arugula salad, crispy scallop dumplings with slivered celeriac and hijiki, crunchy jícama-cabbage-eggplant slaw and grilled calamari and baby octopus. With a sensitivity to the carnivore, charred rib eye is offered only as an entrée, fatty but good. 202 Ninth Avenue, near 22nd Street (212-414-4988).
“Did I order enough?” I ask my waiter. I’m a bundle of insecurity at Snackbar. “You ordered perfectly,” he says with a benevolent smile. Perfect indeed, if like my quartet of diners you just can’t get enough of the aristocratic butter lettuce, radicchio, and herb julienne on the plates we’re sharing. There’s a bread charge? Egg salad on the menu? How retro can we get? Yet all of us are falling in love again with hard-boiled eggs simply sliced atop too much mayonnaise. And béarnaise for the fries. A small rectangle of perfectly rare char and a scallop-hanger-steak combo are enough to feed four. I could do without the $2 “Single Bites”: a listless baked clam, an odd little Parmesan-apricot canapé. With short takes from $2 to $24, we’ve managed to run up a $200 tab. It seems a bit high-rent in this no-frills neighborhood. 111 West 17th Street (212-627-3700).
Three fried goat-cheese balls? Four dainty ribs? Three doughnut holes? How spare can a small plate be? Our hungry foursome feels like it’s on deprivation row at Alta, the townhouse formerly known as Twilight 101. On the night we dine there, owner Christopher Chestnutt is still tweaking his concept—“I guess we need more proteins,” he says, “but I don’t want them to look like entrées.” Still, chef Harrison Mosher shines, even in miniature, on his always-changing menu. We were seduced by cockles in smoked-tomato broth, risotto, and a weirdly wonderful toss of caramelized cauliflower, clams, chorizo, and golden raisins on small plates—from $4 for sweet-potato croquettes to $12.50 for duck-leg confit. So why did we stop for pizza on the way home? 64 West 10th Street (212-505-7777).
Big and Small
Traditional menus with memorable small-plate options.
Matsuri needs to be user-friendly to fill its vast gymnasium of a space in the depths of the Maritime Hotel. A roster of stylish small plates—with smallish price tags ($4 to $11) and the signature of chef Tadashi Ono—should do it. After ribbons of tuna with yama imo (Japanese mountain potato), fluke sashimi in peppery ponzu, and yellowtail with green yuzu-pepper sauce, baked shishito peppers, and sea-eel tempura, I decide we deserve a Kobe-beef encore. At $16, this marvelous dish—rich and just barely seared—feels like a bargain. 369 West 16th Street (212-243-6400).
A roster of $4 and $5 hors d’oeuvre plates suggests that the folks at Nice Matin are hip to both the flavors of the Riviera and the psyche of the Upper West Side—prudent and penny-pinching if not paranoid. My friends and I are into dinners that pair two appetizers, most of them not more than $10. Voluptuous tarragon-scented mussels vélouté with grilled sweetbreads and frisée tossed with Roquefort, pear, and walnuts are my picks. 201 West 79th Street (212-873-6423).
When Savoy opened up a window in the building to gaze out at a newly gentrified edge of Soho, it moved the bar downstairs. There, locals come to sip big wines in big glasses and explore an all-day menu of small plates, from $5 to $12: house-cured charcuterie with serrano ham and mostarda, Mediterranean dip with grilled bread, fava-bean fritters with cilantro relish, linguine with mussels and fennel caponata, and fries dusted with pimenton salt. 70 Prince Street (212-219-8570).
Bottle of Red?
If you prefer your small plates with a nice glass of wine.
Isn’t it the rule that calories don’t count if you eat standing up? Waiting for your table at the smartly Italian Otto, you’re already ahead. Is it an enoteca or a pizzeria? I vote for the former, because the wine list is grand and the pizza pathetic. But what do we know? My party and I are the only people over 30 in this place, and everyone else is gobbling pizza. We stick to the mostly first-rate antipasti, sharing marvelous eggplant caponatina, tangy roasted beets, and mushroom misti from the lineup of $4 vegetables, and a $21 “grande” platter of meat antipasti and a trio of salads and items from the sea: mussels with peperonata, breadcrumbed anchovies, and baby octopus with beans and parsley. “In Italy, everyone has his own gelato,” Otto co-owner Joe Bastianich reports. We’re sharing anyway: brilliant caramel and rich riso gelati, and a puckery lemon sorbetto. 1 Fifth Avenue, at 8th Street (212-995-9559).
What price are you willing to pay for a full and complex super-Tuscan with enough sprightly snacks to make you feel that you’ve actually eaten? At no-frills ’inoteca, an expansive sapling of ’ino, it may be a wait on the corner of Ludlow and Rivington for that bare wooden table with its paper napkins. But once settled, you can count on a cheerful guide to the cellar list, underground prices ($4 to $15), and savory starters (like beets with orange, mint, and hazelnuts), splendid panini (the one with coppa, hot peppers, and rucola is my weakness), a rich-as-Croesus truffled-egg toast, a filling eggplant lasagnette, and iconic meatballs. 98 Rivington Street (212-614-0473).
In its latest incarnation as Taste, Eli Zabar’s homey bistro–wine bar is feeding catnip to East Side groupies. Each small plate (from $7 for the garlicky cheese-and-tomato sandwich to $16 for oysters) has its suggested wine by the glass. A salad and petite burgers en brioche (two on a plate), zesty trenne all’arrabbiata, diver scallops Provençal, or the grilled hot sausage could be dinner. The fiercely intense Concord-grape sorbet comes with peanut-butter cookies. Odd, and good. 1413 Third Avenue, at 80th Street (212-717-9798).
Chibitini, a tiny jewel box dispensing sake and snacks, is a Lower East Side clone of Chibi’s Bar on Mott (which opened as a holding pen for Kitchen Club fans). Who could have guessed Howard Johnson orange and turquoise could be so hot and sexy? Chibi himself, the fabulous French bulldog, sleeps on a banquette next to us while we flirt with him over edamame, tuna tataki, hijiki salad, and too many delectable dumplings (the chocolate-and-apple dumplings come with a glass of aged sake). 63 Clinton Street (212-674-7300).
Tapas, meze, Cichetti, and more.
Bobby Flay’s better-than-authentic tapas, inspired by a week he spent last winter in Barcelona, kicked off a burst of new energy at Bolo. Unlike some matinee-idol chefs, Flay can still find the kitchen. A $15 quartet of handsomely mounted savories—saffron rice cake with shrimp, squid sautéed with bacon and garlic, artichoke heart with quail egg and salmon caviar, and pan-fried duck liver deglazed in sherry and honey—would make a rustic late supper. True, Flay’s tapas have at least one ingredient too many to be truly Spanish, but that’s just fine. 23 East 22nd Street (212-228-2200).
I start longing for the nuttiness of a subtly fruity sherry or Montilla, perhaps Amontillado Carlos VII, the minute I settle on a bar stool at Solera, a little corner of Spain transplanted in Manhattan. Every smallish snack, $4 to $14, cold or hot—marinated anchovies, a Spanish omelette, fried calamari in garlicky aïoli, sautéed chorizo, croquetas, a small casserole of Manila clams—tastes imported. It’s what draws certain chefs and their Boswells after work. 216 East 53rd Street (212-644-1166).
What I want at the bargain paradise of Beyoglu is too many meze and the puffy fresh-baked pide (not pita) that keeps hitting the table hot from the oven. All the classic Middle Eastern purées—hummus, cod-roe tarama, mashed eggplant—seem feistier here. Ezme, a pomegranate-tinged mix of peppery chopped vegetables, is my favorite. But Beyoglu regulars want grilled octopus, too, as well as stuffed grape leaves, pan-fried liver bits and cacik (thick, garlicky yogurt), plus a mammoth hill of shepherd’s salad. And it’s a penny-pincher’s heaven, with meze mostly $6.50 or less. 1431 Third Avenue, at 81st Street (212-650-0850).
When Orhan Yegen got bounced from the Beyoglu he’d created, he sulked a bit. Then he dusted himself off and opened the equally inexpensive Efendi in a narrow Turtle Bay storefront with Turkish notions he hadn’t previously dared to execute in New York, like garlicky yogurt with carrots, intriguing red-lentil kofte balls, and gozleme (grilled phyllo dough stuffed with spinach or cheese). Here, too, the waiter brings crusty hot pide to the table with whatever meze you choose from the cafeteria-like display (mostly $3.75 to $7.50). 1030 Second Avenue, near 54th Streets (212-421-3004).
Nar Meze Bar brings impressively feisty Turkish tastes (mostly $5 or $6 each) and fresh tea roses to both the bar and the tiny tables in this Williamsburg restaurant’s narrow aisle of a dining room. Tarama, hummus, luscious char-grilled kofte, and yogurt soup with cucumber and dill are all on the menu. Here, the ezme is a red-pepper-and-walnut paste on crostini, and the shepherd’s salad is finely chopped. Too bad that the two huge stuffed mussels, a tall small plate, are refrigerator-cold. The toast is merely sliced baguette, but it works, especially when dipped into the extraordinary olive oil, flavored with cumin and a fine black-olive soot. Cash only. 152 Metropolitan Avenue, Williamsburg, Brooklyn (718-599-3027).
An abandoned bank transformed into a quirky Moroccan speakeasy under the restaurant Marseille in Hell’s Kitchen? Why not? It’s real estate, a spot for Kemia Bar to show off Mediterranean snacks from $5 to $8. Warmed by an excellent martini (and mildly amused by a tart berry Cosmo) we’re sampling everything on the menu dreamed up by Marseille’s chef, Alex Urena, from a fine beet salad with pickled onions and goat cheese to eggplant purée and deep-fried briouats (stuffed savory pastries). Chicken tagine and lamb meatballs with apricot, onions, and couscous come entrée-size or small, but small is enough for two. 630 Ninth Avenue, entrance on 44th Street (212-582-3200).
Nostalgia led chef-owner Francesco Antonucci to put ten Venetian cichetti on a pedestal at Remi, and these small savories, traditionally dished up in the wine bars of Venice, are some of the best bites of that town. I knew I’d found my dream pretheater supper the night I first tasted the sweet-and-sour Dover sole, cod mousse, whitebait seviche, fried artichokes, marinated eggplant, meatballs, fried Parmesan, and more, each in small square dishes and enough for two to share ($12 per person). 145 West 53rd Street (212-581-4242).
Even though Park Slope’s Fifth Avenue has become a restaurant row, locals still line up to get at the sensational rustic tripe and the smart pastas at the no-reservation trattoria al di lá. That prompted Italian Emiliano Coppa and his chef wife, Anna Klinger, to set up the cash-only al di lá Vino, around the corner, with cichetti to calm snarling hungers. There are still kinks to work out—the night we went, a confused crew brought each dish two or three times. Still, it felt cozily small-town, as we sipped red wine at the bar and shared a half-dozen $3 and $4 plates, like sweet-and-sour cipolline onions, a few ribbons of red pepper, warm baby octopus, and some splendid sardines. 607 Carroll Street, Park Slope, Brooklyn (718-783-4565).
Kuma Inn, hidden away on the second story of a Ludlow Street walk-up, is worth the hunt for chef-owner King Phojanakong’s mostly wonderful Asian tapas at closeout prices ($2.50 to $10). There he is in the exposed kitchen, stirring up tricks learned from his Filipino mom, his Thai dad, and Daniel Boulud and David Bouley, with whom he prepped. Chinese sausage with Thai chili sauce, pan-roasted scallops, garlic rice, and salmon in a mirin glaze are musts. Cash only. 113 Ludlow Street (212-353-8866).
The best restaurant bars to snack at.
They say everything at the oenomaniacal Morrells Restaurant has wine as an ingredient, but I couldn’t swear that was Zinfandel in the ketchup. I was warmed and moved by a mellow Ridge Zinfandel, along with a caramelized onion tart, assortments of cheeses and charcuterie, and a heart attack on the plate: a Montasio cheese frico, the cheese melted to form a shell, served with fingerlings and leeks. The white-truffle cheeseburger was a reward for hanging out at the bar, as were the prices: $7 to $14. 900 Broadway, at 20th Street (212-253-0900); and at Rockefeller Center (212-262-7700).
As a West Sider of limitless faith, I waited a lifetime for ’Cesca, only to see it invaded by infidels from the East. But we stop in latish for spicy parmigiano fritters ($6) and the farro salad with endive, pignoli, and goat cheese ($8). High on a ’Cesca Negroni, I insist the waiter bring an antipasto favorite: veal meatballs and escarole in Parmesan brodo, for the best $8 you’ll spend in New York. If it’s Tuesday, I ask for the meatloaf and make an Atkins breakfast of the leftovers. 164 West 75th Street (212-787-6300).
By 1:30 or 2 p.m., you can almost always find a small oak table in the no-reservation bar room at Gramercy Tavern for an elegant, discounted lunch with the same good-natured and intelligent service, wines by the glass or the taste, and ample appetizers—$8.50 to $12. We shared marinated sardines with olive tapenade and the grilled baby octopus cleverly paired with fennel, lemon, and sweet-pepper caponata, followed by grilled scallops with roasted beets. 42 East 20th Street (212-477-0777).
Sexy spaces to grab a bite.
The keeper of the velvet rope at PM gives us the eye. No gold chains, spiked heels, bared midriffs, and, gasp, they’re over 50! “We’re here to taste Creole tapas,” I announce defiantly. Sheepishly, he lets us in, and why not? The Haitian lounge is nearly empty. Obviously, live Haitian drummers draw a late-night crowd. A panther disguised as a woman slinks over. “My name is Kiss,” she says, delivering stylish snacks ($8 to $15). The masala-lamb mini-crêpe, divided by four, and the single short rib on mashed plantain, plus warm sea bass with furled zuchini, leaves us primed for dinner. We drown our hunger in the first-rate $15 cocktails, spankingly tart with orchids afloat. 50 Gansevoort Street (212-255-6676).
Not enough fans of solid bistro food were beating down the doors at Django. The cure? Let the ground floor morph into a lounge. At 8 p.m., a beer-and-Cosmo-swilling mass of jabbering young suits (both sexes) claims every upholstered sofa and tuffet. We’re driven outside on a still-balmy autumn night to a hedge-framed alfresco annex for seriously good tapas and appetizers ($9 to $13), and for me, a life-extending German Pinot Noir. Django’s new chef does well with grilled baby back ribs, spicy Mediterranean dips to spread on herbed flatbread, and tuna tartare with green apple in yuzu. “It was great to be with you at Django last night,” writes my friend, the last of a vanishing species, in his very proper thank-you letter. “Call me again when you’re doing entrées.” 480 Lexington Avenue, at 46th Street (212-871-6600).