“Group dining can be stressful, awkward and too damn quick” Nick Gibson, owner, The Drapers Arms
Settle down into your seat, lift the satisfyingly heavy cutlery off the thick, linen napkin onto the pristine white tablecloth and pop your napkin on your lap. Right, now the table is cleared for action and ready for lunch… no phones to be seen.
No not because they wouldn’t be safe, we aren’t in Hackney, just their distraction and use isn’t going to be required because we are having a proper lunch with its satisfying stages of three, preferably four, courses and accompanying wines; white then red. Properly paced, eating what we want and with the legs to last into late afternoon.
Quite apart from the sheer perfection of a meal that starts light and steps up in richness and weight with the conversation, winey fug and rising intimacy, the state of your appetite and the developing needs for texture, richness, acidity, flavour there isn’t much more satisfying and self-indulgent than actually putting yourself first for a change and ordering exactly what you want.
Yes, I am very happy for you to try mine, although probably best if I let you help yourself, and yes there is a nice little bond in ordering the same thing and grunting appreciatively in each other’s general direction as you wade through a solid steak and kidney pudding… but for the perfect lunch shouldn’t we just have what we want? Antipasti, primi (pasta of course) and grouse for me… two pasta’s for you you say… why ever not? Ordering done, conflict avoided, anticipation building… satisfaction guaranteed.
In contrast group dining with small plates can be stressful,uncomfortable, awkward and too damn quick and competitive. Things that have gone wrong for me with small-plates lunches in just the last couple of weeks:
• ‘The First Strike’: barely sat down “right let’s have the first four and last four from the special blackboard” when I wanted the middle three and some things from the main menu
• ‘The Unhappy Vegetarian’: ordering for a group of seven, some vegetarians, some vegetarians who might turn out to be fish eaters and a ‘vegetarian’ who piled into the meat dishes; being berated for the temerity of ordering a rose veal dish for the members of the group who fancied a little meat
• ‘The Unsharable Portion’: no explanation needed.
Then of course there is the twitching, trying not to look greedy, looking out of the corner of your eye at the state of play, monitoring what everyone else has had, hoping that no one has spotted that you have had slightly more than your fair share of your favourite thing that came in a tiny portion but are still determined to have your fair share of everything else, competitive, unrelaxed, nervous rush that is intrinsic to a group trying to share a small plates meal.
Trying to order a satisfying meal for a group from a sharing plates menu is, ultimately, too reminiscent of picking a video to watch from an old-school video shop; I wanted a drama, you wanted a comedy and I came home with Even Cowgirls Get the Blues… not a happy state of affairs.
Notwithstanding that… I often find myself looking at the starters list at The Drapers and wishing I had a dining companion so we could share them all, so do pop over, join me for lunch and make me eat my words.
“Sharing food is important in these increasingly selfish times” Ed Thaw, owner, Ellory
There’s this parable where heaven and hell are identical places with tables crammed with food and overly long chopsticks. In heaven everyone is happy and in hell everyone is miserable. The (clunky) pay-off is that in heaven everyone has learned to feed each other.
I’m reminded of this every time someone lays into ‘the sharing plate format’ which has become ‘increasingly fashionable’ these days. Critics, bloggers, Instagrammers all want to have a pop. So here’s my defence of this ‘trend’.
The vast majority of food on the planet is shared, and has always been shared, so really eating in a 1/2/3 format is anomalous, rather than the other way around. How many times do you end up having a bite of someone else’s food when you eat out? Pretty much every time. The same people who love Indian/Chinese/ Thai etc are suddenly unable to cope when the food is European. I don’t get it. I lived in Madrid and loved the social experience of eating. You can share a few plates with friends and try plenty of amazing food without breaking the bank.
I can see the frustrations. In London, in particular, it has become a way for some to charge you more for less and it can be really egregious to receive food in the wrong order. Personally with rising rents something has to give – portion size/ quality of ingredients/sale price of dish.
Why have we done it? We think it’s good for our customers. It’s still a luxury for many people to eat out. Keeping prices reasonable keep customers coming back. You can try more food and have a more varied meal and not spend too much because you share. I should say that we are not small plates. These are (barring the inevitable online comment) proper (not gastropub) portions. Mare Street is not Shoreditch and it’s definitely not Mayfair.
Sharing plates helps us keep costs down without compromising the quality of our ingredients. Staffing costs are as much of an issue as rent or cost of ingredients nowadays. On a recent visit to another Michelin-starred restaurant there were seven chefs in the kitchen. We would handle a similar level of business with three chefs. That makes a huge difference over the course of a year.
There’s also a bigger point about the importance of sharing in these increasingly selfish times of Trump and Brexit. There is enough thinking out there that says ’this is just for me’ and restaurants, as much as ever, are a place for different people to come together and share food. Most of our customers don’t seem to have a problem with eating in this way and we pay particular attention to make sure the meal flows by keeping the kitchen and floor to be in constant sync.
We’ve held a Michelin star for two years now while serving food in this format and Barrafina have done it for even longer, so clearly it is possible to do it well. To some it might seem like a trend but I’d argue its anything but. It’s how we’ve always eaten.
This article was first published in Issue 13 of CODE Quarterly.