restaurant worker serving a plate of food

If your restaurant is serving up dishes that are meant to be shared, or mini versions of popular menu items (think sliders!), you’ve already become part of the small plates trend. Small plates restaurants take this idea to the next level, exclusively offering shareable portions that give customers a chance to sample more items on your menu while also giving chefs more creative culinary freedom.

The National Restaurant Association’s What’s Hot 2018 Culinary Forecast listed small-plate menus as the fourth biggest restaurant concept trend of the year – and it’s not expected to change anytime soon.

Of course, this type of dining has been around in other cultures forever. “Tapas entertainment has been popular in Spain for centuries. Finger foods designed for nibbling while socializing, tapas meals were usually served between 9 p.m. and 11 p.m. and often accompanied by wine or other spirits,” explains GourmetMarketing.net. Today, you can search any local restaurant site and find listings for tapas or small plate restaurants.

So what is it that’s making diners flock to small plate restaurants? The answer is multifaceted, but it includes the lack of risk, allowing guests to indulge in a fun sharing experience, the ability to try several different flavors for less, and ordering a social media-friendly plate. Take a closer look at the small plates concept to see why it’s a dish worth trying.

Woman in a restaurant picking her meal from a great menu

Guests Get to Dine Like Food Critics

A recent New York Times article attributes the small plates trend to diners becoming more adventurous. “Savvy diners came to understand that the appetizer section was where chefs often took the most risks, so they began to order starters en masse, to share among the table… This sensibility led to the rise of small plates meant to be shared.”

Add to that the fact that every culinary competition show features judges sampling fascinating food creations, and it’s no wonder that restaurant-goers want to try everything, too. “The days of giant steaks and big fish are done. It’s now one bite of this, one bite of that. I can’t get three bites into something before I’m like, ‘What’s next?’” said Brian Malarkey, a Top Chef finalist, in Restaurant Hospitality.

Small Plates Eliminate Risk

Whether at a favorite restaurant or trying out a new spot, whenever guests are trying a new dish there is always some sort of risk involved. “Will I like it?” “Will it be as good as the other dish I typically get?” Think about it: there’s nothing more frustrating than ordering an expensive main dish that doesn’t meet your expectations.

Reducing the risk of disappointment is a major reason for the rise in popularity for small plates menus. There is a big appeal in getting to try new things without making a major commitment – and if you don’t care for something, your dining companions won’t let it go to waste. Plus, small plates are probably the most affordable way to experience a variety of tastes and discover new cuisines, making it a big hit with millennials and younger diners.

Interested in learning more about menu design? Check out our guide.

Dining Gets Even More Social

Small plates layer on top of another major industry trend – sharing meals. One of the facets that has played into the success of small plates restaurants is the sharing experience. Not only are these dishes easier on the wallet, guests can easily combine a few plates to create a diverse, well-rounded meal. For millennials, this is especially attractive as this generation seeks more adventurous interactions with food and beverages than previous generations. It’s not surprising that even major chains such as Starbucks, TGI Fridays, and Olive Garden have evolved their menus to leverage this new dining experience.

Smaller Plates, Fewer Calories

Smaller plates mean smaller portions. For many guests, smaller portions translates to a healthier option with fewer calories. Many say small plates menus make them feel less guilty than purchasing full-sized entrees or desserts. In fact, sampling trays have grown in popularity. For example, instead of getting one large dessert, guests could enjoy several different flavors of mini cupcakes, experiencing a new flavor in each bite.

Small Plates are Insta-Worthy

Small plates menus also have appeal with this generation of photo-taking diners, says the New York Times. “It’s also a party fueled by social media, especially on Yelp, the user-review site, and Instagram, where self-appointed influencers soon learned that shared plates translated into more photo ops.”

That’s because small plate menus are big on presentation, often served on interesting plates and platters, and accompanied with colorful dips and sauces. And when you have a few of them on one table, it makes for a delicious-looking Instagram photo.

a tasting of small finger cakes on a plate, one vanilla and one chocolate

Making the Small Plates Concept Work for You

If you want to give small plates a go at your eatery, here are some guidelines to keep in mind, as adapted from RestaurantBusinessOnline.com:

Make sure your small plates are visually appealing. Remember, not only should they look appetizing to guests, but you want to motivate people to take photos and share to their social networks.

  • Use on-trend ingredients. From artisanal toast with gourmet toppings and spreads to seasonal flavors, utilize ingredients that make your small plates profitable, pretty, and palate-pleasing.
  • Scale down your popular menu items. This allows customers to sample your bestsellers so they might go for the full-sized version on their next visit.
  • Showcase your small plates as a special. If you don’t want to go all in right away, try offering a small plates sampler on your weeknight menu to draw in diners that might be new to your establishment.
  • Market your small plates as a luxury tasting menu. On the other hand, you might want to showcase more upscale and elite ingredients such as sushi grade tuna, wagyu beef, or specialty razor clams. By offering it as a small plate option, you can keep prices reasonable and guests will be more willing to try more eclectic dishes.
  • Make sure dishes are easily shareable. Whether you’re serving a piece of meat or a flatbread, it must be sliced or cut into bite-sized pieces so guests don’t have to do the messy carving themselves. And be sure to provide the appropriate serving utensils for each dish.

Are You Ready to Try Small Plates?

Millennials are changing the dining landscape. To stay relevant with these customers, it is absolutely imperative to adapt to the changing preferences of upcoming generations. Upserve makes it easy to understand which menu items are the highest performing on your menu so you can make the most of them and maximize profits. 

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Written by   |  
Dawn Papandrea is freelance writer based in New York. Her work has appeared in numerous publications including Family Circle, WomansDay.com, and more. She loves trying new restaurants with her family and friends in her spare time.