The creators of Portlandia weren’t shy about poking fun at evolving restaurant culture. In the premiere of the second season, a ravenous Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein seek out a simple burger at Around The World in 80 Plates. “Have you guys eaten with us before?” the over-enthusiastic server asks. “Oh, you haven’t? All right, let me walk you through the menu. We do things a little different here. A little quirky. A little fun.”
It’s a sermon District diners have heard on repeat as area restaurants increasingly swap out classic menus of appetizers and entrées for small plates or share plates. As a barometer, Washingtonian’s 2019 “100 Very Best Restaurants” had an even split between restaurants that honor the entrée versus those with alternative dining formats such as small plates or tasting menus.
Building a meal out of small plates comes with perks for the diner, the biggest being variety. But subsist on entrées for a week and you might come to the same conclusion: If a small plate is a snappy summer pop song that holds surprises, an entrée is a classic rock anthem you can count on.
Fortunately, a strong contingent of D.C. restaurants excel at cooking full plates. Some chefs find composing entrées especially satisfying. Meanwhile, the restaurateurs that back them are grasping at what’s resonating with customers at a time when dining in the District feels particularly expensive. Some operators can even speak to the business implications that come from sticking with what was once the status quo.
“It’s very cool right now and a lot of people are doing small plates, but I’m still drawn to entrées,” says The Salt Line Executive Chef Kyle Bailey. He recommends his squid ink tagliatelle with oil-poached squid, tentacle sugo, smoked mussels, fermented fresno mash, fennel, and Parmesan. “I love entrée pastas,” Bailey continues. “It hits that reptile part of your brain. It’s something very satisfying and homey.”
Entrées potentially bring diners comfort because they remind people of how they ate growing up. Mom wasn’t sending food out of the kitchen three bites at a time. But that doesn’t mean what’s familiar is easy.
“It’s really hard,” Bailey says. “That’s why you see a lot of restaurants having appetizers that are so cool and really interesting but with the entrées, you’re like, ‘Oh man, they fall short.’ It’s difficult to compose a full entrée and make it a shining star.” He ticks off components of a typical entrée: protein, vegetable, sauce, and starch. “With small plates, you don’t need as much and it still looks good on a plate.”
Bailey also favors the tradition of thoughtfully coursing a meal. When a team of cooks and servers harmonizes, guests get to enjoy the rhythm of a three- or four-part meal. He says a number of food critics have bemoaned the service style where small plates come out as they’re ready regardless of who ordered them or how many plates crowd the table at once.
Even though Chez Billy Sud has white tablecloths, co-owner Clementine Thomas believes customers come to the French restaurant for comfort food, echoing Bailey. “Having entrées really helps with that,” she says. “Sometimes diners want simple, they want their own dish that they don’t have to share.” Herself included. “If I’m at the end of a long day, I want to have wine and a big delicious entrée all to myself.”
Thomas believes serving entrées helps control food costs. “It’s very predictable,” she says. “We have a good sense of what the average check is going to look like. Most people do all three courses.” Thomas also says it makes service less intrusive. “We’re able to interact with people as needed,” she says. “You don’t have to stand at the table and give the whole 20-minute spiel about how you interact with the food.”
Fellow French restaurant Convivial started out serving medium plates when it opened in 2015. But then Chef Cedric Maupillier reverted back to “regular-sized” plates. “People were confused,” he says, noting many of his regulars from Mintwood Place followed his trail to his new restaurant expecting a similar experience. “I didn’t want to alienate them, so I shifted back.”
When some diners book a reservation at a French restaurant they have certain expectations, according to Maupillier. “Older people, they grew up on Julia Child and Jacques Pépin,” he says. “They know French food. Most of them that come to my restaurant have been to Europe and bistros before.”
The best entrées on Convivial’s menu are the ones Maupillier built from memory such as the bouillabaisse that reminds him of growing up in Toulon and La Seyne-sur-Mer, France, or the choucroute garnie Alsacienne that features various sausages, pork loin, and pork belly nestled atop sauerkraut. “My grandmother traveled to Alsace regularly and enjoyed the dish immensely,” he says.
Maupillier doesn’t mean to dissuade people from sharing at his restaurant. “When you have a big plate, you can actually share it,” he says. “There’s more food to be shared … Small plates are frustrating when you receive not enough food for a table of four to all have a good bite.”
“I have some friends that I go out to eat with and I have to eat the first bite or they’ll eat the whole fucking thing,” says Michael Schlow. Even restaurateurs have to act fast to snap up food at small plates spots.
Schlow has both types of restaurants in his portfolio. Tico offers Latin small plates, while The Riggsby serves an array of nostalgic entrées reminiscent of continental cuisine including the Australian lamb chop with harissa, chimichurri, tzatziki, and pearl couscous. “As a kid we had rack of lamb with breadcrumbs and mustard,” Schlow says. “The team said, ‘How can we take this dish and put a personal twist on it?’”
In showcasing entrées, The Riggsby must be more mindful about profit margins. “There’s a greater margin of error on protein cost and portioning,” Schlow explains. “If you say a steak is 9 ounces or 12 ounces and it’s really 13 or 14 ounces, every ounce starts to add up.”
Schlow points out potential stumbling blocks at small plates restaurants, too. He is averse to servers recommending how many plates per person a group should order, for example. It’s not fun to have your appetite sized up, nor is it welcoming to feel like you’re getting an immediate upsell.
He also believes patrons are catching on to how quickly small plates can add up. “With appetizers and entrées, it’s an easier and quicker calculation—$14 appetizer, $28 entrée, I know I’m spending about $40,” he says. “When I get into small plates restaurants, it’s ‘Oh shit! I just spent $60.’”
Another Portlandia sketch satirizes how settling up grows more complicated with small plates. In season three, episode four, Nina celebrates her 32nd birthday at a tapas restaurant. When it comes time to pay, the large party calls in an expert whose job it is to divvy up complicated checks across town. The savior works out who drank and who’s a vegetarian before assigning totals.
Like Schlow, Neighborhood Restaurant Group Operations Director Erik Bergman handles both genres of restaurants. While Hazel and Iron Gate offer sharable mezze, Birch & Barley has always served appetizers and entrées, even as the baton has passed from chef to chef over the course of a decade. Newly appointed Jarrad Silver’s top entrée features Rohan duck breast with confit duck fritters, green hummus, and marcona almonds.
Bergman says they make the call based on who’s dining. “A restaurant like Birch has always attracted a lot of visitors to the city,” he says. “That signals a desire for more traditional dining. When I was the general manager there I had guests ask if entrées come with side salads.”
His other goal is to present a menu that people can easily interpret. “Gone are the days of the two-minute spiel,” Bergman says, though the trend drags on. “We’re hyper-aware of that mostly because we were some of the worst offenders at times, even at Birch.”
With more restaurants to choose from than ever, Bergman believes diners are more discerning when it comes to perceived value. They might not return to a restaurant that served a meal they didn’t deem worth the money. “We’re constantly trying to take ourselves out of restaurateur shoes and say, ‘How do I read this as the average diner coming to the restaurant?’”
He explains the psychology behind designing a menu. “If the price range is $6 to $15 for the appetizer section and you put on an $18 item in the same section, most diners will see that as a more expensive section even though you have a $6 item on there,” he says.
Diners are more forgiving with creeping appetizer prices than entrée prices, where $30 continues to be the sticky point—the line restaurants feel they can’t cross without landing in a different price bracket in diners’ minds. “You’re going to sell more of your $24 to $26 entrées, but you need to have an $18 entrée to communicate value whether that’s a vegetarian dish or pasta. That does a huge amount to convey to the diner that you’re listening to them and are trying to build value for them.”
Primrose Executive Chef Jon De Paz also emphasizes the importance of communicating value and suggests entrées do so more effectively. He recommends the branzino that’s currently on the menu. It’s roasted and served with radishes, brown butter, and his take on sauce persillade that’s reminiscent of chimichurri.
“[Entrées] make it seem like it’s more [food] as opposed to these small plates where you feel like you’re being robbed at times,” De Paz says. “If you do a bunch of these small things, it only makes sense if it’s a tasting menu that’s all encapsulated in one price. A la carte, it’s hit or miss.”
He worries too many restaurateurs lean on the small plates format to compensate for market forces such as increased competition.
“Sometimes you can feel the saturation,” De Paz continues. “You have an abundance of restaurants. The quantity of cooks is low. [Operators] are trying to figure out ways to make their businesses run and turning away from why we’re in this industry. You can tell by all these restaurants doing the same thing. They come out with an array of small plates that don’t make sense and they’ll charge you an entrée price for them. Because they can.”