BACK WHEN RESTAURATEUR Johnathan Sundstrom ate in restaurants—I mean ones besides his own, Lark and Licorous —he discovered that he and his friends almost always ate better off the left side of the menu. More of the chef’s verve typically showed up on the appetizer list. Smaller plates meant more variety, more fun. So when he opened Lark in 2003, he didn’t give its menu a right side. And with that—Seattle’s small-plate dining scene was born.
In reality, of course, it wasn’t born then at all, as anyone knows who has eaten Spanish tapas, like at the stunning Harvest Vine. Or Japanese izakaya, Turkish meze, or Chinese dim sum. Small plate dining was reborn—to Sundstrom’s profoundly Northwestern specs.
Now, all over town, a perfect storm of cultural influences conspires to boost the appeal of a movement that’s clearly here to stay. The recession-wrought ubiquity of happy hours. A new anticonsumerist streak, inclining us to both spend and eat less. An emotional need, say menu trend watchers, to graze in a way that reinforces old-fashioned values like sharing and community. And—restaurateurs grimly report—soaring numbers of folks with strictly tailored eating habits, from the gluten and lactose intolerant to our modern-day ascetics, the vegans.
Restaurateurs have responded with all manner of accommodations, from a la carte menus to dishes that come sized small or large, as Maria Hines does so winningly at Tilth. “It’s the new norm,” declares Scott Carsberg, who last spring transformed his highest-of-the-high-end temple of haute cuisine Lampreia into Bisato, a casual drop-in cicchetti bar where no small plate costs more than $12.
“Diners are getting all the same quality, but not that old formality,” Carsberg explains. “All the ‘tricks,’ but no longer paying $120 for them.” And Carsberg’s fabled culinary intensity—two spoon-tender lamb chops swathed in potent, pitch-perfect wine must; a brick of polenta topped with a delectable crust of concentrated meat ragù—turns out to be ideally suited to the distilled compositions of flavor small plates showcase.
NEXT: THE ROVING RESTAURANT