I love the concept of tapas. Since dinner is served so late in Spain, tapas, a variety of small appetizers, serve to keep Spaniards from suffering from hunger bouts between work and dinner. What I love about tapas is that it allows people to eat a diversity of foods in one meal. One can reasonably eat four tapas for the price of one entrée.
In Spain, tapas precede dinner. But, I see no reason why tapas-style appetizers should not constitute dinner. Most entrees have diminishing returns. As you eat more of an entrée, that entrée becomes less pleasurable. Some of this can be attributed to decreased hunger but much of it can also be attributed to decreased novelty. The first taste of a delicious flavor does more for you than the 35th taste of that flavor (there, arguably, are exceptions: lobster may be one). The last bite of that steak or chicken is rarely as pleasurable as that first bite. Rich foods like creamy pastas tend to have significant diminishing returns. Anyone who has ever eaten penne alla vodka can attest to this. Moreover, one of the benefits of going out to eat at a restaurant is that the chefs cook for far more people (who have varying tastes) than you probably do at your home: as a result, its easier to order a variety of dishes than it is to cook a variety of dishes.
Accordingly, it seems clear that a variety of small appetizers provide for a more optimal dining experience than a single entrée, assuming that you have a taste for multiple items on the menu. So, why not just order multiple appetizers when you eat out at restaurants? Sometimes this works: In fact, I did just this the other day when taking advantage of a happy hour appetizer deal. But, much of the time, a restaurant’s best dishes are only served as entrees. This is why tapas in Spain are so excellent: The entire menu is made based on the tapas concept so you can eat the best dishes in smaller form. Unfortunately, this is not always the case: To get around this, of course, you could share entrees with your dining companions, which some people wisely do already. The fact is, though, that sharing is not a significant part of eating culture in the U.S and most people still go the less than optimal single entrée route.
Luckily, the idea of small plates in cuisines other than Spanish has been spreading. This 2007 New York Times article speculates about the demise of the entrée. This seems to be a more of a trend in cities like New York and San Francisco than a process that is actually going to lead to the entrée’s extinction. Fortunately, your individual behavior can reduce your suffering from the problem of diminishing returns: Depending on the restaurant’s menu, you should share entrees or order multiple appetizers instead of the entrée. Or, just consider the lobster.