Consider the Appetizer… Or the Lobster

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.


6 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Jane on June 25, 2009 at 9:42 PM

    I feel like we share a life-vibe, Josh P.

    I.e., 1) on Tuesday Eileen and I were downtown after my visa-minus-passport fiasco and set a date to return next week to Emilio’s, for tapas, and 2) i am presently finishing up Ferris’ laugher, Then We Came to the End, in which one of the cubiclers, pre-dot com bubble burst, shuts himself away during lunch hour with some penne alla vodka

    I am sorry these fantastic connections are only peripherally related to your post. Still, coincidence? Sir, I think not.


  2. Posted by Dan on June 26, 2009 at 2:18 AM

    the problem with sharing an entree is the problem with sharing period …

    when i share i worry about getting my fair share and i eat quickly to ensure that i get the appropriate amount, which means i am not savoring or enjoying. the solution is (of course) to divide up the shared entree a priori …but suggesting as such would seem to violate the social norms involved in sharing ….


    • Posted by Josh on June 26, 2009 at 11:34 AM

      It does depend on the type of cuisine but for many foods (especially with 2 people), I can’t think of any social norm against splitting in the beginning of the meal. Especially for a meat dish like a fish or a steak, it is fairly common to cut the meat in half.

      Even when we do share without dividing in the beginning, I just don’t think the costs of not getting exactly the right portion come close to outweighing the benefits of a diverse plate.


  3. It’s interesting that the small plates concept seems to be catching on (so far) only in fairly pricey restaurants. Of course, many less-expensive cuisines have already been allowing intra-meal-food-diversity via buffets, family style, and (of course) dim sum. But I think it will be interesting to see whether, for example, less chic and pricey places start doing the small plate thing. I hope it’s a revolution, not just a niche, but I don’t know.

    Are there economies of scale to making a big plate instead of a bunch of little ones? I can think of a few areas: the extra plates themselves (and maybe silverware too); washing all those; keeping track of and correctly timing more dishes; the labor in plating; and making some items smaller (e.g. a small tart a quarter the size of a big tart may take half as much effort to make as the big tart because you still have to mold the crust into the dish, etc.). Perhaps those aren’t inevitable, but they may explain the dominance of the entrée model more. (Compare buffets, which obviously reduce costs for the restaurant.)

    Or do restauranteurs think that getting one bad dish out of four will ruin a customer’s perception of the restaurant, even if the other three are good? In that case, it would make more sense to go with an entrée model – if a quarter of your customer-dish matches will be unsatisfying and leave the customer disliking your restaurant then with the entrée model, one of four customers will leave disliking your restaurant but with the tapas model many more will.


  4. Posted by Tim on June 29, 2009 at 9:56 PM

    I think this should also have the tag: generalizations of otherwise idiosyncratic preferences


  5. Posted by matea on June 23, 2010 at 6:50 AM

    sorry for interrupting disscussion but i would really like to know where did u get that lobster photo? tnx!


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