Just Because the Menu Is Meant To Be Shared, Doesn’t Mean You Have To

You know it's coming when the server says, "Have you dined with us before?"

A group of friends sharing plates at a restaurant

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“Let me tell you a little bit about how we do things here,” the server intones. I hold my breath, waiting for them to recite a mantra that I can barely remember not hearing at the beginning of a meal in New York City, Los Angeles, or Boston. “Everything here is meant to be shared. For a group of four, we’d recommend ordering between 8 and 12 dishes.” 

There are a lot of important cultural touch points for shared plates around the world. In Lebanon, Greece, and many other Mediterranean and Middle Eastern countries it’s the mezze; in Spain, it’s tapas. During my summers spent in Istanbul while growing up, I relished the tradition of dipping a scraggly piece of pide into a bowl of taramasalata, and then chasing that bite down with pickled green beans and a grilled lamb meatball. The spirit of mixing flavors and textures from a mezze platter makes for a joyful, convivial experience, especially in the context of sipping a glass of iced tea or a vermouth spritz al fresco. 

But after the third night in a row eating half of a morsel of fried mackerel, a quarter of that meatball, and a polite, but ultimately unsatisfying spoonful of gnocchi, I can’t help but – albeit with some shame and embarrassment — find myself lusting after the experience of a composed entrée, sides and all, for me and me alone. Call it suburban Cheesecake Factory envy, if you will, or a bout of selfishness.

To be clear, I’m excited to share plates and create my own adventure at a restaurant I’m visiting on vacation, or one with a particularly large, enticing menu. “You’ve made your reservation a month in advance and you’re excited to visit FIG for the first time,” explains Mike Lata, who owns Charleston’s iconic restaurants FIG and The Ordinary. “To order one appetizer and one entree won’t give you the full picture of the menu.” 

Unsurprisingly, Lata’s spots do a particularly excellent job of celebrating the shared plate with portioning and plating that leaves diners, myself included, happy, curious, and satiated — but that’s not necessarily the norm everywhere else. If you’ve ever personally experienced the horrors of shared soup, as in a bowl of French onion soup that is somehow meant to be enjoyed among three or four people, you know exactly what I’m talking about.  “Last night, some pals and I split oysters, moules frites, bread for the broth, a salad, popcorn shrimp, and some tacos. All easy to split and have more than one bite of a dish,” Queens-based food writer Max Falkowitz tells me. “It was the kind of effortless 'share plates' that I long for.” 

Maybe then it’s the all-too-familiar scenario of the buzzy wine bar, where a $22 plate with three poached scallops — meant to go around for a table of four — that’s to blame for my frustration. Saying a plate can be shared doesn’t mean it should be shared, and there are circumstances in which doing so actually makes the entire dining experience worse. I’m sure I’m not alone in recalling how during much of the pandemic, it felt downright daring to eat off of a communal plate and if you happened to be in the habit of casually double-dipping pre-2020, COVID probably forced you to do some real reflection at the table. “I think there are many who don’t like eating off of shared plates in this new post-pandemic world,” Lata admits. “If you’re eating with someone you don’t know as well, you might want your own dish.” 

Even still, I can’t help but feel like the decision not to share is perceived by many as conspicuously antisocial and high-maintenance, requiring some kind of explanation or apology. You’re going out with people you’ve consciously chosen to spend your free time with, you’re sharing your conversation and a bottle of Chablis — do you really want to be the person who orders your own plate of Cacio e Pepe

Allergies and aversions further complicate things. If you’re dining out with someone with a gluten intolerance, or a friend who’s newly pregnant and is avoiding cured meat and raw fish (or both), the choice not to share can be liberating for everyone involved. No one has to feel any guilt for asking companions to enjoy the asparagus without the garlicky yogurt sauce or breadcrumbs it was meant to be served with, and they don’t have to worry about cross-contamination from an erstwhile fork or spoon dipped in something that they can’t eat. 

“There are snacks or pintxos that we offer, like our gildas or Croquetas, that are served on a shared dish that people pass around, but individually take and eat their own piece,” says chef Ryan Barlow of Ernesto’s, a Basque restaurant on New York City’s Lower East side. “That way, diners eat their own pintxo, without needing to double dip with forks. But if diners prefer not to share, they don’t have to, and we hope the menu allows for that experience as well. I personally don’t always want to share either!”

It’s not that I’m surprised or outraged when I sit down to dinner and find that the menu has eight shareable plates of questionable size and just one $48 main dish that happens to be a whole fish, bones and all. It’s that on some nights, more and more, my version of self-care (or self-preservation) looks like my very own plate of lobster ravioli that comes with its own side of sautéed greens, freeing me from the mental and social calculus of splitting portions and the like. That being said: I’ll share dessert. I will always, always share dessert.  

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