Take a look at any modern restaurant menu and it’s clear: this isn’t your grandmother’s dining experience anymore.
Especially in the dining mecca that is New Jersey, gone are the days when just soup, salad and a plate of wings were listed as appetizers while entrees took center stage. Now at many contemporary eateries, appetizers and small plates are stealing the show when it comes to creativity and sheer number of options.
So what’s caused this change? According to restaurant owners across the Garden State, it’s about the consumer. These days, we’re looking for more imagination, more choices, more cuisines and more socialization.
Small plate, big possibilities
De Martino: A Latin Restaurant in Somerville, which was recently renamed from De Martino: A Cuban Restaurant due to its fusion nature, has an ever-growing appetizer and small plate menu. Usually, it has between 12 to 15 options, as well as eight to 10 large plates, which includes a frequently changing selection of specials.
When executive chef and owner Martino Linares opened De Martino in 2019, he incorporated some of the traditional small plates that had been served at his father’s iconic 30-year-old Somerville restaurant, Martino’s Cuban Restaurant, which closed a few months before De Martino’s opening.
But as time passed, he was able to follow his goal to get more creative and elevate classic Latin dishes with fusion elements as his clientele understood the two restaurants were not the same.
“When we first opened the restaurant, I was trying to keep some of the traditional small plates but also adding a few twists,” Linares said. “Little by little, the goal was always to create fun appetizers and small plates, and that’s what we’re gearing towards.”
Some of those have included coffee-rubbed pork belly with apple and fennel slaw, coconut mojito vinaigrette and pickled red onions; beignet-style chorizo and Manchego cheese corn fritters; a pork- and Manchego-filled tamale topped with green mole, sweet peas and tomatillo; and oxtail marmalade with julienned collard greens, bone marrow whipped butter and toast.
The size of a small plate allows Linares to be more creative than he could with a large plate, he said.
“When you’re creating a small plate, you don’t have to think about how many components you have to put on the plate,” he said. With the large plate, you have to have a protein, a vegetable, and maybe a starch and a sauce.”
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Take the coffee-rubbed pork belly, for example. The rich dish would be too intense as a large plate, but as a small plate, it’s a powerful bite to start a meal.
‘Too much eye candy on our menu to pass up’
With a smorgasbord of small plates and appetizers at diners’ fingertips, there’s no more antagonizing decision of what to order for dinner. Instead, they can have it all.
At Barrio Costero, they do. About half of all customers skip the Asbury Park Latin restaurant’s “las otras” (large plates, which translates to “the other”). They choose to order tacos and tons of selections from “botanas” (smaller dishes).
Some of the botanas have included tofu steak and smoked bacon belly tacos. Tacos as well are set up appetizer-style – they do not include rice, beans or other sides. Instead, the three or four tacos are meant to be shared.
“What’s great about sharing plates is you don’t have to do the typical ‘Here’s my appetizer, my entrée and my dessert.’ Here, you can try everything,” said Pat Pipi, creative director of Cul+ure Collective, which owns Barrio Costero. “There’s too much eye candy on our menu to pass up.”
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Pipi sees the model as ideal for a happening city like Asbury Park, which is filled with tons of bars, restaurants, interesting hangouts and, of course, the beach.
“Sometimes you go out to dinner and you’re knocked out and your night’s done. When you’re in a shore town or an area with multiple destinations, being able to make multiple stops along the way is the way some people, including myself, like to dine,” Pipi said.
“There are so many different restaurant options so this way, you can hop around, try different cocktails and get these smaller plates along the way,” he added. “You’re getting the experience without having to commit to two-and-a-half hours and maybe you order the wrong thing. If you can order five things, that’s playing it safe.”
No committing to cuisine
Christine Zubris is the owner of Versi Vino, a wine bar and restaurant in Maple Shade. The eatery has a little bit of it all from around the world – as long as the dish complements wine.
She sees it as the perfect way to reflect on today’s food obsession. Twenty years ago, she remembers seeing only one or two cooking shows on television. Now, food-focused shows have their own channels, and the trends are even more obvious on social media.
“My feeds are filled with people cooking in videos,” she said. “You watch them and you think, ‘I would like to try that Asian dish or Italian dish or Greek dish.’ ”
That’s what visitors do at Versi Vino, too. They use the small plate and appetizer-focused concept to try various cuisines. Here, there’s no need to stick to one for the night.
The menu includes everything from cauliflower tacos al pastor; to seared sea scallops with grilled baby bok choy and yuzu kosho crema; to wagyu meatballs stuffed with mozzarella and San Marzano tomatoes.
The one-year-old restaurant’s clientele are taking advantage of their trip around the world. Zubris said that 70% of customers stick to the dozen small plate options, rather from ordering from the four-option large plate menu. Recently, Zubris even added more small plate options once she discovered how much guests were loving the concept.
“I don’t think people are going out to get a big plate of pasta to make sure they can take leftovers home with them so they have food for the week,” Zubris said. “I think they’re dining out to really enjoy cuisines and try a lot of different items on a menu.”
An ideal way to dine and socialize
With a dining room, bar, two private spaces, lounge, and three levels of outdoor seating accompanied by a firepit and a fountain, Faubourg in Montclair lends itself to group dining. The brasserie-style restaurant offers French cuisine, oysters, seafood, a wood-burning grill and other dishes from around the world.
Faubourg’s menu usually includes about eight small plates, eight appetizers, seven entrees and five additional entrees cooked on the wood-burning grill.
Although the small plate and appetizer lists are lengthy, owners Dominique Paulin and Olivier Muller said that 95% of guests order entrees in addition to small plates and appetizers. However, the small plate and appetizer selections lend themselves to the social nature of the restaurant, and they’re common for large groups.
“The menu was purposely designed this way,” Muller said. “If you sit down with a bunch of friends, by the time the server comes you haven’t even looked at the menu yet. You’re happy to see each other, you’re having conversations. But if you have those small plates there, I think it’s a good way to start the meal.”
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Muller said that sometimes, guests don’t even look at the menu – they’ll simply order two of everything for a large party.
“Then, they have time to look at their menu, take their time and they don’t feel rushed that they have to order food,” Muller said. “People like to have a little something to nibble on first.”
Jenna Intersimone has been a staff member at the USA Today Network New Jersey since 2014, after becoming a blogger-turned-reporter following the creation of her award-winning travel blog. To get unlimited access to her stories about food, drink and fun, please subscribe or activate your digital account today. Contact: JIntersimone@Gannett.com or @JIntersimone.