Diners who have a hard time deciding from among two or three entrees, all of which sound delicious, now have better options. Many of St. Louis’ most creative restaurants are embracing the ‘small-plates’ trend by featuring items that are larger than an appetizer but not as big as an entrée.

“Small plates have been around in Europe for a long time—in Spain, for example, where dinner hour is at 10 p.m., diners need a little something to tide them over after work, and that’s how tapas came about,” says Frank Schmitz, owner of Barcelona Tapas in Clayton. The custom has caught on in the states over the last 10 years or so. “More local restaurants are starting to take an ‘a little of this, a little of that’ approach.”

Small plates allow restaurants to meet the growing demand for smaller portions while also keeping their entrees the same size, to please traditional ‘steak and potato’ diners who expect to see a lot of food on the plate. “But, recognizing that American appetites tend to be heartier, our small plates are a bit larger than the ones popular in Europe,” Schmitz says. “We’ll serve three tiny lamb chops in a Rioja reduction, for example, instead of the one chop you’d likely get in a Spanish bodega.”

The most popular small plates at Barcelona Tapas include baked goat cheese with marinara sauce; thinly shaved Serrano ham; fresh white anchovies marinated in vinaigrette; and pinchos, skewers of grilled meat, fish or pork. “Not only are smaller portions healthier, they encourage sophisticated diners to be adventurous and sample dishes they wouldn’t necessarily commit to in larger portions,” says Schmitz, who also owns a tapas restaurant in Indiana and will soon open one in downtown Nashville. “They’re more economical, too: Instead of a $30 entree, you can put a light meal together for $15 or $20.”

Steve Komorek, chef/owner of Trattoria Marcella, says his diners have long recognized the joys of mixing small orders. “Long before it was trendy, our guests would make a meal of our fritto misto-flash-fried calamari and spinach—or housemade toasted ravioli and a salad.” Lately, mixing and matching appetizers has become so popular that, nine months ago, Komorek changed a category on his menu from ‘antipasto’ to ‘trattoria plates.’ “You can choose from several, and we highlight a different one every night.”

Choices include crostini with cotechino sausage, fontina cheese and sweet pickled peppers; roasted wild mushrooms and polenta fries in Marsala and gorgonzola sauce; and Sicilian tuna meatballs with golden raisins, capers and cinnamon in a sweet-and-sour sauce. “The portions are smaller than an entree, but still satisfying,” Komorek says. “People love to share plates with their friends, or make a light meal with a small plate and a salad.”

Komorek says the trend toward smaller plates has nothing to do with the economy or health consciousness. “It’s all about the adventure and excitement of sampling a variety of flavors, instead of sitting down to a giant steak or big piece of fish.”

Gerard Craft, chef/owner of Niche and Taste by Niche, agrees that small plates are a passport to culinary adventure. “They give diners a chance to try something they might ordinarily be scared to try—like lamb testicles!” he says. The trend has grown so popular that the menu of Taste, next door to Niche, is entirely devoted to snacks, small plates and cocktails. “It’s a relaxed, super-casual way of dining, whether you’re building a meal out of, say, an octopus salad and some spicy pork meatballs, or maybe just having a drink and a little snack while you’re waiting for a table at Niche.”

The menu at Taste changes frequently, but the most popular small plate is gnocchi. “Whenever we have it, it’s always a huge seller, whether we do it with arugula and almond pesto or a braised rabbit ragu,” Craft says. Diners like having options, and small plates are all about choice: “It’s not a replacement for a full, three- or four-course meal, but an alternative that suits the way most of us live now.”

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