Once, tapas were cool. Ordering small plates was a sign of sophistication, suggesting you enjoyed the flavors of Spanish cuisine over good ol' American gluttony. You were smart, worldly and stylish.
That was in 2003. For at least the last year, we've had a good deal of tapas backlash, led by no other than New York Times restaurant critic Pete Wells, who complained that small-plate eating was being bastardized by American restaurants. And now comes the surest sign that the tapas trend has lost its cool factor: the small plate concept is being adapted by Olive Garden.
In an effort to boost sales and woo millennials to Olive Garden, that purveyor of endless soups and breadsticks, has announced that it will begin introducing small plates. Apparently, someone told Olive Garden execs that millennials like tapas. And Olive Garden, which has suffered financially in recent years, has become convinced that small plates could be a magic bullet that solves their woes.
According to a Bloomberg Businessweek report:
[Olive Garden] is introducing small plates, including Parmesan asparagus and grilled-chicken tapas....This amounts to a 180 degree turn for a chain that has long sold big portions to eaters who like a deal. It’s also trying out more small plate varieties such as garlic hummus, chicken meatballs and tortelloni stuffed with cheese.
Never mind the idea argument that diners at Olive Garden are not dining there to be on trend. Olive Garden's introduction of tapas comes a bit late. Back in 2003, a writer for LA Weekly rhapsodized how "along with the small plate, there comes a certain freedom." But then the Great Recession, and some people realized that tapas were just an excuse for charge a lot of money for not a lot of food. And some people like Wells, began to realize that logistical folly of tapas—everyone pretends not to be hungry (when they are) and everyones has, at some point, gone through the exhaustive "no, you should have it" dance for last
meatball albodinga. By the beginning of the new decade, years before the higher-ups at Olive Garden decided to shrink their portions, the tapas craze was starting to subside.
In fact, as Matt Yglesias points out at Slate, the same young people Olive Garden wants to court are diners that have already flocked to traditional Italian cooking: "Middle America is falling out of love with old-school plates of pasta," he writes, "so naturally foodies are rediscovering its joys" at restaurants like Parm in Greenwich Village.
Tapas tend to be the worst of all worlds. Nor do they fare well as dinner, as countless diners at restaurants like Chelsea's Txikito have discovered. In Spain, where dinner is eaten very late, tapas are meant to be snacks. In the United States, they are (unfairly) supposed to pass as a full meal. Given our appetites, small plates simply won't do.
Photos by Igor Dutina via Shutterstock.