Grin and share it: the small plate scene

We’ve been investigating our patch’s game when it comes to feasting tapas style. Sure, sharing food is a contentious issue, but even Joey Tribbiani has to admit these local hangouts make it pretty tempting…

The emergence of tapas on our isle changed the way we eat. Nowadays transcending the constraints of traditional Spanish fare, these little dishes have taken on a life of their own and transformed many mealtimes into something altogether more social.

While, for some Moaning Martins there are drawbacks to the whole small plate thing – more decision making, having to share with greedy mates, and sometimes bigger bills thanks to multiple dishes – most of us can’t get enough. And for good reason – we have a pretty belting offering of food-to-share on this patch.

Bar44 is one of the joints knocking out tapas in the true Spanish style – albeit with a modern (and up-market) twist. You’ll find seasonally changing plates alongside the core staples that you’d expect in a neighbourhood bar in Spain – think boquerones, jamón croquetas and Padron peppers – but with a more chilled atmosphere and elegant surroundings. Housed in a former bank, this place sure has some classy feels, but without compromising on those Spanish vibes – spot the cured meats and dried chillies hanging out against old-school metro tiles.

Pata Negra is another local Spanish hideout and last year underwent a bit of a makeover, inspired by the bustling bars in the south of the country. The bar area was extended to create seating at the new open kitchen, so diners can watch their food being made. If you’re feeling a bit overwhelmed by the choice, go for the sharing feast, which is £25 per person and promises a spread of dishes from right across the menu.

Seafood is the star at Wapping Wharf tapas joint Gambas. Focusing on market fish and seafood, the Spanish-style menu follows the ebb and flow of the ocean’s bounty, meaning that dishes change up daily.

Not all tapas is Spanish nowadays, of course. But back in ye olde days – or, you know, the noughties – the phrase ‘British tapas’ just didn’t exist. This is something that Poco – which specialises in this kind of food – realised, after opening its doors back in 2011. “It caused confusion in our early days,” says co-founder, Ben Pryor. “People had a pretty fixed idea of what ‘tapas’ was, but we definitely weren’t just bravas and Iberico ham!”

Indeed not. Now a nationally known restaurant with inspirational ethical credentials (it was just given Hall of Fame status by the Sustainable Restaurant Association) and a host of awards, Poco cooks local ingredients in rhythm with the seasons – expect the likes of venison with roast plum, and heritage beetroot with smoked walnut. At its heart, though, is that sharing mentality.

“I feel like the rise of small plate restaurants is symptomatic of a broader cultural shift in our society; there’s something really youthful and dynamic about it,” says Ben. “It represents a shift away from the traditional and speaks of closer connection to our European neighbours. (Ironic though that may sound!)”

A similar European-style mentality can be said of Muiño on Cotham Hill. Its menu clings to tapas roots, while experimenting with dishes inspired by other Mediterranean regions. This creates a menu where Galacian octopus stew and sherry-braised pig cheeks buddy up with lamb meatball tagine and Syrian lentils with yoghurt and chilli butter.

This malleable concept of small plates that we’ve now adopted means they can echo diners’ ever-evolving tastes and preferences – such as the current move away from meat and animal products. There’s a good serving of plant-first small-plate restaurants on our patch, of which Root is one of the most popular. While not a vegetarian restaurant, it certainly champions fruit and veg above meat and has a kitchen team that never tire of coming up with new and inventive ways to use the two – think lentil and mushroom Kiev, and cauliflower rarebit.

Another place focusing on inclusive small plates is Flow, a vegetarian restaurant in the city centre that really makes the most of our West Country bounty, with the team foraging and growing lots of their ingredients.

The dishes purposefully have a cohesiveness that means you can mix and match to your heart’s content, without having a dinner that’s conceptually all over the place.

“The menu is designed so that all the dishes complement each other despite being very different,” says chef-owner Jen Williams, noting that this encourages people to step out of their comfort zone and try something new.

“It makes for a really informal, fun evening where everyone gets to try flavours they may not have had before and compare favourites, satisfying even the most fervent carnivores!”

Vegan chef and owner of Acorn in Bath, Richard Buckley, thinks that small plates are, in fact, the ideal format for meat-free food. An idea he put to the test at his pop-up at Dela in Bristol late last year.

“The whole main course idea is built around having a hulking great piece of animal as your meal, starters and desserts merely acting as a sideshow. We found increasingly that we were creating beautiful vegetable dishes and then having to bolt on calories, often in the form of carbohydrates. Small plates allow us to keep the purity of vegetable dishes while also creating really exciting carbohydrate dishes too.”

‘Casual’ is a real buzzword among small-plate joints, the atmosphere intended to echo the communal feel and sharing mentality that the menus encourage. And, we ask you, does ambience get more laid back than down the local pub?

The Grace is a boozer on Gloucester Road that also specialises in small plates. Manager William O’Dea actually puts the pub’s success down to this flexible and eclectic food offering.

“Kitchens like ours are flourishing and I think it’s because the sharing approach is way more natural and familiar than the supposedly ‘traditional’ three-course a la carte restaurant menu. The latter is not only a bit staid and formulaic, it’s also actually a relatively recent phenomenon. Sharing menus, on the other hand, allow for much more relaxed and casual dining experience.

“This is what people all over the world have been doing forever, so why wouldn’t it feel more uplifting and satisfying than the alternative?”

Will’s right there: many food cultures across the globe revolve around the act of sharing.

You’ll find globally-inspired small plates all over our turf, not least in Sri Lanken restaurant The Coconut Tree, which has two sites in Bristol, so strong is the demand for its sharing- style food. The curries, rice and street food from the island nation are designed to order in their numbers and, most importantly, enjoy in good company.

“There is a saying back in Sri Lanka: lay an extra place at the table,” says Anna Garrod, “which is about always having room for an unexpected guest.”

This kind of hospitality is something that the Sri Lankan founders of The Coconut Tree knew their restaurant needed, and sharing plates – which may feature anything from hot battered spicy cuttlefish to Jaffna goat curry – was a great way to emulate that social feel.

Another small plate win comes in the fact that you’re not committed to a whole meal. What if all you want is a few glasses of wine and to kid yourself you’re only hungry enough for a little nibble?

This must happen often at Bath wine bar and restaurant Corkage, which has two sites in the city. Followed, of course, by the realisation of said drinkers that they do want a proper dinner after all. (After you’ve tasted the likes of coppa with pecorino, or calves’ liver with caramelised onions, a snack just won’t cut it.)

So, grab your mates, go for a big sharing feast and show them that you care by letting them have that last spoonful of your favourite dish. Or, you know, challenge them to an arm wrestle for it…