This is the Travel Take, where Matador’s writers and editors make the case for their favorite travel hacks, tips, and personal tics.
A typical family dinner at a restaurant in the United States starts with a salad. That’s followed by a slab of meat, or a heavy pasta dish, or maybe a filet of fish. There’s also the parade of sides: mashed potatoes, veggies, rice. Maybe, at the end, there’s dessert. I have a theory why so many Americans are obsessed with eating dinner in these stages, as though the meal were a ballet that can only take place in separate acts: It must all go back to the way we ate as kids.
Of course, this is by no means a universal experience — American dining traditions are just as diverse and varied as its people — but these relatively common rituals might go a long way to explaining why eating at a restaurant can sometimes feel stiff and restrictive. We’ve become comfortable with a tedious routine.
Which is why you should try only ordering starters and skipping the main course altogether.
I don’t believe in dispensing prescriptive advice on how people should eat. There is no absolute right way to appreciate a meal. I also understand that springing for a meal at an acclaimed restaurant equipped with an award-winning chef is an event — chances are you saved for the occasion and made the reservation months in advance. You want to make the absolute most of a night that might not come again for a while. But hear me out: That’s all the more reason to stick to starters.
There are several upsides to thinking of dinner as a more fluid, easygoing experience through small plates rather than a rigid routine. First, the appetizer section of the menu tends to be more playful, experimental, and exciting: pimento and country ham at Husk in Charleston; anchovies topped with mint, lemon, and chili at Brawn in London; fried oysters and clams at Mary’s Fish Camp in New York City; shrimp marinated in roasted jalapeños at Compère Lapin in New Orleans — I could go on and on.
The mains, on the other hand, tend to be repetitive (although usually well executed, of course): a rich pasta dish, an upscale cut of beef, a refined burger, a tender filet of fish. These dishes might taste good, but they’re basic. There is a limited number of ways to innovate steak or salmon. You won’t be missing out on much if you decide to skip the more expensive main dish in favor of a couple of extra appetizers.
Indulging in multiple starters lets you try more from the menu and experience a wide range of the chef’s skills and creative spirit. And if you’re worried about your meal not being filling, I can guarantee that a table of small bites will satisfy your appetite without leaving you feeling uncomfortably full or sleepy — just ask the Spanish, who cherish their tapas, and dim sum, a treasured dining style in China.
The type of food you get to try isn’t the sole difference when you order only appetizers. The atmosphere at the dinner table changes, too. It’s a welcome departure from the solitary act of hacking away at your pork chop while your dining companion silently attacks their pappardelle. Sharing appetizers is collaborative and joyful, sort of like putting together a culinary puzzle with friends. The veil of austerity over the formal dinner is lifted, and you can actually take pleasure in your food. After all, a successful dinner should also include laughter and conversation.
Even though food can be art, restaurants don’t have to be museums where diners must sit in quiet reverence until the meal is over — nor do you need to stuff yourself with a hunk of protein for the dinner to be worth your time and money. I find there are few greater delights than splitting a bottle of white wine, a platter of oysters, escargot, and a fine basket of bread with a side of rich, salty butter. It’s definitely not the dinner of your childhood. In fact, it’s much more fun.