Bring back food monogamy! Why I'm fed up of 'sharing' plates in restaurants

food sharing
Tapas-style eating: a dream dinner or your worst nightmare?

Messy eaters, slow eaters, shy eaters, take heed. The silly fad of 'food sharing' is reaching its zenith in restaurants and it’s you who will probably suffer.

Food sharing  - small plates which are shared by a table - first kicked off a few years ago when posh tapas arrived. Then Russell Norman’s seminal restaurant Polpo arrived in London, changing everything. Serving Venetian-style snacks or 'cicchetti' on unfussy wooden tables, Polpo made bijou bites fashionable. Goodbye a starter, main and pud. Hello smaller snacks and sides to share.

A typical sharing dish of fig and mint bruschetta from Polpo

The initial draw of having four or so dishes on the table at the same time was that the meal became an amiable, informal version of a tasting menu, where we could enjoy more of the chef’s repertoire without the hideous pricetag or a long-drawn out meal.

But now the fun is fading. From Brighton to Bristol, London to Linlithgow, plates of multiple occupancy are everywhere, often with no reason for their existence other than "plate sharing" being modish.

For Hilary Armstrong, Telegraph Luxury restaurant critic, "It feels like the kitchen is setting the agenda at the moment, not the diner.” She says sharing-cum-small dishes - note: they're symbiotic - isn't just confined to fine dining, it's in high-end fast-food joints and gastro pubs too. “At the most extreme, one experience I had recently with my husband was when we were in a pub in East London. We clearly ordered a starter and two mains. But the waiter kept setting the plates down in the middle of the table. The food was being put centre stage quite literally. We wanted to relax and had to ask them to give us our own food and plates."

Some culinary genres, she adds, suit this style of eating but we should be more careful about introducing the concept willy nilly. “Tapas and stuff like sashimi are obvious, but some of the others aren’t.”

Armstrong, for example, had requested pheasant on the bone at the said pub. “It was so obviously for one person. You’d end up wondering how you split it, leg or breast. For one person, there’s the skin, the fat, the soft bits, the crisp bits to enjoy. There’s a value in really getting to know a dish.”

So absurd has sharing become, recently a waitress gave a journalist pal and me six servings on our tiny table. The porcelain pirouetted and jostled for space and the situation became further laughable when we weren’t given our own plates to plop the food onto.

The assumption was we would lurch forward across the table and prong our forks into the scallops and eggs mimosas, swinging the about-to-be-eaten morsels back over to our mouths. It was like a Star Wars light-saber battle, but with cutlery.

Another issue is sharing doesn’t suit the gluttonous or slow diner. Who eats the last morsel on each order? Fast-scoffing person: “It’s yours.” Slow eater: “No, you have it.” Speedy one: “No, you.” Said comestible is then left clammy and cold on the plate until the very last moment.

All across Britain, customers are politely restraining their hoggishness, while feeling ravenous - especially uncomfortable after work if one has had a Lilliputian lunch.  The opposing problem is that hungrier person ends up wolfing down two puddings, just to prevent anything going to waste. There's a quagmire of sharing etiquette to wade through. 

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not anti informality. Indeed, I’m renowned for my clumsiness, so I adore places where it doesn’t matter if I dribble down my front. Beneath this rant is someone who is very relieved at the arrival of using our mitts to suck the last bit of meat from a sticky pork rib or to grab some sushi with the fingers, as is done in Japan.

But the act of enforced co-grazing, especially in situations where it doesn’t suit, needs to stop.

My advice is either, restaurants, don’t make it obligatory, or just offer shared plates as an option in a starters section. Food monogamy is okay. Let’s bring it back.