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Famished: Mine, All Mine

In this age of pass-the-plate-style dining, sharing has become a real drag.

Foodies (and I don’t mean any disrespect by calling you that horrendously clichéd F-word), raise your hand if this scenario is familiar: You’re crowded into a booth with four friends at one of the city’s hottest restaurants. No sooner has the server dropped the menus than everyone tackles them with the seriousness of a Stanford law grad taking the bar exam.

“Chili-spiced yuba with parsley and almonds. Interesting.”

“Anyone know what tajarin is?”

“How about the trout with garam brown butter? My friend said to get that.”

“Oh my God—lamb tartare with shelling bean purée. Yum!”

The only thing that’s ordered without debate is the burrata (everyone loves burrata). With the rest of the dinner negotiations looking as stridently wishy-washy as a meeting at a Berkeley co-op, the alpha foodie of the group—you know who you are—takes control: “OK, guys, what are we going to order?”

It’s the we in this question that speaks to the modern-day phenomenon rampant in certain circles of the dining cognoscenti. Dinner has become a collective enterprise. Every meal is family-style, every dish is communal, every decision derives from groupthink. Even the servers are in on it. Good waiters politely take your order and then ask the redundant question: “So, will we be sharing tonight?” (There’s that we again.) “Great, I’ll bring you some shareplates.” Yes, shareplates is a word.

No longer is a discerning eater allowed to spot, say, a dish of spaghetti with uni and rub her hands together in gleeful anticipation of savoring every briny, buttery strand of it— without feeling obliged to pass it around the table. The fact that plenty of people are eager to dig in to your pasta tossed with sea urchin gonads says a lot about the increasingly democratized world of gourmet dining, but that isn’t the point. The main point is an ethical one: Real foodies share.

Barring some claim to a rare allergy (gluten intolerance is OK, but eosinophilic esophagitis is better) or strict religious food doctrines, ordering a dish just for yourself these days—or even selecting one without consulting the whole table—is socially unacceptable. Go ahead and risk being unfriended—or, worse, being labeled a culinary sociopath—by brazenly breaking this moral code, but I’d advise you to make it clear before the Negronis arrive that the pasta is yours. Otherwise, it will be hijacked to make the inevitable clockwise round, each person taking a couple bites, commenting insightfully (“This is almost as good as the spaghetti ai ricci di mare I had in Sicily last summer!”), and dutifully passing the plate to the left while you wistfully look on. Should you think that this is a female thing, know that the other night I watched a table of six very grown men, elbow to elbow at Delfina, doing this ring-around-the-rosy with every dish they had ordered.

Of course, it hasn’t always been this way. I’ve deduced that the current sharing mandate stems from the small-plate craze of the ’90s (remember Chez Nous?), which never really died. Since then, entrées ordered and eaten by a single person have largely become a thing of the past. State Bird Provisions, which was recently deemed the year’s best new restaurant in the United States by Bon Appétit, has built a whole dining experience around shareplating. Around here, other than at old-school spots like House of Prime Rib where people know their place, a restaurant’s food is subject to being shared, no matter what the intended concept.

For 15 or so years, I’ve merrily participated in this method of dining myself. But recently, something inside me snapped. Was it the lunch when I found myself slicing half of a pickled egg to offer up, or the evening when I was left with a quarter of a sardine and two leaves of wild arugula? I know it’s my job to taste everything, and of course I should reciprocate, but suddenly I find myself feeling wolfish, fighting the urge to shield particularly delicious things with my hands and growl if anyone pokes a fork in my direction. (Admittedly, this is dish-dependent: Help yourself to my sweetbreads, but don’t come near my pork sugo with polenta.)

Simply by admitting this, I’ve surely blacklisted myself from many of my closest friends’ dinner invitations. But hear me out: This is not just the rant of a greedy glutton. Honestly, I’m looking out for my foodie friends, not to mention the aspirational restaurants that we often patronize.

This is my rationale. Many dishes are meant to be shared with a group: independently packaged items (chicken wings, french fries, edamame, dumplings), family-style meals (casseroles, a roast), food born for a lazy Susan (Chinese food, duh). It’s a ratio thing, too. Two people—whether you’re going for a 9 1/2 Weeks–style sexy time or simply being practical—should share, a maxim of which I keep failing to convince my husband when he orders the burger that I’m denying myself.

In other words, splitting a dish is fine. Quartering—or sixth-ing—is not. When you get a group of four or more together at a restaurant serving sophisticated, beautifully plated food, sharing does it a disservice. A composed dish can go from artful to looking as if it has been decimated by a smart bomb. By the end of the night, those shareplates are a soupy mess of commingled sauces, a sea bean from one dish entangled in a squid tentacle from another. Plus, the more a table orders to share, the more of a smorgasbord makes its way into your mouth, leaving you with a dazed palate and a confused stomach.

Not to mention, try as you might to get every nuanced flavor on your fork for that little ration, it’s impossible. As Pete Wells, the New York Times restaurant critic, recently remarked, you need more than a bite of something to really feel satisfied—to be able to sink into its soul.

So, I know your mother taught you to share, but do it judiciously. Order two of the same thing if you really want a taste. Eventually, your friends will invite you out again. And if they’ve digested any of this, they too will be happily hoarding their food.

 

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