Jason Wilson's letter to Philadelphia restaurants: Just try to pace yourself

Posted: April 26, 2012

DEAR VERY HIP City Restaurateur:

I think it’s time we had another talk. It’s about your small plates. Well, not specifically the plates themselves — some of which, if we’re being honest, stretch the definition of “small.” Rather, what we need to talk about is the manner in which these plates are brought to the table. Your “coursing,” to use the au courant terminology — or more precisely, your lack thereof.

You know what I’m talking about: Two of us show up at your restaurant and your chirpy server suggests that we order two “or three or four” small plates per person. After we’ve ordered eight dishes, the server smiles and sunnily warns us that your kitchen is so cutting-edge, it can’t possibly be bothered to pace out those dishes in any logical pattern. Plates will just come flying out as soon as the cook is finished preparing them.

Sometimes, this warning is nonchalant, a hipster’s shrug. Other times, the server will look at us with sincere eyes and ask something like, “How would you like your meal coursed?” Yes, the word “course” will be used as a verb.

Almost always, we will look at the tiny table where we are seated, and then our pleading eyes will meet the sincere eyes of your server. “Please,” we say, “please don’t bring everything at once.”

The server’s reply will almost always be: “No problem!”

But then, almost always — within minutes — the dishes will come out, all at once, borne by a brigade of other smiling servers. It will feel like a siege.

Immediately, the table will become hopelessly crammed. The candle will be moved to accommodate the beef cheeks or the croquetas or the housemade sausage. Silverware will be shifted so there’s a place for the lamb lollipops or the empanada special. A wine glass will nearly be knocked over to make room for the naan bread or something pickled or brined or some meat topped with a fried egg.

Since there will be only a few bites on each plate and since the food is now growing cold on our table, we will end up eating everything much more quickly than we’d hoped. Within minutes, the brigade will reappear and plates will be cleared, making anyone still chewing feel a little guilty. A drink will be gulped down. Coffee may or may not be served. The check will be dropped. Time elapsed: about 48 minutes.

We will glance at the check and won’t be surprised to see it top $150, not including tip. This means about $180 for less than one hour’s entertainment. It’s now 8:45 p.m., and we’re out on the street, left with indigestion and a lighter wallet, as the table is turned.

Something will feel not right. Even when the food is very good, the pacing makes it seem like such a rip-off.

I know, I know. I know what you’ll tell me: This is all part of the cool, modern vibe. Courses! An attention to pacing! A gracefully orchestrated dining experience! Lingering over a meal?! Pshaw! You’ll tell me: People want casual these days. Small plates are casual. We’re not stuffy, noncasual people, are we?

Or perhaps you will give me a lecture on “tapas.” Don’t we want to experience dining like they do in the Old World? It seems pointless to tell you that in Spain, tapas is cheap, and it’s served from behind a bar in most cases. You eat it standing up with no tables to turn.

Perhaps in response to your lack of pacing, I can tell you about my recent lunch at Noma in Copenhagen in hopes of illustrating a point.

Now I realize that in Philadelphia, you are the cutting edge. But among food people around the world, Noma (and its chef Rene Redzepi) is considered to be the avant-garde, the game-changer. Noma has redefined restaurant dining by setting strict locavore limitations, serving only ingredients from the Nordic region. It’s widely considered to be the best, most forward-thinking restaurant in the world.

Our meal at Noma began with lots of small plates, too. Tiny ones. Fifteen of them, in fact. They were served one by one, each by a chef from the kitchen. Then we were served 10 courses, each one roughly the portion size of the typical small plate in Philadelphia, and each paired with a unique wine. It sounds like a cliché, but each dish was either a revelation, something to think about, or just flat-out delicious. The pace of the meal was flawless.

Was it expensive? Hell, yes. Unbelievably so. $800 for two people. For lunch.

But before you dismiss my point here, consider this: We sat down at our table at noon, and when we finished around 4:30 p.m., we were invited on a kitchen tour — as was everyone else in the dining room. When we finally walked outside, it was 5 p.m.

That was five hours of entertainment. A genuine, once-in-a-lifetime meal. No one rushed us. We felt cared for. Pricewise, it was the same proposition as buying tickets to a big, sold-out, once-in-a-lifetime sporting event.

If you divided that $800 check at Noma by five hours, it comes out to $160 per hour. Which oddly enough, is often about the average tariff for two people eating at one of your small-plates joints in Center City.

So to recap: An hour at the best restaurant in the world? Or 48 minutes at a fairly decent place in Philadelphia? You tell me. n

Kisses,

Jason

Jason Wilson has twice won an award for best newspaper food column from the Association of Food Journalists. He is the author of Boozehound and editor of “The Smart Set,” an online arts and culture journal at Drexel University. Follow him at twitter.com/boozecolumnist or go to jasonwilson.com.

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