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Explore the Best Appetizers for Restaurants

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Justin GuinnAuthor

The best appetizers for restaurants varies wildly depending on cuisine type and menu construction. 

Appetizers, starters, and similar items can provide an enticing introduction to the rest of the dining experience. These dishes whet the appetite and set the tone for the meal to come — but determining the best appetizers for your restaurant can take some trial and error.

Read on to explore some popular restaurant appetizers. Delve into the nuances between appetizers, starters, small plates, and other such first course options. Learn more about the role of aperitifs and other starting beverages. And see the importance of properly coursing meals — starting with great appetizers.

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Tease guest palates with enticing restaurant appetizers

Restaurant appetizers are like culinary ambassadors. They greet diners, entice them with bursts of flavors, and set the stage for entrees and additional courses. 

These opening acts can offer variety of tastes, textures, dipping sauces, and more — providing guests with a preview of the chef's skills and the overall culinary experience the restaurant has to offer. 

Appetizer recipes are just as important to develop as others. No matter how great the entrees are, guests will always remember a restaurant’s bad artichoke dip entree. This is especially true for fine dining, where even oddly cut scallion on an appetizer could be off putting.

The point is that from the chef on up, a restaurant should be prepared to put their names on any dish going to guests. If that’s not the case, then changes need to be made — even for appetizer recipes.

Examples of the best restaurant appetizers

When determining the best appetizers for restaurants, it’s important to consider the details of the operation. 

There are no right or wrong appetizers. A platter of onion rings probably works better at an American restaurant, while siu mai, bánh giò, and dumplings would work best at Chinese or other Asian restaurants.

Food costs must also be a consideration. If chicken wing prices go through the roof again, it may be best to look for more profitable options. Higher-margin restaurant appetizers include hummus, spinach artichoke dip, sliders, and more.

Here are some popular examples of appetizers.

Nachos - A flavorful fiesta on a plate

Nachos are one of the best appetizers for restaurants. They’re universally loved and extend beyond just Mexican restaurants, with variations served in BBQ restaurants, bars, and more. 

Nachos have secured a prominent spot with their irresistible combination of crispy tortilla chips, melted cheddar cheese and other quesos, and an array of toppings. 

The crowd-pleasing dish can be customized to suit various preferences and dietary requirements — from traditional nachos with guacamole, black beans, salsa, and jalapeños to innovative versions featuring pulled pork, spicy chipotle chili sauce, or vegetarian options.

Buffalo chicken wings - The perfect combination of spice and tang

Buffalo chicken wings is another classic appetizer choice. 

These crispy and flavorful morsels are beloved for their succulent meat and tangy, spicy sauce. Buffalo wings can be served with a cooling dip, such as blue cheese dressing and ranch or carrots, celery, and other veggies to balance out the heat.

Offering different levels of spiciness can also cater to varying heat preferences among your customers. Buffalo chicken wings are not only delicious on their own but also serve as an ideal accompaniment to cold beverages and a great way to kick off a meal.

Potato Skins - A savory and satisfying delight

A classic throughout America, Potato skins can deliver a mouthwatering combination of crispy potato shells, melted cheese, and savory toppings. 

When properly prepared, the contrasting textures and flavors of the crispy skin, creamy interior, and flavorful toppings create a satisfying culinary experience. 

From classic potato skins with cheese and bacon to more elaborate variations loaded with sour cream, chives, and other toppings, this appetizer can truly delight.

Bruschetta - Crunchy, cheesy crostini 

Bruschetta is a classic Italian appetizer featuring mozzarella and parmesan cheeses, tomatoes, balsamic vinegar, and olive oil.

It can be an especially popular restaurant appetizer during the summer seasons when fresh tomatoes are at their peak. 

And while the Italian combo traditionally includes mozzarella, goat cheese burrata, or other cheeses can be interesting substitutes.

Crab cakes - Breadcrumbs, sweet crab morsels, and refreshing vegetables

Crab cakes can be a magnificent appetizer for all types of restaurants. Depending on the appetizer’s recipe, crab cakes can be prepped in bulk, frozen, and pulled to order. 

While breadcrumbs are most popular, panko is a common substitute. Crushed pretzels are another option that can help bind the delicious crab meat.

French onion dip - Creamy, gooey, and decadent

French onion dip can be a delicious and high-margin restaurant appetizer. 

The main ingredients include cheesy toasted to a crust, onions, and a rich vegetable stock.  It can be fancied up with breadcrumbs or even puff pastry on top. 

Meatballs and marinara — Mama mia induced mania

Meatballs are a no-brainer appetizers for Italian restaurants. 

It’s a win anytime the same recipe or ingredient can be used across multiple menu items. Meatballs are a great example. The same meatballs can go with spaghetti, on a sandwich, or served as an appetizer with tomato gravy and bread.

What’s the difference between appetizers, starters,  small plates, and first course

While the terms "appetizers," "starters," and "small plates" are often used interchangeably, there are subtle distinctions between them. 

Appetizers are typically served before the main course, designed to stimulate appetite and tantalize the taste buds. They are usually smaller in portion size and can be shared amongst a group of diners. 

Starters, on the other hand, are more substantial and can be considered the first course of a multi-course meal. 

Small plates are often associated with the concept of tapas. These miniature dishes are served as a complete meal or shared in a communal dining style.

First courses are typically tied to structured, prix fixe menus. These dishes typically tie into an overall thematic experience that the chef is trying to convey with the meal.

Aperitifs - Elevating the Pre-Dinner Experience

Restaurant owners and operators can consider offering aperitifs to complement the appetizer experience. 

Aperitifs are pre-dinner drinks that are designed to stimulate the appetite and prepare the palate for the meal to come. 

They can range from light and refreshing cocktails, such as Aperol spritz or a classic gin and tonic, to fortified wines, such as vermouth or sherry. 

By offering a carefully curated selection of aperitifs, you can enhance the overall dining experience and create a memorable prelude to the main course.

Coursing meals: The art of timing and balance

In addition to selecting the best appetizers for restaurants menu, it is crucial to consider the proper coursing of meals. 

Coursing refers to the sequence and timing of serving different courses to ensure a harmonious and well-paced dining experience. A keen understanding of timing between dishes as well as the flow of flavors and textures can create a seamless and enjoyable culinary journey.

Most fine dining restaurants exclusively operate via courses. The best operations have it down to a science — learning after the first course or two how fast the table eats so that they can properly prepare and place the next course at an optimal time.

But optimal coursing isn’t reserved for fine dining. Nor does it have to be so intimidating. It could simply mean waiting until a guest finishes their salad before bringing them their entree.

No wrong answers when selecting the best appetizers for restaurants

When it comes to selecting the best appetizers for restaurants, the possibilities are endless. 

From crowd-pleasers like nachos and buffalo chicken wings to savory delights like potato skins, each appetizer choice contributes to creating the ultimate dining experience. 

Understanding the differences between appetizers, starters, and small plates, and the art of properly coursing meals, allows restaurants to craft an exceptional culinary journey. 

With the addition of aperitifs and a focus on customer experience, restaurants can become a go-to destination for unforgettable dining experiences that start strong.

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