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What All Restaurants Can Learn From the Popularity of Tapas


Alessandra KoppAuthor

What are tapas?

If you’ve been out to eat, flipped to the Food Network, or stumbled onto Eater anytime over the past few years, chances are you’ve encountered the terms “tapas,” or “small plates,” on more than one occasion.

I’d even argue that you’re a little sick of the never-ending influx of buzzwords and trends muddling an activity as simple and fundamental as running a restaurant. 

Tapas, however, should not fall into this fleeting category of food trends.

Tapas enjoys a unique and rich history. Their rise in popularity across the American restaurant scene is something we can continue to expect for years to come.

To fully appreciate and adapt to the resurgence of tapas, we'll answers the following questions below:

  1.  Where did tapas come from? 
  2.  Why are tapas so popular now? 
  3.  What does this mean for all restaurants?

Let's dive in.


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The History of Tapas

While there are numerous accounts of how the custom of eating tapas actually emerged, tapas are thought to have originated in southern Spain. 

Some of the more outlandish tales involve kings and historic figures, but the most believable version is one in which bartenders placed tiny dishes of cheese or olives over glasses of sherry to keep the flies and dust out of the drink.

As the etymology of the word “tapa” means “cover” or “lid,” I think we find our backstory in the latter.

There is also a likely connection between tapas and similar Middle Eastern delectables called mezze. The Moors occupied southern Spain for more than 700 years - until 1492 - and their influence on the region’s food and culture has certainly lingered.

Why are Tapas Popular Right Now?

Walk into a restaurant and who will you most likely see: Grandma? No. Mom? Warmer. Millennials? Bingo!

Twenty-somethings are flocking to restaurants at higher rates than any generation prior.

According to a 2014 study published by the Food Institute, 44% of millennials spend their food dollars - or $2,921 annually - on eating out. And the older they get, the more frequently millennials opt to dine at restaurants rather than at home.

So what does this have to do with eating food on tiny plates?

small plate eating

For better or worse, the persona of the average millennial looks a lot different than that of their parents and grandparents. Among those differences are their dining preferences, which tend to align with the practice of small plate eating.

The more that millennials decide to flex their purchasing power at restaurants - which has been steadily on the rise since 2010 - the more commonplace small plate concepts will become across the nation. 

Here are the major tapas-inducing dining preferences held dear by millennials that are influencing the direction of the restaurant industry toward small plate eating. 

Preference #1: Taste the Globe

Millennials have grown up in a technologically-advanced age where traveling and communication are easier than ever. Exposure to other cultures has fostered an adventurous spirit that is undoubtedly reflected in their dining choices.

No longer do youths settle for burgers and fries... They want to taste the world on a tiny plate, and as much of it as possible!

Preference #2: Chill Out

Millennials love to chill, preferably at posh, prohibition-like establishments with velvet sofas and mahogany coffee tables.

Tapas suit the casual style of new lounge restaurants, where pretty little plates can be passed with ease and, more importantly, style.

Preference #3: Food is Fun

For millennials, food is so much more than sustenance. It is entertainment and self-expression. What could be more satisfying than ordering a curated assortment of dishes to heighten the excitement of a social outing?

Added bonus: Tapas look great on a restaurant's Instagram.

How Does This Trend Impact Restaurants?

As the popularity of tapas continues to spread across the American food scene, it is likely that restaurants will have to adapt.

Will restaurants have to undergo a complete overhaul of their operation or else be faced with some sort of bizarre Darwinian, foodie extinction? Not quite.

Luckily, there are many little tweaks that restaurants can easily apply to their existing concepts to make them more appealing to tapas-lovers (without having to do the full 180).

Here are some areas restaurants can implement tapas-friendly changes.

1) The Experience

When was the last time you went to a boring tapas restaurant? I'm gonna guess never. I’m really not so sure they exist.

Tapas restaurants excel at creating an invigorating environment where people come to eat well, talk rapidly, and feed off the energy of everyone around them. The shareability of the food allows for maximum levels of human interaction that rarely leaves patrons dissatisfied with their experience.

If your restaurant doesn’t offer small plates, and you don’t plan on introducing them anytime soon, there are still some experiential elements to be borrowed from tapas restaurants.

Make it Rustic

Tapas restaurants are appealing because they feel authentic and encourage a level of comfort that is often missing from finer dining establishments.

Swap white linen tablecloths for butcher paper sheets - or just go sans table cover - and dim those lights for the perfect restaurant ambiance. There are endless amounts of stylistic changes that can be made in the spirit of tapas restaurants.

If we can’t be walking into a candle-lit tavern in Andalucia, we should at least be entering a restaurant where an intentionally crafted experience makes us feel at home and among friends.

Add a Twist

Many tapas restaurants take it above and beyond food by adding entertainment-like elements to their overall experience.

During my first trip to a tapas restaurant, I was astounded to see a server - stacked on the shoulders of a bartender - wobble over to my stool to serve me the (evidently very special) drink that I had ordered. It captured the attention of everyone in the restaurant and soon we were all participating in this shared, communal experience. It was a lot of fun and draws many diners - including myself - back to the bar time and time again.

If that example occupies a side of the spectrum that is too extreme for your concept, then a table-side served dish certainly suffices at the other.

2) The Menu

While restaurants do not have to pivot to serving exclusively Spanish fare, some may find it in their best interest to experiment with a more tapas-inspired menu structure. Adding new sections to your menu like “bites/snacks” or “small plates” to sit alongside the traditional categories of apps, mains, and desserts can breathe life into fading menus and attract new customers.

Yvonne’s in Boston, a super chic, speakeasy-inspired supper club, is a great example of a non-Spanish restaurant leveraging a tapas-like menu structure. Officially (and by official, I mean according to Zagat), Yvonne’s is classified as a “New American” restaurant, yet their menu boasts layer upon layer of shareable subcategories reminiscent of your classic tapas joint. “Snacks,” “Social Plates,” and “Toasts” dominate their menu and adorn their tables while main course options are limited and occupy the bottom of the menu.

restaurnat menu ideas

Also, incorporating a tapas-inspired menu structure can serve as an opportunity for restaurants to highlight fresh, locally-sourced ingredients whose spotlight might otherwise be dimmed by the complexity of main course recipes.

Don't worry - you need not fear smaller ticket sizes. Plates ranges from $6 - $18 on average, and since diners are encouraged to select a variety of dishes to share (with drink), orders typically add up an average check of $55.

3) The Floor Plan

At the center of most tapas restaurants sit communal tables.

Whether these be for large parties or a conglomerate of newly made acquaintances, from here emanates a bustling energy that permeates every corner of the restaurant.

As the appeal of eating out has shifted from the value of an intimate dining experience to the quality and uniqueness of the food, it is not surprising that a return to communal dining has slowly started to take place as well.

Communal tables have long been the exclusive fixtures of international cuisines, like tapas and dim sum, but they can be a well worth investment for restaurants of all kinds. 

But before you go replacing all your two-tops with long, sprawling tables, it would be wise to consider mastering the atmospheric and shareable food components discussed above which provide the social lubricant necessary to make a communal table concept bearable.

Big Future For Small Plates

People have been eating food on tiny plates for the greater part of history, so it was simply a matter of time before it made its debut in the American restaurant scene.

As mindset and values of the average American diner continue to evolve, we can expect its popularity to surge to even greater heights in the years to come.

Lucky for restaurants, tapas-style changes are just a small step away!

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