Plates are being overlooked by restaurants in favour of quirkier alternatives, including slates, chopping boards and bathroom tiles. Ray Philp asks why

Plates are having a Greek wedding moment. A number of eateries – mostly, the middle-market, gastropub kind – are breaking with tradition by casting dishes aside for quirkier alternatives. If you’ve asked a waiter for a burger recently, it’s a safe bet that it’s arrived at your table on a slate, or a chopping board, or nothing at all – I’ve had one placed on my table wrapped in greaseproof paper, without the once-customary ceramic shield beneath. Anything but a white, circular dish will, apparently, do.

A number of restaurants have taken this aversion to plates to bemusing extremes. A Twitter account called @wewantplates, set up recently by a disgruntled foodie, Ross McGinnes, has highlighted some of the more egregious food crimes stemming from this new anti-dish craze (@wewantplates has more than 33,600 followers). A restaurant in Yorkshire, Star Inn The City, was pilloried in a review for serving bread in an upturned flat cap. (“Did they buy new flat caps for the purpose? Or were they secondhand? I search the rim for a greasy tide mark,” wrote Guardian food writer Jay Rayner.)

“Slates and boards have their place in modern restaurants,” Rodney Jones, head chef at Glasgow restaurant Porter & Rye says, “but a white round plate is best for most dishes. Aesthetically, they offer a perfect blank canvas that shows most dishes in their best light.” Jones says pragmatism informs his preference for plates, and adds that an 11-inch white plate with a rim – which Marco Pierre White recommends – is the “correct” size for mains.

Creativity is a necessary part of a great meal at a restaurant, but most would expect it to be in thrall to common sense, not the other way around. Putting chips in a miniature supermarket trolley, as one widely circulated picture shows, might be a novel conversation piece, but it seems like a cynical conceit designed to downsize portions. More simply, it’s a distraction from the important stuff: the food. The most common offenders, listed here, have insinuated themselves into the modern dining experience without adding very much to it. They are, to varying degrees, annoying, pretentious, puzzling, and, above all, impractical.

Food served in wine glasses

Pouring wine into a bowl is probably still taboo, but the reverse of that – stuffing food into a wine glass, like a carb-laden sundae – is taking hold. In a lot of cases, it’ll be a stodgy cocktail of meat, potatoes, and a token green garnish. There’s a so-so joke implied in layering salt-of-the-earth pub grub into a glass whose stem is usually pinched, according to stereotype, by corpulent, middle-aged opera luvvies. It’s class war in a glass. Setting that aside, though, there’s a simpler argument: nobody in the history of eating has ever ordered a snack-sized bangers and mash.

Chips in metal buckets

The serving of chips in a metal bucket is the equivalent of keeping an Olympic gold medal in your sock drawer – you can’t think that highly of your food if you’re happy to offer it up in a bin. There’s a certain pretense about the provenance of these buckets too, as if they’ve been “discovered” or “dug up” in a cave of second-hand wonders. The handles are rickety; they’re a bit bent out of shape; the metal shows signs of decay. And yet, they all look more or less the same. In effect, you’re being cheated twice: once by the mean portion size, and by the affected humility of a £5 side in a tin wastebasket.

Drinks in jam jars

When you think of a cocktail, you tend to think of a Martini and the silhouette of the famous glass it comes in: the long stem, the conical shape on top. The Martini glass was made this way for a reason; jam jars were made another way, for the same reason – practicality. In the service of defying common sense and good design, jam jars are now the vessel of choice in certain “trendy” bars. Though some places have a good reason to use them – in an effort to recycle glassware, for example – most have simply jumped on the bandwagon. The use of jam jars in this way was once nauseatingly referred to as “austerity chic”, which is basically a Zoolander scene given flesh (and reason enough to steer clear).

Dinner served on slates

Not all slates are bad. Small bites, such as canapes or sashimi, against a dark, rough surface add drama. But, as soon as cutlery enters the fray you’re in trouble. The chilling scrape of forks and knives prodding and slicing at mains sounds like a broken trolley pushed by the female lead of a Hitchcock film. Chopping boards at least avoid this problem, but they stumble into another; they’re cumbersome platforms for the array of sides, dips and mains they usually house, and when served on circular tables it’s just about unforgivable.

Weird butter dishes

Perhaps the most bizarre fashion of them all: the serving of butter on arbitrary surfaces. There’s a quixotic nostalgia at work with some recently documented offences. “Remember that time you had a broken bathroom tile lying around and you thought: ‘oh, good, because I’ve run out of butter dishes.’” “Hey, Tom, what about that time you found a dirty can off the street and said: ‘I can’t wait to prop up my Lurpak with this.’ One day, perhaps, we’ll recall these moments fondly as we spread our slices of bread with butter cleaved from coils of barbed wire and upcycled barrels of toxic waste.

About The Author

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Ray Philp has been at the Scotsman since 2011. Since then, he has written widely about music in magazines such as Red Bull Music Academy Magazine and Resident Advisor, and was a former editor and regular contributor at The Skinny magazine.

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