Have you noticed the schism between our current culinary lexicon and the typical menu? No one I know proposes "dining out" anymore. The more typical verbiage comes in the form of an email suggesting "we all get together and grab a bite," or that we "go have a glass of wine and something to nibble on." Such words never imply that we plan to sit down for a four-course, four-hour meal.

Yet even at moderately priced cafes, you'll still find food arranged in strict categories--appetizers, soups & salads, entrees, desserts--a classification system that smacks of stodgy, old-fashioned banquet halls where people went to "sup" and be served by tuxedoed waiters carrying silver-domed dishes. And despite our collective realization that the nation is overweight, many restaurants continue to serve heaving platters.

"Portions are out of control these days. People feel compelled to give you a lot of food so you get value, and you feel compelled to eat it because you just plunked down $24 for an entree," says Leather Storrs, chef at the newish food-and-wine bar Noble Rot. "To me, the protein, vegetable, starch and sauce plate is just not that interesting. That's not how I like to eat, so I'm not going to cook that way."

Thanks to sentiments like these, restaurants--in Portland and across the country--are beginning to come around, their menus reflecting the way people really eat in this new millennium. Formal dining is going the way of the gray wool suit. We dress casually for work, and we want to eat casually when the day is done.

"The regulars who used to come to the dining room once every couple of months, we're seeing them in the bistro more often," reports Jim Biddle, manager of the new Buckman Bistro, the next-door-neighbor offshoot of the more upscale William's on 12th. Buckman's $4 to $9 menu offers such bargain-basement delights as oven-roasted truffle spaetzle with caramelized onions, local figs, hazelnuts and fromage blanc for $6.

Of course, the small plate is the natural outcome of our ever-increasing appetite for tapas, spring rolls and sushi. It only makes sense that restaurateurs with not a bit of Spanish or Asian to their shtick are designing menus that offer nutrients in the form of nibbles rather than multi-course feasts. We've reached a tapas tipping point, and from here on out, you can expect to see more and more small plates on the restaurant horizon.

Ask Karin Devencenzi, general manager at Southpark, about the small-plates menu at the downtown bistro's wine bar and you'll hear no complaints. "It has been the fastest-growing part of our business in the last two years, by far," she says. Southpark offers diners 22 small plates ranging in price from $2.50 to $10, plus a daily tapas special for $4 to $7.

If there's a single factor driving this revolution, it's the increasingly sophisticated palates of today's diners. We don't want quantity anymore; we want quality. And we don't want to eat; we want to taste. Oh yeah, and we don't want to spend buckets of cash to do it.

In these trying economic times, why should we downscale in quality if we don't have to? Peter Kost, owner of Lucy's Table, recently redesigned his menu because he realized that his clients who are now strapped for cash weren't wanting to give up their usual gourmet fare. "They're used to going to nicer places. So they still can come in and sit in our bar," says Kost, who offers an inexpensive bar menu as well as a listing of small plates for $6 to $11 on his dinner menu. "Two small plates together is plenty for a meal."

At Noble Rot, Storrs turns out small sensations that almost never exceed $10 a dish (one exception: foie gras) so, he says, "You can be more of a nimble diner. You can have one plate of food with one glass of wine and then switch gears." As Storrs explains it, "The first three bites of a dish are incredible, but by the 20th bite, your palate has figured it out." So why not limit ourselves to those magical initial impressions?

In the Pearl, 750 mL chef Josh Shartzer whips up decadent little dishes like roasted loin of rabbit ($10) and foie gras torchon with spiced plum compote ($12). Like Storrs, 750 mL owner Rena Yatch said she originally decided to offer petite plates to accommodate guests eager to try multiple wine and food matches (she offers some 40 wines by the glass or the "sip"). "If you are doing smaller plates, it's so much easier to experiment with little tastes of wine," Yatch explains. "It doesn't commit the customer to ordering a big plate of food and eating only what's on their plate."

Both Storrs and Yatch observe that their diners seem to achieve a culinary camaraderie as they pass small plates around. "If you've got a lot of plates and a lot of things happening on the table," says Storrs, "you're forced to engage in what you're eating." And just as more sophisticated palates yearn for small plates, small plates breed more sophisticated palates. Says Storrs: "You're always going to be more aware of specific flavors if you have more things to contrast them with."


Buckman Bistro
213 SE 12th Ave., 230-2381

503 W Burnside St., 274-4050

Lucy's Table
706 NW 21st Ave., 226-6126

Noble Rot
2724 SE Ankeny St., 233-1999

750 mL
232 NW 12th Ave., 224-1432

Southpark Seafood Grill & Wine Bar
901 SW Salmon St., 326-1300