Call them starters, small plates, bar food or even tapas—appetizers are seeing a lot of action. And it’s not all that surprising. Today’s thriftier restaurant customer wants to explore exciting flavors and ingredients without spending a fortune. Appetizers have a lot going for them:
?Freedom to experiment for both kitchen and guest
?Lower price point
?Longer daypart—from happy hour through dinner into late-night
?Shareability = socialization
?Power to boost beverage sales
Scaled down with a spin
Tommy Bahama, the 13-unit tropical-themed concept based in Seattle, has always had an extensive appetizer list. But when the recession set in three years ago, Director of Culinary Don Donley came up with a new game plan. He developed an all-appetizer menu for happy hour, calling it “Island Time.” “It was one of the best things we ever did,” he reports. “The small plates—priced at $5 to $8 each—took off.”
For the first Island Time promotion, Donley downsized some appetizers that were running on the regular dinner menu into smaller portions. “We wanted to be sure the kitchen could execute the items before we committed to something totally new,” he says. It went so well that now the roster boasts eight new items not on Tommy Bahama’s regular menu.
The latest apps embrace street food, tacos and ceviche—all trends Donley’s watching evolve. His Ahi Tuna Tacos with wasabi avocado cream have skyrocketed to number one in orders. For the new Lobster Corn Dogs and Chicken Lollipops, Donley upscaled two bar food favorites—corn dogs and wings—with pumped-up flavors, techniques and presentation.
“Our R&D goal is to develop ‘conversation food’—familiar appetizers that we give a bit of a spin. Fun, shareable food creates a high energy level,” says Donley.
All tapas all the time
American restaurants have broadened the meaning of tapas to include small plates and appetizers of all cuisines. But authentic tapas are rooted in Spain and Portugal—a legacy that shines through in the menu of Bellota at 42 in White Plains, New York. Chef-owner Anthony Goncalves converted a portion of his high-end restaurant into a hip lounge and dining space to attract customers looking for less formality at a lower price point. An all-tapas menu was the perfect match—especially since Goncalves is of Portuguese heritage.