Weeks before the butter board trend swept TikTok, people devoured designer dairy at Quality Bistro, a popular brasserie in midtown Manhattan. The restaurant, one of the first spots in NYC to serve a riff on what would become a viral sensation, offered a version slathered on round marble trays, adorned with flaky salt and edible blossoms. Diners gathered over the interactive appetizer, spreading generous globs on crusty bread, paired with cornichons, French ham, and leek vinaigrette. Social distancing felt like a thing of the, well, distant past.
The butter board’s popularity indicates a palpable culinary shift: After years of isolating, New Yorkers are ready to share again. They’re done with dining cautiously and privately, eager to dig into extravagant, joy-inducing dishes with friends and family instead.
“2022 [presented an] opportunity to get back to sharing good times and good food with friends and loved ones,” says Craig Koketsu, a chef and partner at Quality Branded, the hospitality group behind Quality Bistro.
New York City’s diners now crave experiential, interactive, and communal meals. But they’re also drawn to shared plates because of a nationwide shift toward snacking. Plus, family-style plates and their many thoughtful components are often more photogenic than a standard, meant-for-one entree. Here’s why New Yorkers are ready to share food again.
Feasting together and sharing experiences is more important than ever, post quarantine: After years of remote everything, New Yorkers are eager for adventure-worthy, transportive meals. “Maybe the meat is being carved tableside or the finishing touches come together over an open flame,” says Koketsu, offering examples of experiential elements. “Guests really love it, and it’s a great way to get the dining room talking.”
When Blue Hill, a seasonal, fine-dining spot in a 19th-century townhouse in the West Village, reopened after a year-plus closure in summer 2021, it bid farewell to its prix-fixe menu. Now, it offers a new mode of service called family style (the name is inspired by the traditional, pre-service spread consumed by a restaurant’s staff), consisting of shareable, farm-to-table fare such as fresh salads and platters of steamy beef.
“Large-format dishes usually have fun elements to them like lots of condiments, sauces, or other accouterments that diners can mix and match,” Koketsu says. “It’s much more interesting than eating a chicken breast with a fork and knife.”
Blue Hill’s family style meal often kicks off with potato chips and dip made from avocado squash, setting the stage for plates such as gem lettuce dressed up with sunflower seeds and roast chicken skillet with cranberry beans on the side. Blue Hill’s menu-less service allows staff to spend more time at tables to offer helpful commentary on sourcing and suggested wine pairings. The vibe channels a fancy dinner party, hosted by an acclaimed chef, complete with leftovers you can take home.
A grazing nation
There’s a nationwide shift towards snacking and grazing, altering the traditional, three-meal day for many Americans; shareable plates easily allow for that style of eating.
In New York City, Mediterranean mezze and Spanish tapas or pintxos—dining traditions that celebrate variety and togetherness—are having their moments. They’re cuisines served at buzzy, new restaurants, including Mezze on the River, EMILIA by Nai, and Nabila’s, along with city mainstays, such as Greek hotspot Estiatorios Milos.
“Sharing food on the table is back to pre-Covid standards,” says Milos’s owner Costas Spiliadis. To wit, Milos’s 2022 top sellers include small bites, such as crisp-fried zucchini and eggplant to dip in tzatziki and saganaki kefalograviera (a pan-seared cheese appetizer). Larger, shareable dishes, such as lobster pasta platters and heaping bowls of Greek salad, are also popular orders.
Enjoying food communally (all while upholding the social contract of never double dipping) is one of the many simple joys the pandemic pressed pause on. “Sharing food really brings people together, a value that has [taken on] extraordinary importance since the isolationism of the pandemic,” Spiliadis says. “To watch diners at a table interacting over [shared] food, commenting on their shared experience, [and] seeing individuals turning to community is what gives me pleasure.”
At Zou Zou’s, a stylish Middle Eastern restaurant in Manhattan West, the signature dips are presented in small bowls with elaborate foams, garnishes, and a rainbow of crudités. The effect is entrancing—for the diner and a smartphone lens. These are dishes that dazzle, breathe new life into existing formats, and attract a fresh wave of diners enticed by attractive social media images.
Quality Bistro’s butter service has a similar effect. It’s interactive and over-the-top, featuring butter that is worthy of its own closeup. Bread and butter service was once the most banal part of many restaurant meals; here, the starter is one of the main events.
“We liked the idea of flipping the usual bread and butter paradigm. Instead of butter being an afterthought, we wanted to showcase it as the star in a grand, tableside presentation,” says Danny Parilla, Quality Bistro’s executive chef. Parilla notes that it’s the restaurant’s most shared dish on social media.
The bistro’s butter service, though an attraction in its own right, can serve as an appetizing prelude to a shared meal of larger dishes such as grilled branzino with brûléed lemon, chateaubriand with champignons, and sides, including corn creme brûlée. “People have been very inclined to share lately,” Parilla affirms. “We’re seeing very little apprehension, for the most part.”
As New Yorkers embrace a newfound enthusiasm for sharing meals with friends and family, restaurants are rising to the occasion. They’re overhauling menus, prioritizing dishes that allow for overdue reunions, and plating eye-catching meals. The results are memorable feasts that create a much-needed sense of gathering—and more importantly, belonging.
Melissa Kravitz Hoeffner is a writer based in Brooklyn, where she lives with her wife and rescue dog. You can follow her on Instagram @melissabethk and Twitter @melissabethk