I’ll eat anywhere as long as it’s not tapas

I’m done being seduced by small-plates, and I’m ready to demand the full-sized meal that I deserve

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Kate Snyder is a Life Columnist for The Cavalier Daily.

Christina Anton | Cavalier Daily

Growing up in Charlottesville means marking the stages of my childhood not by birthdays, not by grades, but by Bodo’s orders. Cheddar, muenster and provolone on a salt bagel was an age of innocence. Turkey and provolone on an everything bagel was a time of security and confidence. The three years of tuna and cheddar on whole wheat constitute the dark ages, and so on. A Sunday morning meal at Bodo’s had the capacity to turn the tide of my existence, and I placed great weight in the syntax of my sandwich’s ingredients, as every cheese-choice and meat-option left my fate hanging in the balance.

Needless to say, I’m pretty passionate about Bodo’s — who isn’t? I know I’m not original for feeling so strongly about the herbed-cream cheese. But my love for Bodo’s doesn’t begin and end with bagels — I recognize it as a stronghold of Charlottesville’s culinary landscape. It is a beacon of a bygone era in which I could count all of the town’s dinner spots on one tiny hand, when the phrase “let’s go out to eat” didn’t send me reeling.

The change began slowly at first — boutique restaurants began to dot the Downtown Mall, bringing with them new methods for cooking trout, new ways to pull pork, but nothing would prepare me for what would happen next. A new plague was spreading, rapid and ruthless, that would dominate the culture of Charlottesvillian gastronomy — that menace was tapas.

I remember my first tapas-style meal with all the clarity that one remembers their first trip to the dentist — all discomfort and fear. We had family in town, and we were looking to feed a party of 10. My mom’s eyes lit up, glistening with the light of opportunity, as she suggested that we try “that new place,” the one that the ladies in her book-club had raved about the week prior. I was cautiously optimistic — the restaurant was not on my short-list of go-to haunts, but my own mother wouldn’t steer me wrong, would she?

She would.

A tatted 30-something seated us at our table and assured us our server would be with us shortly. We shuffled around the warped plank of stained wood and strained to see the menus by the light of the four tea candles on the table and the Edison bulbs dangling overhead. Our waiter arrived behind my dad’s shoulder and delivered the speech I would come to know by heart, and hate intensely.

“So, have you all eaten with us before? We serve dinner in the Spanish tapas tradition, which means we encourage you to order a large selection of sharing plates. We usually recommend about three-to-five per person, and we will send the plates out of the kitchen as they’re ready, so they’ll all come out at different times. You have to try the grilled carrots.”

Every aspect of this spiel factors into my abhorrence of the practice. Reading between the lines, what the waiter actually means is “Hi! You and your family are about to resent each other instantly when your uncle insists you order the plate of mussels that only he will eat. Everyone gets no more than one forkful of that tiny shaved-endive salad, and the wood-fired pizza that everyone actually wants will come out 25 minutes after you’ve finished everything else. Also, it will cost $1,000.”

The way I see it, tapas brings out the worst in us. On the mention of “shared-plates,” we instantly enter survival mode. I’ve thrown elbows to make sure I get a piece of sautéed mushroom, one that I then diligently cut in half with my knife and fork in an attempt to trick my brain into thinking I have a full plate in front of me. The dishes arrive in a lazy succession, and we reluctantly take our sample of every item, however miniscule, in order to ensure that we somehow get enough sustenance to carry us through the meal. Then, suddenly, you’re full without having the chance to enjoy the event.

What we lose in the fray of charcuterie and hummus is all the best parts of eating-out. You don’t get to scan the menu to find the item constructed just for you, you don’t get to wait in anticipation as a singular, thoughtfully crafted meal is set in front of you, all the necessary food-groups spoken for and you can’t be assured that you’ll leave with a full stomach.

And yet, every Charlottesville restaurateur insists on hopping on the tapas-train, always presenting it as a novel idea, and we the people are endlessly seduced by the prospect. These restaurants, Mas, Bang!, Oakhart Social, Brasserie Saison and countless others, all have the capacity to present a fully realized, delicious dinner. Why don’t they? When will some gifted culinary mind step up to the plate, literally speaking, and have the chutzpah to resist the tapas-trend?

In the meantime, pass the charred brussels sprouts, I guess.

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