small plates

In a world of small plates and share plates, it’s typical that meals are ordered in a way that is atypical of traditional dining. I frankly can’t remember the last time that I was with a group who each ordered a salad, an entree and a dessert without sharing or splitting plates. More typical these days is a meal that I had Monday night at A16: two of us shared an appetizer, a pizza, a small pasta and three sides.

“How would you like that to come out?” most servers ask me. My typical answer? “However you’d like, just not all at once.” I say this last point with emphasis and look them straight in the eye. A quick way to get me in a bad mood is to deliver so many plates to my table that we are juggling plates and stressed to get plates off the table to make room.

I find that most places I go to are very good at asking the question about coursing. But whether it’s followed is a gamble. The successfully coursed meal at A16 came out in three rounds — the appetizer and a side, the pizza, and then the pasta and two sides.

One night at a Valencia street restaurant known for great cocktails and excellent food, we ordered a similarly random meal. That night, I was looking forward to a leisurely paced meal and we had some ideas of how the meal should come out due to wine pairings with different dishes. We talked to the server about it and he even went so far as to tell us when he would have the kitchen “fire” certain courses, and spent a couple of minutes confirming the order with us.

The meal started to come out immediately and too quickly. The courses were completely confused, and the server was notably absent. The food was delicious. The meal pacing left us agitated and annoyed. What could have been a really stellar experience was made only above average due to the way that our food was presented to us.

The worst example of coursing recently was at a newly three-star restaurant in SOMA where the plates were too large for a two-top and came out all at once. We had to move some plates to an adjacent table just to make room to eat. It would have been comical if I wasn’t so annoyed. When we mentioned the problem to the server, she just said “Oh, that’s the way the kitchen does it sometimes.”

It’s time for San Franciscans to stop letting this sloppy coursing slide. Gone are the days of an entree with a choice of soup or salad, baked potato or fries. At least in San Francisco, we’ve been seeing nontraditional menus for several years now. And managers need to be training servers and kitchens on how to handle orders in order to make the experience comfortable for the diner. Restaurants must evaluate every order and consider it on its own for the best pacing and coursing. This may sound like nitpicking, but we are lucky to live in a city where we have numerous choices for excellent food — it affords us the leisure of making coursing and pacing a deciding factor when choosing a restaurant.

SF Restaurants: Pace Yourself 24 June,2008Jennifer Maiser

  • I have had similar experiences when ordering smaller plate style meals – the best experience I had was at A.O.C. in L.A. – the server totally took control of the coursing and made suggestions – it was a great meal.

  • Pingback: New York City : Dining News Elsewhere: Blenders, 'Burg Bust and Bad BBQ()

  • Scott Worsham

    In our area of Long Beach CA, several of our local sushi restaurants bring our meals at different times. I have tried asking for all the mains to come at the same time, but they don’t really have a grasp on English and I don’t speak Japanese so they still come separate. Is this some kind of cultural thing for Japanese food? It seems really rude if mine comes first or my wife’s food comes first. Either way it feels weird to sit there for five minutes waiting for the other meal to come out.


Jennifer Maiser

"My passion for food began young."

I am the editor of the influential website which encourages readers to support local farmers and producers.

I began my personal website, Life Begins at 30, in 2003.

I have been published in Edible San Francisco and Fine Cooking, write regularly for Bay Area Bites, Serious Eats, and have been quoted in many nationwide publications. Photography is a passion, and I have had photos printed in National Geographic Traveler and Travel + Leisure.

I contributed to a Williams-Sonoma cookbook: Cooking from the Farmers' Market, which was released in February 2010.

I live in San Francisco, California and can often be found at local farmers markets seeking out the best of what's in season and chatting with farmers.

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