BUENOS AIRES — Not too long ago in Argentina, almost every restaurant menu had the same three-course format, with a starter, main course, and dessert. Fortunately, the blessed dessert is still there. And still safely at the end. But everything else seems to be changing, and the distinction between starter and main course is becoming a thing of the past.

The trend now is for smaller dishes that are often shared, in the middle of the table — Spanish style. Indeed, versions of Spain's tapas and (the bigger) raciones are winning adepts in all different kinds of restaurants, from Asian to Latin American, and even in people's private kitchens.

"Tapas come from Spain, where people would have a drink and there would be a snack on a piece of bread or toast, which they would place on top of the glass, which is why it's called a tapa (or top)," explains Martín Arrojo, chef at Jornal, an informal eatery in the Saavedra district of the Argentine capital. "The little plates (platitos) are basically small dishes."

A popular place right now is Sifón, which opened in 2019 in Saavedra. Typical snacks it serves include chistorra sausages with bread and eggs, or matambre beef slices with mashed potatoes and cauliflower. The snacking concept is "a quest" says one of its owners, Juan Manuel Bidegain. Everything is grilled here and small, with a portion costing 200 pesos (around 3 euros). The waitress recommends ordering two per person, and customers, mostly millennials or a little older, generally follow her recommendation. Of course with tapas, you can decide exactly how much to eat.

Julián del Pino, a chef at the Vico Wine Bar, which serves snacks and wine by the glass, says "diners calculate their portions. Usually with our format it's three or four per person." The business pioneered this format when it opened in 2017, and has three branches now.

In Opio, which serves Asian street food, chef Diego Rizzi says snacking allows you to "manage your budget. You can eat something for very little money. Instead of two people sharing one dish, they can share various little plates."

Tapas at Sí, Pastrón in Buenos Aires, Argentina — Photo: Sí, Pastrón via Instagram

A co-owner of Sí Pastrón (sandwiches and more), Sebastián Montero Horianski, says customers are curious and "want to try new flavors. Obviously your wallet's a big issue in this recession, but people do not want to stop indulging entirely. Rather they're looking for ways to tweak their budget. The little plate meets both points: the experience and a price that lets you live it."

But as Clarín found speaking with a dozen or so businesses, customers and restaurants may not agree on what suits them best. "Rather the opposite," say the owners of Ajo Negro in the Chacarita district, who observe that making little dishes requires as much effort as a standard plate. Their outlet serves seafood snacks, and opened in 2019 with the idea that customers had tired of the three-course format.

Small portions avoid boredom, and flavors can be registered for longer.

Most chefs agree that another reason for this bourgeoning concept is wanting to relax the restaurant experience and try new things. Paul Porras, a partner of Ronconcón, which serves different Latin American foods, says "two or more" can enjoy the tapas format, which is also "much more interesting" for the restaurant.

Gonzalo Aramburu, the creator of Aramburu, hailed by TripAdvisor users as one of world's best restaurants, also chose the snacking format for his second outlet. It gives customers "access to more options" and helps them "understand a little better" this way of eating. Small portions, he says, avoid "boredom, and the flavors can be registered for longer."

Christina Sunae, a local Filipina chef, says "eating has changed. People want something tastier and faster, and they're tired" of Argentine staples like meat pies and veal Milanese. She owned one restaurant and opened an Asian tapas bar, Apunena, in Chacarita where she lives. "I always wanted to open a tiny little place where I could make any food that day," she says.

Is all this related to the age of diners? Nacho Trotta, the chef of Bestia, says it has more to do with curiosity than youth. The snacking trend is evident in many cities, he says, and "in street food concepts that have even earned Michelin recognition." Snacking, he adds, is established in Madrid, in the Basque Country, the Middle East and Asia.

And what do these changes mean for restaurants? Many charge customers extra for sharing a dish, and there was a failed attempt to legislate against this practice. But what the law could not stop is being changed by demand-side pressures. Fewer restaurants now charge the punitive sum for not ordering a proper dish, says Carlos Yanelli, president of the Buenos Aires Chamber of Restaurants. His own restaurant, Estilo Campo, does not do it and has encouraged the practice of sharing dishes; that was its response to the "little plates," and to "customer demands," says Yanelli.

Snacking may have been born of cultural changes or the recession or both, but sharing and tapas have come to stay in a city always looking for new ways to eat.


See more from Food / Travel here