Trend Humping: Are Tapas Bars Overdone?

Everything tastes better on a toothpick
Inspired by this week's news that the soon-to-be-ex tapas bar Txori (2207 2nd Avenue) will be closing the doors on April 19 only to be replaced by...another tapas bar (to be called Pintxo), I got to thinking about the current tapas craze and whether or not it's getting to be a little overdone.

According to my thirty seconds of research on Urbanspoon, Seattle apparently boasts 36 tapas restaurants--or at least 36 restaurants with owners smart enough to have tagged the word "tapas" in the description of their restaurant and which could, under a very broad definition, be considered to have served a tapas (tapa? tapoi?) or two at some point in their history. 36 restaurants, out of a field of roughly 10,000 restaurants, serving a regional population of about 3 million (600k in the metro area)? That doesn't seem like much, does it?

Except that, when discussing specific types of restaurants which aren't fast food, QSR or the Olive Garden, we're immediately shrunk down to a much smaller number of restaurants. Again, according to Urbanspoon, 36 tapas restaurants is about twice as many as the listed number of Spanish restaurants. Seattle has more tapas restaurants than dim sum operations, more than the number of Turkish, Pakistani, Moroccan, Indonesian and kosher restaurants all put together. We have more tapas restaurants than we do German restaurants, Cuban, Creole or Brazilian. And why?

Because tapas are trendy, and, in defiance of the very notion of the word "trendy," have been for damn near forever. Granted, the terminology changes (they were "small plates" restaurants in the 90's, then izakaya restaurants, then small plates again in the mid-2000's, then tapas bars), but it all means the same thing: tiny little plates of food for (seemingly) reasonable prices. When the initial craze for small plates first hit, it was hailed as paradigm shifting stroke of brilliance by restaurant owners everywhere because it was essentially permission for them to offer less food on the plate while still charging a ton of money, relatively speaking. I mean, why serve an entire plate of calamari for $11 when you can shrink the portion size to a quarter and still get eight bucks for it? On paper, small plates were a godsend. And when the foodistas started getting wise (because every fucking restaurant in America was suddenly serving nothing but tiny bites of dates or bread or prawns al ajillo), all the smart owners had to do was turn the lights down, hang a couple lanterns from the ceiling, start playing Rodrigo y Gabriela on the stereo, add a lot of jamon Serrano to the board and bingo, tapas restaurant.

For customers, the tapas/small plates restaurants have always filled a double-niche. On the one hand, they appear to be a more reasonably-priced alternative to going out and dropping a quick c-note on two apps, two entrees, drinks and a shared dessert (and can be, provided you have some self control, which I do not). On the other, the small plates restaurant speaks to one of the most powerful food impulses resident in the hearts of modern diners: the wish to eat an entire meal made of nothing but appetizers.

One of the first restaurants I reviewed in Seattle was Ocho, a tapas restaurant. Several of the more interesting places I have on my list of restaurants to try are tapas restaurants (or izakaya restaurants, or small plate restaurants). But like fusion restaurants, cupcake restaurants, New American restaurants, nouvelle French bistros or hyper-regional temples of lost American foodways, I wonder if tapas restaurants are, once again, becoming too prevalent. Is the surprising number of them indicative of a true shift in the tastes and desires of the eating population, or is the boom being driven solely by chefs and owners who know that making a buck on small plates is just a little bit easier than making that same buck serving human-sized food?

Further, is there something in the gastronaut DNA of Seattleites that makes the small plate/tapas/izakaya style of menu and service more attractive here than it is elsewhere? Because while further plumbing the digital guts of Urbanspoon, I found that this city has more tapas restaurants than Boston, about twice as many as Philadelphia, nearly as many as Atlanta and more than half as many as are listed in Miami. NYC has almost a hundred of 'em, but that's New York. It probably has a hundred falafel stands run by strippers, a hundred small cafes dedicated only to cooking plates traditionally served within a fifty yards of the Arc de Triomphe. My former home base of Denver? It lists 20, and I know for a fact that only two or three of them are actual tapas joints.

So what is it, folks? Is the small plates thing getting big again and Seattle is on the leading edge of the curve, or is this trend just outstaying its welcome, leaving Seattle foodies and restaurateurs humping a trend that's already dead elsewhere?

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