Tapas bars are as ubiquitous in Spain as Starbucks is in the United States. Sprinkled throughout cities from Barcelona to Madrid to Seville, these popular eateries have long provided morsels - and a social gathering spot - for the hungry passerby. Interest in tapas dining, which includes sampling a variety of appetizer-sized dishes, is also taking off in the US.
The American interpretation of tapas, however, isn't quite the same. In Spain, tapas, which are known as small bites of many different dishes, are offered in bars. They help tide over grumbling stomachs before a 10 p.m. dinner.
By contrast, in the US, cafes and restaurants serve a variety of tapas as meals, relieving diners of the often-daunting task of choosing only one dish on a menu.
That leads diners to think of tapas as easy on the wallet, an attractive idea in tough economic times. As a result, many consumers who used to think bigger was better can now be found grazing on small portions of shellfish, mouthfuls of grilled meats, or dipping triangles of pita bread into tiny bowls of tapenade, hummus, or eggplant spread.
"The change in the economic climate has encouraged people to be more cost-conscious about their entertainment," said Wally Vincenty, manager of Café Ba-Ba Reeba, the first tapas restaurant in Chicago. "We are not by any stretch of the imagination expensive. The style of food, presentation, and cost makes it appear more affordable."
But buyer beware: Tapas for dinner can leave one not quite satisfied and with a big bill. Tapas are generally less expensive than entrées on an item-by-item basis, but because they are only snack-sized, costs for the hungry diner can add up quickly.
One more caveat: Don't expect to return home with a doggy bag. As an increasing number of diners place more value on quality over quantity, super-sized restaurant meals are gradually becoming a thing of the past.
"Food in general has been going in the direction that less is better," says Lisa Burris, culinary coordinator at Johnson and Wales University in Charleston, S.C.
In the past six months, Ms. Burris has seen three tapas restaurants open in Charlotte, N.C. Eight years ago, she knew of only one tapas place, a traditional Spanish restaurant.
Every culture has its version of appetizer-style eating. In addition to tapas in Spain, there's antipasto in Italy, meze in Greece and the Middle East, amuse-bouche in France, and dim sum in China.
Not all American restaurants specializing in this type of cuisine stay within the parameters of one particular region or country.
Some new tapas restaurants have expanded beyond the traditional Spanish cuisine to Nuevo Latino and Asian influences by mixing recipes and introducing new items such as sushi tapas.
Gerry Hayden, executive chef and proprietor of the restaurant Amuse in New York City, calls his cuisine contemporary American, based on global ingredients. The menu consists strictly of smaller portions, which it calls "tastes for sampling and sharing."
While the portions are small, the length of the menus is not. Tapeo in Boston offers 43 items, and Café Ba-Ba Reeba's menu boasts 62. For large groups dining out, expansive selections provide options for all.
And diners don't have to narrow down their choice to just one dish, which, if the restaurant menu is a good one, can often leave them feeling conflicted, says Michael Moskwa, director of culinary education for Johnson and Wales University in Miami.
The tapas trend, he adds, is a result of consumers' increased sophistication and sense of adventure.
Josh Duncan, owner of Saffron restaurant in San Antonio, makes a similar observation. What's fueling the small-bite trend, he says, is "people's desire to experience different sensations - and their willingness."
The Food Network, the rise of celebrity chefs, and the multitude of cooking magazines have also played a key role in cultivating new attitudes toward food and in educating consumers about a variety of cuisines.
Fernando León, who owns two tapas restaurants in the Boston area, Tapeo and Solea, attributes the rise in small-bite eating to its informality.
"[Tapas] is so much more fun," Mr. León said in a telephone interview. "It's very social if you're sharing food with four to six other people. It's still sophisticated without being formal or uptight, and it gives the opportunity to eat different things."
This social aspect is especially prevalent in Spain, where, according to Charlie Rascoll, chef instructor at the Culinary Institute of America, the tapas bar is "a real social entity."
Is this style of eating just a flash in the pan? Mr. Moskwa insists not. "It's here to stay," he says, adding that the tasting trend is even showing up on dessert menus, which might feature a sampling of sweets to finish the meal.
4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
About 12 scallops (fresh is best, but frozen is fine if well-thawed)
Half a small onion, minced
4 tablespoons minced parsley, plus 2 more tablespoons chopped parsley for garnish
6 strands saffron
2 pieces prosciutto, cut into 1/8-inch strips
Juice of 1 lemon (or less, to taste)
Rock salt (optional, for garnish)
1 scallop shell (optional)
Place 1 tablespoon of of the olive oil in a medium-sized skillet and heat to smoking point. Add scallops and saute until browned, about 2 to 3 minutes. Remove scallops from skillet and reserve on a plate.
Return skillet to heat, add another tablespoon of olive oil, and saute onion until wilted, about 1 minute. Stir in 4 tablespoons of minced parsley and the saffron.
Return scallops to skillet, add prosciutto, lemon juice, and remaining olive oil, and cook, stirring, for 3 to 4 minutes.
Fill a small plate with rock salt, and place scallop shell on salt. Place 3 scallops with sauce, including prosciutto, into shell. Or skip the salt and shell, and simply dish out scallops with their sauce onto a small plate. Repeat four times.
Garnish with fresh chopped parsley.
- Adapted from Saffron restaurant in San Antonio, Texas
About 6 red peppers
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus about 1 tablespoon for coating peppers
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
6 cloves garlic, minced
Salt and pepper
Preheat oven to 500 degrees F. Coat peppers lightly with oil and place in an ovenproof dish. Roast peppers in the preheated oven for about 30 minutes, until they begin to soften. Turn them every 5 minutes or so to ensure even cooking. When done, take peppers out of oven and let them cool.
In medium-sized bowl, put 1/4 cup olive oil, the vinegar, and the minced garlic. Mix well. Add about 1 teaspoon salt and 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper.
After peppers have cooled, peel their skins and remove seeds. Slice them, julienne-style, into 1/8-inch pieces. Stir slices into bowl with marinade, coating peppers completely.
Spoon out a single-size serving onto a small plate. Repeat until finished. Can be served with large crackers or thin slices of a good French baguette. Chunks of feta cheese or olives would also complement this dish well. Or serve it alongside grilled fish or chicken.
Serves about 8.
- Adapted from Tapeo restaurant in Boston [Editor's note: The original version of this story attributed the source for the Pimientos Asados recipe to the wrong restaurant.]