What is family-style dining?

How to enjoy the unique, intimate experience created by family-style dining.

This video was created in collaboration with Vox Creative.

Jamie Malone is chef and owner at the Grand Cafe in Minneapolis, Minnesota. In 2017, her restaurant was called “the most exciting dining experience of the year.” And in 2018, it was named one of the best in the country.

One secret to Malone's success? Serving family-style meals. “Our goal at the restaurant is to cook delicious food, but it’s really to create an environment where people can come and truly let the rest of the world disappear and connect with each other,” she explains. “You set it down in the middle of the table, and instantly, you can see everyone’s body language, just zooming in over the food...you’ve just instantly created this connection between all of those people.”

Intrigued? Here’s why (and how) to seek out family-style dining for your next meal out.

What is family-style dining?

Family-style dining—sometimes referred to as “large-format dining”—is when food is served on large platters meant for sharing, rather than as individual plates. Diners serve themselves from the food platters, just like you might at home in your dining room.

What are the advantages of family-style dining?

Diners and chefs alike enjoy the unique, intimate experience created by family-style dining. The act of ordering as a group—discussing likes and preferences, debating menu choices—can create a more communal experience. When the meal is brought out, your friends or family can experience the meal together.

Another advantage of family-style dining is that you’ll be able to try a wider variety of dishes and choose items you wouldn’t otherwise order.

While a whole roast duck isn’t something that you’d typically order for yourself, it’s an ideal choice to share with a group. Plus, you don’t have to worry about missing out or making the “wrong” menu choice.

What if I have kids at the table?

Worried your kids will be overwhelmed by a family-style dining option? Family-style meals can be an opportunity for children to practice valuable life lessons like sharing, mealtime manners and healthy food choices. Family-style dining can also help your kids gain independence and self-confidence. It’s a fun way to help children learn to eat better—and to learn dining etiquette, too.  

What’s the etiquette around family-style dining?

There are a few variables unique to family-style dining. Common questions include: How should you split the bill? What if some people eat more than others? Who gets to take home leftovers?

As with any shared experience, communication is key. Discuss plans for paying ahead of time with your friends. If you’re planning to split the bill, confirm that the restaurant can handle separate checks, or use a payment-sharing app. Generally, splitting the bill evenly is easiest for a restaurant, but it may feel unfair to those who ate less than others. No matter how you handle the bill, make sure that everyone is comfortable—and that picky eaters can opt out of shared dishes if they prefer.

Not just for restaurants: Family-style wedding meals

According to Kate Lerman, owner of Chicago Vintage Weddings, the family-style dining trend has been increasingly popular as a catering choice for weddings.

“Many of my couples choose to serve family-style meals because of the warmth and communal feel of this format. It’s a way for them to feel that they are bringing their guests together as a community to celebrate their special day,” she says. “It’s also convenient because couples don’t need to track each individual guest’s meal choice! Additionally, this is a great icebreaker for guests who are sitting at the same table who might not know each other.”

How to find family-style dining

Often, family-style dining is connected to eating traditions around the world. In Spain, tapas are small plates of food that are meant to be shared—and in some places, they’re complimentary with drink orders. Dim sum is a traditional Chinese meal that’s similar to family-style meals: Dumplings are chosen from carts, and diners share food and tea in a communal experience.

Local family-style spots may vary based on where you live. For example, in Richmond, Virginia, some of the best family-style dining spots are Italian restaurants. They offer big, shareable servings of pasta and seafood.

Look for menus that list small plates or shared plates, or search for “family-style restaurant” near your city to find reviews that mention family-style options. 

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