As Koh Thai Tapas prepares to open its third restaurant in the South East, a number of other new tapas-style concepts are springing up around the country, with sharing dishes and a more informal dining approach beginning to be applied to a variety of world cuisines.
Tapas is proving to be all the rage at the moment. The concept offers a level of symbiosis between restaurateur and customer not seen among others; the diner can choose exactly how much they want to eat and pay, while the restaurant can sell smaller dishes at better margins, in the knowledge that bills can mount quite quickly.
Ferran Adrià planted the seed, deconstructing traditional menus at the now-closed El Buli as he moved towards smaller plates and sharing.
In the UK, fine-dining restaurants soon began imitating some of his ideas, moving away from the British tradition of each diner having a fixed three-course dinner.
But in recent years, the term ‘tapas’ was no longer just being applied to the traditional Spanish Bodega-style outlets. And now the Italians, French, Thais and even the British all want a bite-sized slice of the action too.
“It’s all in the sharing,” says Andrew Lennox, owner and director of Koh Thai Tapas – his concept offers small portions of popular Thai dishes, ranging from £4.95 to £6.95.
“The vast majority of people don’t want to go to a fine-dining restaurant where they often feel ‘suffocated’. And with the recession hitting hard, tapas-style restaurants give good value for money, a variety of food and a great atmosphere.”
Founded in 2009, Koh Thai Tapas now has two restaurants in Bournemouth, with plans for a third in Hampshire and five more sites to open around the UK in the next two years. Lennox hopes to bring the concept to London within the next five years.
“You can dine at our restaurant for £15 if you want, with a beer and a pad Thai, or you can dine here for £500 - it’s entirely up to the customer and how they want to have their dining experience,” he adds.
Italian, French, Indian, British
More recently, the concept of tapas has evolved considerably from its more simple origins and has become an entire cuisine in its own right. And it has not escaped the attention of the UK's restaurant scene at large. There are other pan-Asian tapas concepts, as well as Italian, French, Indian and British restaurants that have jumped on the bandwagon.
As Wayne Edwards of trend experts Thefoodpeople explains: “Smaller, sharing dishes work for everybody. The concept fits with consumers, it fits with operators and it fits with current lifestyle and consumer trends. And that’s the basis on which these food trends can really take off.
“From a consumer’s perspective, there’s a real buzz around sharing dishes and they’re more aware of cost constraints and there’s a perception of lower cost with tapas-style food; a diner can have one dish, or they can have four.
“But I think this is only a ‘perception’ - It’s usually not necessarily a cheap way to eat; the cost of dishes can mount quite quickly. And that’s the massive advantage for the operators.”
Lennox from Koh Thai Tapas agrees. “It’s an advantage for us,” he says. “But our tapas dishes are pretty substantial. We’re seeing many restaurants now offering tapas dishes, but what they actually mean by that is they’re just offering smaller dishes for a higher margin.
“That’s not what we do. Our dishes are priced at £4.95 up to 6.95. The diner can come in, order some tapas dishes, and then they can order some more, and then they can order some more!”
Five example of tapas-style dining outlets
- Polpo (Italian) –Russel Norman’s concept, which recently announced plans to grow its restaurant estate to six sites in London, serves Venetian, tapas-size portions of Italian classics including polpette and pizzetine.
- Umami (Pan-Asian) – Having opened in South Kensington’s Cromwell Road in March, Umami offers appetizer portions of Thai, Malasian and Singaporean dishes.
- Imli (Indian) – Situated in the heart of the West End, Imli offers authentic Indian street food served tapas-style in an informal setting, with a traditional-meets-modern theme.
- Bistro La Barrique (French) – Having recently opened its second site in Bath and its flagship site situated in Bristol, Bistro La Barrique presents its food using a ‘petits plats’ format. The petits plats menu allows diners to create the meal of their choice by selecting and combining a number of smaller French dishes.
- Boyds Brasserie (British) – The Trafalgar Square restaurant offers modern 'British tapas', featuring a variety of classic British dishes presented in a small, bite-size format. Dishes include Welsh rarebit, pan-fried seabass with red onion jam and cockle and caper popcorn, offered at two dishes for £7.90 with additional choices £3.50 each.
This isn't to say that tapas restaurants have fully departed from the concept’s origin. More traditional Spanish tapas concepts to have hit the UK in the past year include: