In the past few years, more and more restaurants have embraced family-style dining, featuring dishes meant for two, three, or 12 in addition to their regular plated dishes. This type of service is reflective of a broader trend: a more communal, comfortable dining experience in an upscale environment.
We talked to two restaurants to learn more about how family-style dining has influenced their operations and hospitality, both for the front of house and back of house. At San Francisco’s Mourad, Chef Mourad Lahlou has become known for his large-format dishes, which serve between two and six and can be ordered in addition to traditional items. In New York City, Georgette Farkas’ Rotisserie Georgette offers an entire menu of whole roasts, which can be ordered in advance for an extra-special experience.
Here, Mourad and Georgette explain five things chefs should know about family-style dining — and why they stick with it.
Family-style dining can be more meaningful for guests.
“It’s powerful that people are touching the same things and put it in their bodies to be fed and nourished,” says Mourad. “The act of eating from the same vessel is extremely powerful. It’s unifying; you just feel this togetherness.”
Guests who choose large-format dining options are looking for a communal experience, and the structure of the menu delivers on that. Mourad says even his back-of-house team feels more gratified preparing a family-style dish, knowing it will be enjoyed by a group.
For Georgette, large-format dishes create a special occasion, whether guests are truly celebrating or not. “There’s this building sense of expectation,” she says. “Before they even get here they’re excited about their dinner, because something special has been ordered and prepared just for them. Your host has planned it for you.”
It can make ordering easier for guests.
Mourad says tables that order for the group end up worrying less about deciding what to eat. Guests compromise to come to a consensus, which can save time deliberating over dishes.
“People are always being asked, whether intentionally or unintentionally, what’s good or bad,” he says. “Decisions are made constantly throughout the day. When people are about to eat, it takes away some of that burden.”
On his menu, guests select the protein they want and the sides come with it; although diners can make special requests, most are happy to go along with the kitchen’s recommendations. At Rotisserie Georgette, it’s the host who makes menu decisions when ordering from the large-format menu.
“You definitely have to find some like-minded souls to bring along,” Georgette laughs. “That’s the only challenge, but it’s usually one that gets embraced.”
Large-format dishes take extra planning and preparation.
At Rotisserie Georgette, guests must order from the large-format menu three days ahead of their reservation — that’s the time it takes her kitchen staff to order the product from the farm, get it to the restaurant, and prepare it for the table. She says about 10 to 15% of guests arrange whole roasts in advance, which they confirm with a credit card. “We’re getting it here for you; we need to make sure you’re also getting here for us.”
Additionally, Georgette has implemented a well-oiled system of communication from the back of house to front of house. Beyond thinking about lead time and preparation, she has to think about how whole roasts fit into the progress of her evenings and allocate space on the rotisseries accordingly.
“We have to plan in advance: what time is the guest coming, what time are they sitting down, how many courses are they having, how are we going to time when it’s going on the rotisserie, when is it coming off, and resting time. It’s planning, organization, and communication between the reservations team, the kitchen, and on the night of, the waiter.”
Mourad estimates that 60% of the guests at Mourad choose large-format options. That can pose a challenge for his cooks, since modern kitchens are set up for fast execution and large-format dishes can’t be cooked quickly.
It takes days of planning and execution to cook a lamb shoulder to the optimal flavor and texture; they can’t cook a whole fish or chicken ahead, so that’s going to take 30 minutes. He says non-prime cuts are actually best for large-format dishes, because they can be cooked ahead and, given the proper treatment, can be infinitely more delicious than a prime cut like lamb chops or rack of lamb.
These may not be your most profitable offerings.
Think cooking a whole animal or roast is the most profitable preparation? Think again. In Georgette’s case, the farms she sources from are known for the quality of the animals they raise, so she pays a premium for the best product. When prepared whole for a group, the margins aren’t as good as they might be on a composed, plated dish.
“As any restaurateur will tell you, often with your most luxurious ingredients that’s not necessarily where you make your best margins. For us it becomes a matter of pride in serving something very special.”
A whole wild salmon, for example, is very expensive on the purchasing side. Georgette says that if she had to apply the same target profit margin to it as she does her other dishes, it would be priced out of range — she takes less profit on it in the hopes that the guests will have a great experience and become repeat visitors (which, often, they do).
Cost wise, large-format dishes are great for Mourad, especially when he’s buying non-prime cuts — but the extra labor expense he pays balances out any savings. “Labor wise, we need to do so much planning,” he says.
Take a whole roasted chicken, for example, which Mourad says takes seven days from the time it gets to the restaurant to the time it hits the table. The first day, they break it down; it’s brined for another day; it’s chilled and dried for another three to four days, and cooked and served on the last day. “That whole process costs a lot of money — seven days, and a lot of planning and space and organizing,” he says. “That’s where most of the cost is.”
There is room to evolve.
When Mourad first opened, the team was only planning to offer two large-format options. However, they enjoyed it so much (and so did the guests) that they kept adding. Now they have have five family-style items and are looking into adding an additional vegetarian one.
Georgette’s team changes their roasts seasonally. While they offer a whole-roasted salmon year round, from May to September they have access to whole wild salmon. In March, just before Easter, they offer whole roasted young lamb from local farms — a delicacy they are introducing with a special wine dinner.
“It creates this sense of celebration, even if it’s just a dinner out amongst friends,” says Georgette. “Something that special is worth a little bit of forethought to gather a few friends and call us in advance.”