Five years ago, Ross McGinnes was scrolling through pictures of babies and food on Facebook when one post stuck out. It was just another friend broadcasting another meal he was about to eat, but McGinnes couldn’t get past the caption: “That is a big meal!”
“It was an average-sized meal served on a bloody huge chopping board,” McGinnes says. “His steak, chips and weird Jenga salad could all fit perfectly on a nice, white plate, but the restaurant seemingly didn’t have any, or nobody had bothered to empty the dishwasher.”
It gave McGinnes flashbacks to similar meals he’d experienced at restaurants determined to, for whatever reason, reinvent the plate. For example: In Barcelona, in 2008, he was “served a piece of cake on a table tennis bat,” he recalls. “It still gives me sleepless nights.”
So when McGinnes saw his friend fall victim to the “insidious trend of style-over-content Gastropub guff,” he felt obliged to do something. No one else should fall prey to dubious plating, not under his watch. He knew there were “plenty of diners venting their irritation at what they were being served food on, but no account heading the crusade.”
And so, @WeWantPlates was born.
Clearly, McGinnes struck a chord. But with such a vocal outpouring of hate for frivolous food presentations, why do restaurants keep doing it? According to McGinnes, it’s not pure creativity driving chefs to put steak frites in a frisbee.
“When a restaurant serves food on a massive plank, they can get away with charging you more. A ‘Hipster Tax,’ if you like,” McGinnes explains. “The same goes for slates, which I think we can all agree belong on roofs or beneath sheep on a Welsh hillside. Add a mini shopping [cart] of [fries] (hand-cut and triple-cooked, naturally), bread in a handbag or drinks served in jam jars wrapped in hessian, and it’ll get Instagrammed. It’s free publicity for the restaurant.”
In other words, restaurants have figured out how to harness the power of Instagram. A sloppy burger served on a broken computer monitor is much more likely to get posted on Instagram than the same thing bleeding on a boring white plate.
Besides the potential price hike and hygienic issues, McGinnes argues, there’s another side effect of this phenomenon. “With every diner armed with a camera on their phone, pictures are snapped and shared in seconds. There’s currently a staggering 367,073,031 photos with the hashtag #food on Instagram — and another 500 have been added in the time it has taken you to read this sentence,” he tells MEL.
“But when you look beyond all the unfathomable numbers and Instagram filters, has the food actually improved? Are chefs spending so much time faffing around balancing chips in miniature wheelbarrows that the taste becomes secondary?”
At “fancy” Michelin-starred restaurants, this might be expected, McGinnes explains. “If you’re lucky or daft enough to eat at some of the more left-field Michelin-starred restaurants, then you’ll probably be disappointed if your seafood starter doesn’t arrive on a scale model of the Titanic in a sea of dry ice, as ‘My Heart Will Go On’ plays from an iPad hidden under the table.” For what it’s worth, they don’t seem to care for him either — as evidenced by Michelin-starred chef Michael O’Hare:
Which means the @WeWantPlates movement isn’t necessarily aimed at the upper echelons of fine dining, who might argue they’re simply providing an enhanced sensory experience. Rather, @WeWantPlates is aimed to stop the trend from reaching smaller, affordable restaurants.
“It’s a pandemic,” McGinnes says. “And one I think well illustrated by the tale of my local pub, which used to do a great Sunday roast. Twelve pounds, piled high. Tasted great. And yes, it came on a plate.” One weekend, though, his local pub added “a quirky offering to the menu: little sandwiches, pies, dainty cakes and mini milkshakes served on a miniature picnic bench. The benches, painted bright pink and yellow, sat on top of tables seating actual grown adults. Of course, few people tried the food at first. They had to “whip out their phones and take a picture.”
Right before his eyes, McGinnes’ favorite little pub was forcing itself to become Instagram-worthy. Frustratingly for him, it worked.
“Over the following months, the picnic benches became increasingly popular, coinciding with the specials board becoming progressively smaller, before it eventually disappeared altogether,” he says. “I sat there one Sunday, watching bench after garish bench emerge from the kitchen like a Technicolor carnival of idiocy before my usual roast arrived. The meat was cold, the spuds were burnt and you could’ve skimmed the Yorkshire pudding across a pond.” Meanwhile, the traditional roast “had died an unpalatable death.”
McGinnes would have tolerated the whole bench thing if the pub’s business was booming. But then, “the pub down the road started doing them too. Then the one around the corner. Before you know it, everyone’s doing the same ‘quirky’ thing, except it’s not ‘quirky’ anymore because you can’t move for mini picnic benches and now all their roast dinners are rubbish to boot.”
It’s a haunting origin story to rival Joker. McGinnes lost something he held close to his heart, and now he’s going to fight to prevent other restaurants from doing the same.
So far, he’s had some success. McGinnes says he largely treats the movement as more tongue-in-cheek than an actual agenda, but there’s no denying WeWantPlates’ power in numbers.
“After worldwide media coverage, the crockery crusade continues to gather strength,” McGinnes says. “But so far we’ve had a chain of pubs change their plating policy. And the 2016 John Lewis annual report even claimed ‘the international We Want Plates social media movement helped spark a sales uplift of 18 percent in plain white dinner plate sales.’ Mind you, I’m still waiting for my complimentary dinner service as thanks.”