The whole concept of dining out has been shifting for a while now around the city. Our terminology for the spaces in which we dine has expanded: we don’t just go to restaurants, bistros and cafes anymore, we visit dining rooms, eateries and bars – and with this, the word bar has started to encapsulate a whole new entity that is seeing new businesses open, offering flexibility and quality. The expectation of what a bar can and should offer has shifted significantly, to the point that you may no longer want to order just a drink when you take your seat at a bar, but request a menu for drinks... and food. What we eat and drink and how we eat it and drink it is changing, and the burgeoning culture growing around it is offering greater choice for the diner and more avenues of expression for the business owner.

The options we have are creating a culture vast in choice and more and more often seeing places open that are built around the concept of a varied selection of small dishes of quality food backed by a generous range of drinks – wine, cocktails and non-alcoholic drops – with the food and drinks have equal importance. This is happening in restaurants that have previously only provided the opportunity to dine in the traditional sense (entree, main, dessert), as well as seeing the setup of stand-alone bars with generous food menus.

MoVida is one of the trailblazers of this culture in Melbourne, opening what was initially intended to be a relaxed tapas bar and growing to the extent that MoVida Next Door and Aqui have both been established to support the ethos of good Spanish food backed by quality wines and other drinks. Executive Chef Frank Camorra sees MoVida Next Door as what MoVida was intended to be originally.

“With MoVida we set out to have a more relaxed, less structured place and overtime it became, not a restaurant as such, but the experience has become more like a restaurant. So with MoVida Next Door we thought it was a good opportunity to set up what we had initially intended – a tapas bar as close to something in Spain as possible.”

MoVida Next Door and places like it offer customers freedom and flexibility and in how we eat out: order a handful of small plates and a glass of wine before the theatre or just a quick bite on the way home, or commit to a dining adventure and indulge in many dishes. Establishments offering substantial bar food or share plates as well as a full menu are becoming the norm rather than the exception: Coda, The Deanery, Naked for Satan, Huxtable, Little Press, Bar Lourinha, Cumulus Inc., Cavallero, The Waiting Room and countless others.

The share-plate now sits next to the three-course-meal as a valid and appealing choice in dining out, although ‘tapas’ has become a word almost without cultural status in its random, at times careless, use to describe small tastes of different dishes. Despite or because of this misnomer, you’ll see menus with the titles ‘Tastes’, ‘To Share’ ‘Small Bites’ and other lead-ins to a selection of small dishes to share.

Donelle Coates, co-owner of The Deanery Bar and Restaurant in the CBD with her partner Glenn Fletcher, sees people eating out more often and believes they want more choice in how they eat out. “We have alot of CBD residents come in here often,” she says. “People are dining out more regularly and don’t want the formal structure of a traditional restaurant. Share plates create a family atmosphere and make the experience very relaxed.”

Camorra agrees, “People go out to eat a lot more than they used to and having a tight structure around dining out doesn’t always suit the customer. It’s about flexibility and letting the customer invest as much or as little time in the experience as they want.”

Is economics playing a factor here too? After all, two small plates and a glass of Rioja is certainly less of a commitment – in terms of both time and money – than two courses and a bottle of wine. Coates hesitates: “It may have a little to do with economics, but I think it’s more about choice. Customers don’t want the rigidity of formal dining rooms all the time. While there is always a place for fine dining, people don’t want that three times a week; they want to go out, relax and just share a few dishes.”

Camorra, however, does see this trend influenced by economics: “Sure, economics plays a part. People can come in and spend a little and just have what they want. They can splurge too but that’s up to them and that’s where the appeal lies.”

Take what you will from the bar culture that surrounds us but trying, tasting and maintaining a culture that is certainly very Melbourne can only be a good thing. What trend comes next is yet to be seen but this one certainly doesn’t look like it’s going away any time soon.