Few industries are as beholden to trends as the restaurant industry. You can chart the fluctuations in what is deemed cool by the plates we see before us. From focaccia to fusion, to the great kingfish crudo scourge, all the way back to focaccia again, what we eat in restaurants evolves and changes over time.

As a pragmatist, I’m typically happy to play the game and ride the waves of popularity that lap against our dining tables; we’ve lived through enough foams, spherifications and gastrique skid marks to know that not every trend is designed to last. Not long ago, mortadella was the cheapest thing in the deli, barely more desirable than the pallid, vaguely meat-adjacent sheets of chicken loaf I’d occasionally get in my school lunch. Now, the cold cut adorns almost every menu in the city, from pizza topping to high-end hotspot snack.

But one recent trend really gets my goat (and no, it’s not a pivot to more goat on menus, though that would be good to see). Are we ready to have an uncomfortable conversation about complete plates of food on menus? Recent trends towards single, unadorned pieces of protein on a plate have me wondering: where is the love? When did every restaurant become a steakhouse?

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You’ve all seen it. On restaurant menus across the country, you look down to the mains. There’s a fish dish. There’s poultry. The obligatory gnocchi. There’s two, possibly three red meat dishes, listed as “800g Dry Aged Rib Eye MP” or “300g Stone Axe Wagyu Scotch Fillet, 55”. What comes with this dish, you may ask? If you’re lucky, a sprig of rosemary – but more frequently, it’s a lick of olive oil and a few salt flakes. Want a carbohydrate or, heaven forbid, some vegetables with your dinner? They’re individually priced, too, and will add an extra $20, minimum, to the bill.

The running joke of fine dining was that it was needlessly deconstructed, think a “caesar salad” of dehydrated bacon crumb, anchovy gel and a parmesan cremeux. When did steak, chips and salad become the same? Having only barely survived the menu haiku era, where descriptions like “short rib, Thai basil, liquorice” were our only clues as to what our lunch would be, we find ourselves in an even more fraught moment: the single item menu era.

I blame Neil Perry. To my mind, Australia’s greatest ever restaurateur popularised the elegance of premium produce, cooked skilfully, and served simply. At Rockpool Bar & Grill, business lunchers fawned over brazenly minimalist hunks of grilled beef with a lemon wedge garnish. More recently, at Perry’s passion project Margaret, premium wild-caught Bruce Collis fish is served grilled, seasoned with salt, and drizzled tableside with Perry’s signature olive oil. Refinement personified, but it took Perry decades to reach this status, and with due respect, most chefs are not Neil Perry.

Or maybe it’s Tom Colicchio’s fault? The star US Top Chef judge and industry heavyweight popularised DIY menus in the early 2000s at his Manhattan restaurant, Craft. Diners were encouraged to choose a protein or more substantial dish to anchor their meal, then build around it from a list of seasonal vegetable and carbohydrate sides. Many an Australian restaurant owner has splurged on an NYC “research trip”, but I fear we have taken the wrong lessons from Perry and Colicchio. These restaurants are the exception, not the norm; we need to bring back proper plates of food.

Diners have become too used to spending $13 on a side of frozen fries when there are innumerable neglected potato preparations out there, and a bounty of seasonal vegetables dying for someone to actually cook them. Why not a hasselback? A fondant? My kingdom for a well made dauphinoise. And heaven forbid that a $70 dollar steak might come with a sauce, or assembled in a way that might complement other ingredients.

Let’s take it back to basics, or should I say, back to complexities: plates of food with protein, carb, vegetable and sauce, lovingly crafted to reflect seasonality, provenance and the creativity of the chef. Subway boasts there are 37 million unique combinations customers can order; it’s time for restaurants to take back the narrative, and stop asking the diner to tell the story.

Jay Clough is the creator of the industry newsletter Bureau of Eating and Drinking.

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