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"Family style"

Lately I've heard the phrase "family style" used for restaurants - particularly Italian restaurants and Amish style restaurants in the Lancaster Pa area. What exactly is "family style"?

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  1. The food is not individually plated, but is put in large serving dishes in the middle of the table and each person, who has been given their own plate, serves themself.

    1 Reply
    1. re: ArikaDawn

      I don't know what they do these days (this decade) but at least some of the Lancaster places used to be all-you-can-eat for a set price. That's different from the Italian or other family-style restaurants where you order large dishes to be shared, but far from being set-price, it can add up really fast if you're not watching, if it's an issue.

    2. Chinese restaurants have been doing this for years.

      6 Replies
        1. re: ricepad

          So have all families! :)

          I don't think anything creates bonds like eating family style on a regular basis, especially regarding preferences in food. Family style food is an instant conversation starter, and I tend to really enjoy discussing the food with my parents and siblings.

          1. re: MeAndroo

            I only serve family style for my family and friends when doing a sit-down meal. It is how my family has done it forever, and individual plating was just not part of the concept. It seems strange to me to plate for each person. It is also why I have one of the largest serving piece collections of anyone I know.

            1. re: RGC1982

              This made me laugh. I actually think I have the largest serving piece collection of anyone I know. I host many family sit down meals where everything is served "family style." I have even spoiled myself by buying multiples of everything so that no serving platters need to be washed and I can still serve food in courses.

          2. re: ricepad

            Well yeah, since I'm Chinese, I kinda knew that, but I was just saying so b/c the OP was so not knowing what it meant. I guess it is just the norm for you and me...

            Funny...as I read this, I guess not so many people have really eaten at a Chinese restaurant, since most all are served 'family style'. I guess I am perplexed at the thought that this is a new style of eating to many.

            1. re: justagthing

              I know exactly what you mean! The first time I ate in a Chinese restaurant with friends (all caucasians) was while I was in HS, and everybody was excited about ordering 'family style'. I'm thinking, "What the heck is 'family style'??? I have no idea what it is, I'll just go along!" Imagine my surprise when I learned that this exotic 'family style' to them was a basic 'Chinese meal' to me! After we were done, I asked them..."You mean you guys order individual items sometimes??"

        2. sounds like it might be a nice concept, but it'd be great to come up with another name rather than "family" style.........brings up the same ideas as family restaurants for me....and if i want to avoid kids running around .....i might also avoid this place.

          2 Replies
          1. re: im_nomad

            I doubt the term "family style" is going away any time soon. Hard to believe some have never heard of it.

            1. re: irishnyc

              Yeah, I'm surprised, too. Maybe it's a regional or urban vs suburban thing?

              Chinese restaurants I consider different since Chinese meals simply aren't organized in a way that matches American/European norms for individual servings (leaving aside the infamous "combo plates" and whatnot.) In my early adulthood I discovered the bizarre concept of people ordering "their own" dish in Chinese restaurants but it was never anything I'd seen eating in Chinese restaurants in NYC growing up. While "family style" in Western restaurants is hardly "new", they were never common or the norm in my experience, even in Italian-owned Italian restaurants here...

          2. this style of service has been around for hundreds of years. I like it because you don't have to commit to one menu item. I usually make a deal with my dinner companions that I'll order one thing if they get the other. Makes great conversation.

            1 Reply
            1. re: nathanac

              Family style is big in catering business now also. Weddings mostly. I LOVE family style..people take what they want - how much they want. Of course, if a dish were to run out early, we would refill it.
              It's part of that Euro - kind of Tuscan - trend that folks get into.
              1-2 protein, 2 starches to choose, 1 or 2 veg, and bread! No menus to pick from - no entree counts - no fuss. AND no Buffet line!!! With all the benefits of a buffet.

            2. That always weirds me out when people who don't know better all order individual dishes at an Indo-Pak or Chinese/Vietnamese restaurant---actually there are many dishes that are just meant for the individual like soups or snacks foods etc., but I mean main dishes. Especially when two or three diners order the same main dish and eat it by themselves, like three people each eating a giant plate of lo mein or a whole plate of saag paneer or something. Ideally, a "family style" Indian or Chinese type dinner, a group of people should select a combination of several types of protein (say one from the sea, one poultry, one red meat), a mix of a selection of dry gravy and wet gravy, perhaps a vegetable or tofu (or more variety of this if they are vegetarian), rice to eat with the gravies, plus a flat bread for South Asian, and perhaps a noodle dish to share at Korean/Chinese/Vietnamese, and a giant bowl of soup. I can imagine that the same type of thinking could be applied to any cuisine. All the dishes are set in the middle of the table rather than on each person's plate. Then each individual serves herself from the dishes on the middle of the table. That way, everyone gets a good mix of dishes and gets to try everything.

              1. Jfood agrees with the food in the middle and everyone takes definition.

                As he sits with his first cup of coffee, could the theory or genesis of this style relate to the way food can be prepared in the kitchen. For example, in a Chinese kitchen there might be one big wok. So as the food leaves the wok, it arrives at the table and people eat as delivered, repeat process. But when all the food arrives simultaneously, the individual order goes to the individual person who ordered it.

                What struck this thought was two different asian restos in town. One, people always seem to eat what they ordered and nothing else, the other, family style. The difference is the cadence of the delivery.

                Wondering if anyone has some insight into this?


                17 Replies
                1. re: jfood

                  Chinese cuisine and food consumption is naturally communal. This was borne out of necessity, for in Dynastic China, famines were all too often common. A common greeting upon meeting a friend on the street is still "Have you eaten yet?" (Ni chi guo le ma?) Whether at home or in the restaurant setting - no one dish dominates the meal. Meat is a part of a dish served, not the centerpiece. In Chinese etiquette, it is impolite for guests to leap right in and try to be the first one to eat - just as it is rude to be the one to take the last piece of shrimp. The "host" usually will begin by announcing Qing Yong! (Please begin. Literally: "Please use," as in Please use your chopsticks!) This host could be the senior family member or an elder at the restaurant table. This host would likely be the one to then to take the last piece of shrimp and place it on your dish! At more formal settings the host may even have an extra set of chopsticks to facilitate this. Whether in China or Taiwan, complete strangers will offer whatever they are eating to their neighbors on the train first. This applies to cigarettes, gum or candy as well.

                  At home, the host apologizes for "not having anything special" as they set down 5, 7 or 10 dishes. Another characteristic of the Chinese meal is to try to feature a variety of protein dishes: instead of 4 individual steaks, it will be about having 1 dish containing some pork, 1 dish contain chicken, or beef, or tofu or seafood etc with plenty of different vegetables. And soup. The use of chopsticks and round tables further encourages communal eating.

                  I am sure we've all seen "gweilos" sit down at one table and all order the exact same dish! This will not happen with 4 Chinese! While the home may have more than one wok, Chinese restaurants will have numerous woks and of at least two sizes.

                  1. re: scoopG


                    Very nice and jfood appreciates. As the gweilo who loves the family style in chinese restaurants he always hits his palm to his head when he goes out with friends to a chinese restaurant and they look atthe menu and state "I think i'll have the..." Jfood normally waits a few minutes and says, "Wow everything looks so good why don;t we get a bunch of dishes for the table."

                    1. re: jfood

                      sooo true, I get frustrated when going to an asian rest and our companions want to do one of those individual combo dishes. Must be that they really don't enjoy trying different food. Hubby and I can't do chinese by ourself, no fun, or we order way too much - "family style" and no family to share.

                      1. re: lexpatti

                        jfood and lexpatti - I think that is the "American" way i.e. individualistic. My sister once took me out to meet her new boyfriend (now her husband) to a place that she said served the best Mock Duck in town. I said wonderful. We all sat down and I suggested she order. She then places an order for 3 Mock Ducks! I love my sister and Herbie but....

                        1. re: lexpatti

                          >> I get frustrated when going to an asian rest and our companions want to do one of those individual combo dishes.<<

                          That is when you go on the offensive. A lot of people are used to ordering their own meal. Ordering a number of common dishes for the table is just something that you don't generally see unless you are in an Amish or a Basque restaurant.

                          When my friends come to Chicago and want to head to Chinatown or Argyle St., they are overwhelmed by the various menus. When that occurs, I propose that I do the ordering and they are usually very happy with that (and usually relieved).

                          1. re: jlawrence01

                            When I lived in Chicago, as a child, my parents and I would eat at a Chinese restaurant where it was served family style. Now, I am not sure if it was on the menu as a "Family Dinner" where you pick the soups, appetizers and entree's, but the food came out in piles and we all shared.

                            Here in Houston, the "family dinners" are offered, but they are usually things we don't want to share (very bland americanized items), so we all order individual items, with a lot of thought as to "If I get this, then you get that, etc" and when it arrives we all pass it around and share. There are a few places that offer items in small (for one person) or large (to share with a few), but most of the time if you order the full item and not the dinner special, you have plenty to share with the table.

                          2. re: lexpatti

                            I get the reverse with my mom who doesn't like ordering individual meals at restaurants that don't do family style. She hates not sharing but it can be a pain for the waitstaff to serve it as such. It's hard when it's a small protein, a side starch and vegetable all on one plate. How do you share that?

                          3. re: jfood

                            Years ago when Mr Diane & I lived in the Chicago area, we USED to have friends with whom we went to a Chinese resto. There were 3 couples, 6 people, and 4 of us looked forward to ordering a bunch of dishes and having ourselves a Chinese tasting menu. The last couple looked at us in disgust and said they INSISTED on individiual dishes and would NOT be sharing with us. Wonder what happened to those people because we haven't spoken to them since?

                            1. re: Diane in Bexley

                              The first time that we tried the sharing dishes in Chinatown - a couple of years ago, my wife had the same reaction as she was afraid that people wouldn't like all the dishes.

                              We ordered SIX dishes for five people and surprise! Everyone tried every dish and each person enjoyed at least FIVE of the six dishes.

                              In all fairness, you may need to make some concession on certain dishes - like ordering the shrimp headless for some groups.

                              1. re: jlawrence01

                                Is it a faux pas to not order at least one dish for each person when eating family style? There is a group of girls I dine with on a consistent basis. We all enjoy food, but none of us eat much. If there are six of us, is it wrong to only order four dishes? We do compensate in tip if that makes a difference.
                                More OT I love dining family style because I am someone who can never decide on only one dish especially with ethnic cuisines. I have found a lot of people who are resistant to this, but they are generally picky eater who have no desire to try anything new and stubbornly stick to the ONE thing they will eat. I have a brother in law who says the only chinese food he likes is egg rolls and a step-sis,, his wife, who will only eat sweet and sour chicken. Needless to say, I don't bother trying to push their food boundaries and don't bother with family style resto.s, except for the amish one in town, when dining with them.

                                1. re: ArikaDawn

                                  it is perfectly ok to order less dishes than people. We do that as well. Tell me though, what kind of food do they serve at the Amish restaurant?

                                  1. re: justagthing

                                    At the amish restaurant, you can choose roast beef, ham, pork chops or fried chicken, most everyone i know gets the fried chicken, and then they serve big dishes of mashed potatoes, gravy, vinegar slaw(my fave), green beans, corn, and big soft rolls with homemade apple butter and butter. It's nothing fancy, but it is always good. I don't know any CH who could resist. They also have really amazing pie, different kinds each day, but I am always too stuffed from loading up on the vinegar slaw and green beans which are the best I've had. I love the experience of this restaurant. I have only ever gone with my family, typically at least 3 or 4 generations are present, and the combination of family syle service, delicious simple comfort food that tastes like it came out of your Mammaw's kitchen, and the opporunity it provvides to reconnect with loved ones feeds the soul as much as the belly . I haven't been in awhile because I no longer live in the area, but my family goes as often as they have the occasion.
                                    There are actually similar establishments all over the area, Southern, IN, and they fare really really well. This sort of down home food is sort of a sure thing where I am from. In my home town all attempts at any exotic cuisine fail with the exception of one indian buffet, one japanese steakhouse, and several chinese buffets and even these establishment keep a few american dishes on the menu.

                                  2. re: ArikaDawn

                                    I'm with you ArikaDawn - my family has always been adventurous/sharing diners - "oh, can I have a bite of that" or "man,this is awsome - you have to try this", "wow, what did you order? Looks great". So "family style" dining has always been more natural for me.

                                    1. re: ArikaDawn

                                      A lot of it depends on the demographics. Two people in my group were very young girls who would try a little of this and that.

                                      Now if I bring my three nephews with me, it will be a minimum of eight ... and there will be NO leftovers to be found.

                                      1. re: ArikaDawn

                                        My FIL used to join hubby, me and my MIL in Chinatown for our bi-weekly feast. He would order Egg Foo Yong. And that's it- he refused to even taste anything else. Why he bothered to come with us was always a mystery, since he complained about the traffic, the parking, and the late hour we dined (7:30 p.m.). But we couldn't *not* invite him!

                              2. re: jfood

                                I love to cook Lebanese food with friends. We typically make 25/30 different dishes. Everything is put out on a big table and people help themselves. This is the ultimate "family style." This is all food that is good at room temp.

                                1. re: pikawicca

                                  aaah, that is called Arabic breakfast but is eaten for lunch and dinner, too. I love doing that for a quick meal. Some soft cheese sprinkled with za'atar and olive oil, some eggs scrambled with tomatoes, some hummus, some sliced fresh veggies and herbs like rocket, mint, tomatos, and cucumbers, and just whatever is in the house. Make a handful or more of these small plates, serve communally with Lebanese flat bread. And if I have some sesame paste chunks (halaawa tahiniyya) to top it off, the better! Yum!

                              3. I like family style eating at home for ease, and portion size, but do not like family style dining when going out.

                                When I go out I want my own plate of food & it to be served to me, and not to be passing platters, and bowls of food around. I also dislike buffets for some of the same reasons.

                                2 Replies
                                1. re: swsidejim

                                  ah, but that is why a lazy susan is so important in communal dinning. just spin and pick...ok, kidding a bit here.

                                  1. re: justagthing

                                    I agree, a lazy susan does come in handy, we actually have one at home on our dining room table.