Why do appetizer portions come in threes?

As a writer, I’m a big believer in the rule of threes: we came, we saw, we conquered. As an eater, threes drive me crazy. How often have you and your dinner date gone out to eat with another couple, and found three appetizer portions on the plate? Three pieces of bruschetta. Three pieces of cured salmon. Three meatballs.

Virtually no one dines in a group of three. Most tables are couples or groups of four. Three portions creates that awkward moment where I have to offer to share one of them, or someone demurs and says in a truly Minnesota way, “I’m okay.”

“We like to put an odd number on the plate just to watch the Minnesotans struggle to take the last piece,” laughs Jorge Guzman, chef at Solera, the Minneapolis Spanish-inspired tapas restaurant that almost exclusively serves small plates. “Usually an odd number of items is more aesthetically appealing to the eye and is used in design as well as food plating. Diners eat with their eyes even before they get a chance to smell or taste, thus making a plate more appealing at a glance,” he adds.

So it looks pretty. I value the beauty of a plate as much as the next guy, and I do eat with my eyes, so Jorge’s explanation makes sense. But I like what chef Susan Dunlop is doing even better, with the seared-shrimp appetizer she serves at the restaurant she co-owns, Joan’s on the Park in St. Paul. “It’s four shrimp served on an alder-wood plank, with a yuzu dipping sauce on the side,” she explains. “The smoking plank may compensate visually if four shrimp aren’t as pretty as three.” Joan’s on the Park also offers lamb meatballs in a portion of four and chorizo-stuffed plums in a portion of six. “I know our servers also feel more confident when offering an appetizer to four people when there is a portion for each guest,” she adds. 

Good servers will at least give diners a heads up: “This comes with three pieces, sir.” The best restaurants will make an extra portion. A beautiful plate is one of the joys of eating out. Not having to cut one of Susan’s seared shrimp in half is an even greater one.

Jason Derusha is a reporter/anchor at WCCO-TV. Have a dining mystery you want Jason to solve? E-mail him at DeRushaEats@gmail.com