Family-style dining: Bringing people and food together

By Liana Robberecht

In the world of restaurants, the return of family-style dining shows that food is no exception to the adage that everything old becomes new again. With the hustle and bustle of our multi-tasking, information over-loaded, everything-on-our-phones lives, people are rediscovering the importance of taking a moment to reconnect with family and friends. There is no better way to achieve this than with the addition of delicious food.

Family-style dining (also known as English Service) originated long ago with records of such meals dating as far back as Ancient Rome. Invited guests would join around a table for a feast brought in on platters. One can imagine the importance of this shared food and the art of good conversation in such a community-oriented culture.

Enter modern-day cuisine. Charcut Roast House in Calgary, Alberta has long been ahead of the family-style dining trend. At their award-winning restaurant, which has focused on family-style dining for over six years, owners/co-chefs John Jackson and Connie DeSousa have been successful in bringing people together to share amazing food and conversation.

Inspires conversation

“Family-style dining invites conversation and sharing, plus you get to try a little bit of everything,” says Jackson. “Sometimes perfectly plated food can create silos and can often seem a bit boring. Everyone eats, but you miss out on some of the great conversation, the rituals and the connection that comes with sharing a meal together. When I dine out with friends and family, my favourite part is ordering food for the table that I know we can all enjoy together. We have lots of plates and serving spoons all around, but the conversation is seamless with fond memories that make me smile and say, ‘Yeah, I want to eat here again.’”

Family-style dining is the perfect way to bring people together in the most basic of ways – sharing food. Literally sharing a dish does more than nourish our bodies, it nourishes our souls. Our need for a more real social connection with others has always been expressed in the food and restaurant industry, but this latest trend of sharing takes it to a new level. While food innovation, creativity, technology and style are always moving forward, this “new” trend of sharing food family-style is a way we are moving forward by looking back — and going back — to a simpler, more connected and more social way of eating.

Creates connections

Another culinary trend on the rise is an increased interest in knowing where our food is from and how it is prepared. This ultimately translates into a greater sense of feeling connected to the food and to each other. Sharing food, family-style, also shows our desire for nostalgia, bringing us back to the memories of such holiday traditions as Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukkah or Eid al-Fitr – platters of festive nourishing food that set the table and led to conversation.

While sharing platters is considered somewhat new to North American cuisine, it has been cemented in Asian cultures for generations. The much-anticipated new restaurant La Vong is slated to open Fall 2016. Married chefs Duncan and Wanda Ly are excited to share their vision of contemporary Vietnamese Pan-Asian style dishes with diners in Calgary, Alberta. The Lys share the philosophy of bringing people together to enjoy a meal with family and friends. Both chefs lead a busy celebrated “chef’s life” and know how difficult it can be to find a moment to regroup.

Improves social skills

“When we had our son Dylan, we both agreed on the importance of sharing meals together. Sharing meals together increases self-esteem, social skills and language. We want to show and teach our son the value of bringing people together with food as the main ingredient,” says Wanda Ly.

And they couldn’t be more correct. Today’s life is full of technological advancements and convenience-oriented everything. Far from connecting us, it’s making us downright lonely, with more and more people living alone and relying on technology for social interaction as opposed to face-to-face encounters. “Social” media should serve as a supplement, not a replacement to physical interaction.

The fact is, people are social creatures and need to feel connected to others. Jessica Pelland, executive chef of Charbar, together with Connie DeSousa and John Jackson, understand this need for connection and created another platter style concept.

“Family-style dining is my favourite way to cook for people, making food we can all sit down and share together,” says Pelland. “I really connected with the Argentinian asado  (barbecue) when I spent time cooking in Buenos Aires this past year. We have brought that same style of eating to our diners at Charbar, all inspired by local ingredients. At the heart of our Argentinian-inspired kitchen we have our own wood-fired parilla. We offer small plates and large platters that invite everyone to dig in and share together. Highlighted favourites from the menu include salt brick chicken, chimichurri, hot sauce butter, Alberta beef short riblets asado (my personal favourite) and the fire pit asador platter (a little sample of everything). All items are platter style.”

Making memories

At WinSport Winter Sport Institute in Calgary, large banquet parties from weddings to holiday parties are opting to book a traditional family-style platter concept. Ronnie Gillman, executive sous chef, speculates, “I think one of the reasons is it creates a more social and interactive experience for our guests. That in itself helps create long-lasting memories.”

WinSport is taking this family-style dining trend to the next level by holding smaller group parties in the kitchen so that customers can further interact with their food and the chef. Diners have the opportunity not only to connect over food with each other, but take it a step further to interact with the chef as their meals are being prepared, all while sitting in the working kitchen. The customer’s desire for knowledge on where their food is sourced and how it prepared is insatiable. In this sense, today’s kitchens are replacing the theatre.

There is a difference between “sharing a meal” and sharing food, however. Simply grabbing dinner with friends and ordering your own entrees doesn’t have the same bonding effect. But when food is served “family-style” or on a large platter meant to share, we seem to engage at a higher level. Food nourishes, yes, but beyond that it creates memories and it can entertain and teach us. And when we sit down together and embrace all of this, it can truly connect us.

Pros and cons of family-style service


  • Very casual, relaxed setting
  • Greater communal atmosphere
  • Guests can have more than one helping
  • Guests can easily share menu items
  • Requires friendly but not necessarily skilled workers


  • Not as elegant as traditional restaurant service
  • Overly large portions or limited ability for portion control
  • No individual plate presentation
Source: Remarkable Service: A Guide to Winning and Keeping Customers for Servers, Managers and Restaurant Owners. The Culinary Institute of America, John Wiley and Sons, Inc., 2009

About the author:

Liana Robberecht is Executive Chef at WinSport in Calgary, Alberta. In 2011, she was named Chef of the Year by the Alberta Foodservice Expo and Canadian Restaurant & Foodservice News. Liana is a frequent contributor to CRFN.

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