Your mother was wrong: You should be eating with your hands. Cultures around the world have been doing so since the beginning of time, and for all the right reasons: Hands-on dining heightens your sense of taste, fosters a better connect with your food, and creates bonds among fellow diners. While it’s not uncommon to see this practice at ethnic restaurants with large expat clienteles, a growing number of upscale Western-style restaurants are encouraging diners to put down their utensils and dive in.
Kamayan Night, Jeepney Filipino Gastropub, NYC
If you’ve ever been invited over to a Filipino family gathering, you know you should wear your stretchy pants. At Jeepney, a Filipino gastropub in Manhattan, owner Nicole Ponseca offers that opportunity every Wednesday and Thursday nights when she hosts Kamayan Night (Kamayan means "eating with your hands"). Guests sit down to an Insta-worthy spread: a “river of rice” laid out on banana leaves topped with starters such as lumpia (spring roll-like savory pastries) and a choice of entrees such as slow-roasted pork shoulder and whole fried fish, along with sides like longganisa (sausage) and pickled salad. Everyone is given warm wet towels, then shown the proper eating technique: You make a little ball of rice, top it with a bite-sized morsel of food, cup your hand, and push the rice ball into your mouth with your thumb.
Peel ‘n’ eat, alaMar Kitchen, Oakland
At newcomer alaMar Kitchen, which specializes in seafood boils, chef Nelson German wanted to create an atmosphere where guests can roll up their sleeves and satisfy that primal instinct to eat with their hands. To that end, there’s a hand-washing station in the middle of the dining room and a roll of paper towels at every table. Dinner arrives on paper-lined trays with a dump bucket, and patrons dive fist-first into the signature peel ‘n eat white gulf shrimp drowned with Romesco sauce, sopping up every last drop with hunks of grilled bread. And it’s not just the seafood that’s meant to be eaten barehanded; other popular hands-on dishes include coconut shrimp lollipops, Parmesan tornado crisp, and petite chicken wing confit.
"With Hands" Menu, Loyal Nine, Cambridge
Newcomer Loyal Nine in Cambridge draws its name and inspiration from Colonial-era New England, when “silverware was expensive and eating with your hands, and a piece of bread or simply a knife, was common practice,” explains chef and co-owner Marc Sheehan. So it’s no surprise that the menu has a “With Hands” section dedicated to tactile dining; it includes fried soldier beans, grilled ribs and vegetable crudités dunked in fluke roe yogurt. Sheehan wants diners to be "pulling apart cured meats, spreading butter onto bread, using your hands to get deep into that fish better than any utensil ever could." Adds owner Daniel Myers: “Dining with your hands immediately puts our guests at ease and shows we aren't taking ourselves too seriously.” If it’s on the menu, don’t pass up the nose-to-tail bluefish, served whole with the fillet removed but the head and tails still intact.
Sticky Rice Spreads, Hawker Fare, San Francisco Bay Area
James Syhabout runs the buttoned-up Michelin three-starred Commis in Oakland, but at Hawker Fare, his casual Thai chainlet focusing on Issan-region cuisine (with branches in Oakland and San Francisco), he encourages guests to be loud, indulge in tiki cocktails, and eat family-style with their hands. He’s created a menu of snacks, grilled meats and rice dishes made for doing just that. The key, he points out, is to use sticky rice as the utensil. “The proper way to eat rice is to think of it like a tortilla in Mexican cuisine” on which jaw bong chili relish, papaya salads, and laabs can be piled. Despite his waiters' encouragement and clever illustrations, not everyone goes for it. It’s an easier sell for patrons who have been to Thailand or Laos before and “have exposure to the culture firsthand," says Syhabout; he admits “people are creatures of habit, and it is much more challenging when there is a cultural divide.” Don’t be that guy.
Ethiopian Feasts, Demera, Chicago
For excellent Ethiopian food in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood, take the L train to Demera, a popular Michelin-recommended restaurant where nearly everything on the menu except dessert is eaten without silverware. A diverse crowd of diners sits down at communal tables, breaking bread over messobs (combination platters) heaped full of spiced vegetables, meat stews and seafood dishes. Nearly everything gets scooped up onto torn-off pieces of injera, the spongy unleavened sourdough bread used instead of utensils. Be sure to enjoy it with some honey-wine sangria or a hibiscus-and-cardamom-flavored margarita.
Utensil-Free Cocktail Bar, ABV, San Francisco
Don’t bother asking for a fork with your grilled Little Gems salad at ABV, a hip year-old gastro-cocktail bar in San Francisco’s Mission District—your waiter will kindly decline (trust us, we’ve asked). You won’t find a single fork under the roof at this popular late-night spot, which turns out an eclectic collection of handheld bar bites. Chef Collin Hilton explains the utensil-free policy was “something we knew we had to commit 100% to, or not at all.” Even his recently launched brunch menu follows suit. Occasionally there’s blowback from unsuspecting patrons; “It's always fun to witness first-time Internet dates,” jokes Hilton. Judging from crowds happily chowing down nightly on falafel lamb dogs, mapo sloppy Joes, and kimchi fritters, the conceit is clearly getting the thumbs up.
Michelin-Starred Samosas, Tulsi, New York
“No metal can replace the heavenly pleasure of eating with your hands,” says Eric McCarthy, chef of the Michelin one-star Indian restaurant Tulsi in Manhattan. He was born and raised in the coastal region of Goa, where “eating with your hands [particularly seafood] is something we all do at home.” Still, it’s a big leap to ask well-heeled diners at a white-tablecloth restaurant to do so, but reactions from the guests range from “momentary pause to immediate pleasure at the permission to act so informally in such a sophisticated restaurant,” says McCarthy. About 50 percent of the patrons (of Indian descent and otherwise) regularly use their fingers hands when eating his samosas, lamb chops, and other specials that rotate through the regular and tasting menus. Just remember to use your right hand.
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