(April 22) Appetizers are a setup.

They whet diners’ palates for the entree to come. They tease tastebuds. Appetizers also enhance the social experience of eating out by encouraging groups to share. They appear at the top of the menu and they can be a gracious guide to the chef’s culinary talent and skill or a host from, well, you know.

But whatever those appetizers may be —tapas, a carpaccio, dim sum or cold soup — new varieties of fresh fruits and vegetables often drive the selections.

“In this area, even if there are traditional meat-based dishes, the portions of meat are a little bit less and the variety of vegetables on the plate is expanding,” says Lilia Jordan, a culinary consultant based in Darien, Conn. “You’re seeing a piece of grilled fish cooked Oriental style topped with a variety of legumes.”

Chef Ann Quatrano, co-owner of Floataway Café and Bacchanalia, both in Atlanta, says she and her partners are very sensitive to what’s in season, and menus are adjusted accordingly.

“Without a doubt it is generated by what is seasonally and locally grown more than it is driven by the availability of meat or poultry or game,” Quatrano says. “Our menu changes daily. It’s tomato season here, so we are heavy on the tomatoes. One of our appetizers here is shrimp that is served with a spicy tomato granita.”

Appetizers keep us from getting bored.

“I’m frequently disappointed with entrees because it’s too much of one thing,” Quatrano adds. “With appetizers it’s a small amount and you’re interested in it the whole time.”

Consumers are willing to eat more produce because vegetarian dishes in general aren’t just for hippies. Especially among the younger set, occasional vegetarianism is cool.

“People are starting to move or accept the whole idea of eating more vegetarian-type meals,” Jordan says. “Because there’s such a wide variety of vegetables available now, people are starting to use a variety of vegetables as a meat replacement. There are purple potatoes, red potatoes and fingerling potatoes. It’s just not potatoes any more.”

ON THE MENU

The number of appetizers offered on restaurant menus increased 16% from 1994 to 1999, according to the National Restaurant Association’s Menu Analysis Study. Many diners are ordering appetizers to share.

“I would say one out of every three tables orders appetizers to share,” says Quatrano of Floataway Café. Floataway Cafe is a little more casual than Bacchanalia, a prix fixe high-end establishment. Pizzas are most popular.

“One of them is squash sliced paper-thin, and it covers the whole pizza,” Quatrano says. “It’s covered in mozzarella, and we add shaved black truffles.”

What diners find on appetizer offerings depends on whether the restaurant wants to buy something and have staff heat it up, or have staff prepare the small meals from scratch, says chef Mike Artlip, an instructor and culinary consultant at Kendall College, Evanston, Ill. The trend may be toward starting from scratch, as many diners are expecting fresh produce in their meals.

“Consumers are definitely becoming more sophisticated all around,” Jordan says. “They’re expecting more than fried chicken fingers and fried cheese sticks and fried mushrooms. The freshness is becoming more of an issue.”

DO THEY DO IT?

Jordan says that produce is branching out on the plate. Instead of seeing one vegetable on a plate, diners are seeing two or even three.

“Produce has become just as important as the center of the plate, “ she says.

Charlie Palmer, chef at Metrazur, which is in the Grand Central Terminal, New York, offers Provencal grilled vegetables and vegetable minestrone as an appetizer. Stuffed vegetables always have been popular, but chefs are finding new ones.

“Little cherry tomatoes that are stuffed with things,” Artlip says. “You see them stuffed with guacamole. Stuffed pea pods with various cream cheeses, savory like onion or chive, or sweet like pineapple.”

Chef Jody Adams, co-owner of Red Clay restaurant in Chestnut Hill, Mass., pairs half an avocado with crab salad.

“We have squash blossoms,” Quatrano says. “We stuff them with fresh ricotta cheese and we sauté those and serve it with basil.”

Cold soups are in vogue. They can be very rich in color and flavor, and they offer a cool twist during the hot summer months.

“We do a cold cumin-scented carrot soup,” Quatrano says. “People like soup as a general rule. In the summer, it doesn’t make sense for us to do hot soup — we’re in Atlanta.

“It’s a natural transition for us to do a chilled soup. I think they’re very refreshing, and people love them. It’s got this great flavor and they’re fat-free.”

Artlip says cold soups are as popular as ever but they’re very seasonal. He says he sees a trend toward deconstructed soups, where diners receive their soup in components and build it at the table. Chef Michael Foley of Printer’s Row in Chicago offers cold cucumber soup with tarragon yogurt and white fish.