Enter the sleek lobby of the boutique Duane Street Hotel in New York City’s Tribeca and you’ll notice a discreet bookshelf at the back of the room. Beyond this bookshelf lies a secret entrance—a door that leads you t o a tiny, hidden dining room. In this dining room there is counter for four overlooking a kitchen, as well as tables seating 16 people. This is the space diners will encounter when chef Jehangir Mehta opens his newest restaurant, Graffiti Earth, early in 2016. The former Jean Georges pastry chef, also known for his stint as a contestant on “Iron Chef America,” is no stranger to a small space: His three restaurants—Grafitti, Me and You (a private dining establishment in Mehta's kitchen), and now Graffiti Earth—are all tiny. “I’ve always been drawn to creating small places,” he says.
Mehta isn’t alone. Chefs and restaurateurs all over the country are opening limited seating restaurants that they prize for their intimacy. New York City spots chef Cesar Ramirez’s Chef’s Table and Carlo Mirarchi’s Blanca remain hot tickets years after opening; in Las Vegas, é by José Andrés has inspired whole how-to guides on strategies for securing a reservation. And in January of 2016, chef Paul Qui will open the doors to his new 12-seat omakase restaurant Otoko in the South Congress Hotel in Austin, Texas.
For a lot of restaurateurs, opening a tiny, exclusive restaurant is simply a byproduct of the owner’s specific vision for the space. When they opened Forage in Salt Lake City a few years ago, for instance, chef Bowman Brown and his business partner Viet Pham were determined to open the restaurant in a house—a decision Bowman says was inspired by the idea “that dining is an intimate experience to be shared by family.” For diners at Forage, that means “interacting with the whole staff, including the kitchen team.” But as with all small restaurants, it also means that availability is limited. That’s part of the fun, says Bowman: “I like the idea that guests anticipate their dinner for weeks and months in advance.”
At Martin Cooks in Buffalo, New York, which opened in 2013, the emphasis is on personal attention—and business considerations. Four days a week, chef Martin Danilowicz serves a prix fixe meal to a small group of 12-18 people—many of whom have become friends and regulars in the process. Customers sit around the bar overlooking the kitchen and are encouraged to ask questions while the staff cooks. It creates a personal dining experience—but there are also financial benefits: “From a business standpoint it makes perfect sense. I know exactly how much food to buy for the week.”
“It’s a soul satisfying and financially viable model,” says chef Naomi Pomeroy, whose restaurant Beast in Portland, Oregon seats 26. Just as at Martin Cooks, Pomeroy’s menu is set. “The pressure of the patron having to decide what to order is taken away; it's like joining us in our home for dinner.”
Of course, exciting, small dining establishments have been around as long as restaurants themselves (and probably longer). A lot of what these chefs are doing is trying to connect guests with the simple ritual of eating. “It's what people want,” says Pomeroy. “Human connection.”
Here, 5 exciting new (super-tiny) restaurants to try this year:
1. Le Comptoir, Los Angeles, California
This 400 square-foot LA hotspot seats 10 people for 2 seatings 4 nights a week, where diners have full view of the kitchen.
lecomptoirla.com; The Historic Hotel Normandie, 3606 West 6th Street
2. Revolver Taco Lounge, Dallas, Texas, opening in late January 2016
This Fort Worth institution is relocating to Dallas, where in the back of a traditional Mexican taqueria chef-owner Gino Rojas will recreate his mother’s Mexican kitchen, with seating limited to 20.
www.revolvertacolounge.com; 2701 Main St.
3. Locale Market's FarmTable Kitchen, St. Petersburg, Florida
Three night a week, chefs Michael Mina and Don Pintabona offer a special 10-seat chef’s table private dining event
localegourmetmarket.com; 179 2nd Ave. N.
4. Graffiti Earth, New York, New York, opening in early 2016
Jehangir Mehta’s intimate new restaurant, tucked downstairs at the Duane Street Hotel
http://www.jehangirmehta.com/; Duane Street Hotel, 130 Duane St.
5. Otoko, Austin, Texas, opening in January 2016
Chef Paul Qui’s much-anticipated 12-seat omakase restaurant
southcongresshotel.com; South Congress Hotel, 1603 S Congress Ave.