Tiny restaurants swap out seats for greater intimacy, quality

If the menu has more things than there are seats in the area, that is a sure sign you are in a very small restaurant, where intimacy principles and personalized experience matters as far as what is on the plate.

Several tiny restaurants are awarded Michelin stars (which makes it that much more difficult to secure a chair); there is Tsuta in Tokyo (nine seats), Histoires in Paris (12 chairs), and The Araki in London (10 seats). “Every chair is in the chef’s table,” boasts The Araki’s website. In October, Battuto, a 20-seater trattoria in Quebec City, was named Canada’s best new restaurant by Air Canada.

For many chefs, the allure of a small kitchen is your ability to return to the fundamentals of cooking and entertaining. “I’d worked in many bigger restaurants and I wanted to return to producing,” says Matt Cowan, who runs The Heather, a 12-seat restaurant in Hamilton with his wife Meg. “The intimate nature produces a sense of home. We connect with all our guests and many have become great pals.” His prix fixe menu features dishes such as walleye with apple and sunchoke and changes frequently — no dish stays on the menu over a month.

For many others, a smaller clientele allows for more freedom in menu idea. The Westin Harbour Castle in Toronto opened its diminutive restaurant Savoury to the general public in May of this year. Sage Livingstone, the resort’s marketing director, describes it as a “creative space for liberty” for chef Corbin Tomaszeskis, who develops an original four-course menu for each dinner. The restaurant operates basically by appointment only, serving a minimum of five diners to a max of 10. Guests can only get into the area through the hotel’s primary kitchen, and meals typically cost $100 to $200 per individual. A good example of a dish: sous vide lamb loin and braised lamb neck tortellini with king oyster mushroom, faba beans and rosemary potato foam.

In Edmonton, chef Ben Staley opened the 12-seat Alder Room in late May (it also ranks in the brief list of Air Canada’s best new restaurants in the country). While space constraints were one consideration when choosing the amount of chairs, Staley says that the decision to keep things small was about elevating the dining experience. “Serving fewer people, you can find the highest quality ingredients and supply the best service you could,” he says. The tasting menu ranges between 15 and 20 classes and costs $160 per person. The focus is on Alberta dishes and ingredients include quail egg wrapped in vegetable ash and salty jersey milk ice cream with maple syrup.

With just one other person working every meal — they place the cutlery, fill water glasses, explain the dishes and the wines, cook and clean — Staley admits there is more pressure running a very small restaurant. “With fewer seat we must get a higher bill average to pay our costs, but we have such a small team — it is just me and someone else — so many of our prices go to the components, and it provides us the chance to find the finest ingredients we can buy,” he says.

He considers guests like the feeling of exclusivity — “you feel like you’re a part of the small supper club, like, ‘oh, I was able to snag two of those 12 chairs tonight'” — and for him, the reward is in the struggle. “We didn’t need to be a standard restaurant, not that there is anything wrong with that, but to me, that is what everyone does and I need to do something that everyone is not doing,” says Staley.

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Courtesy: The Globe And Mail

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