In less than 1,000 square feet, the size of the entire Talula’s operation, there’s no room for error. Dishes cannot be dropped, candles cannot creep too close to guests’ flowing clothing. Everything must be built to function like a well-oiled machine. Prep counters become tableside entertainment. Chefs make do with no space to stand, and guests must learn to make nice with their neighbors.
From a practical perspective, a small restaurant like Olexy’s is also a smart restaurant. Servers also do clean-up, saving an owner from having to pay another person. Chefs also throw the towels in the laundry in the back, saving money that could have been spent on a laundering service. If the food is good enough to charge patrons a little more money, a small restaurant can make a profit with less risk than a large restaurant. The rent is cheaper, the build out is cheaper, and the return comes in a little faster.
"The business model is great. You’re not spending money that you don’t have," says chef Naomi Pomeroy, whose Portland, Oregon restaurant Beast has 24 seats. "I didn’t go into debt to start that restaurant, and I own the whole thing outright." Almost 10 years later, Pomeroy has proved that being careful and frugal works. "In the beginning [saving money] was the whole thing. We didn’t even have a dishwasher," she says. "We would wash the dishes while we were doing service, and the servers had to help while they were trying to pour wine. It was pretty crazy."
From Bad Saint in Washington, DC and Talula’s Table in Pennsylvania to Petit Trois in Los Angeles and Beast in Portland, small restaurants are thriving across the United States. There’s an art to feeding a group of people in a tiny space, and the bar for excellence is much, much higher. When there are only 24 guests, there’s no hiding a spilled water jug or a poor plating. Working in a small restaurant becomes a choreographed dance, everyone spinning, plating, and cooking in a rhythm that cannot be broken if the first course is going to hit the tables on time.
For chefs to make magic happen in such a small space, the devil’s in the details.
Successful small restaurants must thrive on limitation. The menu has to be smaller because the kitchen can only keep the ingredients for so many dishes in the refrigerator. The staff must be small to allow them to move in the space, and the seats must be few so that everyone can fit and eat and chat without incident.
Recently, I ate at Washington, DC’s 24-seat Filipino restaurant Bad Saint, where the less than 1,000-square-foot establishment is designed to perfection in every inch. There was a tiny shelf elevated about a foot above the bar to hold drinks, a mirror had been strategically placed so that you didn't have to turn to see your date, and the bathroom around the corner had a red light above it like an airplane that guests could see reflected in the mirror. Even the plating had to be small, to make sure several dishes could fit on such a small table top.
When Pomeroy opened Beast in 2007, the restaurant didn’t even have a stove. Over time, they acquired a hood and a real stove, after playing some serious "Tetris" with the oven layout. "Everything had to be moved in the kitchen to get the stove to fit," Pomeroy says. But in the beginning, there were just two long tables, a butcher block, an electric oven, two electric induction ovens, some metro shelving, and not enough storage space. Pomeroy started the tiny restaurant almost by accident: After almost a decade running restaurants that were bigger than she thought they needed to be, all of her projects ended abruptly. "I had lost the joy of the businesses," she says. "I wasn’t cooking anymore, and I couldn’t keep my hand on the pulse of everything. It just felt like my head was spinning around like that girl in The Exorcist."
So when a friend offered her an "800 square foot concrete box" to do a project in, Pomeroy leapt at the chance. With a couple of friends from her previous ventures, Pomeroy built out the space to seat 24, family-style, with a six-course set menu. "We actually built the restaurant around the low boy [refrigerator]," she says. "We got it from a coffee shop down the street that didn’t need it. There was no way we could have afforded to buy one ourselves, and then it was so big we basically just built the counter on top of it."
At 800 square feet, the only "back room" was essentially a closet where onions could sit on shelves, and a washer and dryer could clean the never-ending stream of dirty dish towels. Everything had to be designed within an inch of its life. Pomeroy left the kitchen completely open — as many small restaurants do — so guests could talk to the chefs, but also because the space was far too small for anything else. They built metro shelving on the side wall to hold the dishes. "That’s the whole dining room: two tables, a butcher block, and metro shelving with wine glasses and shit on it," Pomeroy says. Since then, Beast has reorganized a little, building a small temporary structure in the back to hold more supplies, giving them a little more space.
"It’s much more difficult to run a teeny business than a huge business," Olexy of Talula’s Table says. "I have one restaurant that serves 200 people and one that serves 12. The tiny restaurant is a completely different endeavor because everything is different about the intimacy."
"The tiny restaurant is a completely different endeavor because everything is different about the intimacy."
And as the owner of a tiny restaurant, that intimacy doesn’t just appear, it has to be created. Almost every owner I spoke with said they used mirrors to make their spaces seem a little bigger, but that part of why they started a small restaurant was the buzz that uncomfortable closeness creates. Diners reach across each other to grab communal water jugs. Wine glasses might be knocked over as someone stretches across the bar. Chairs might be narrower, and they’re definitely closer together. Strangers sit close to each other. People's energy absorbs into the walls until it vibrates with closeness.
Allison Cooke, a hospitality design principal at CORE, says this is a go-to strategy for a small space. "Moving all of the seating up at bar height is a great trick to make you feel less claustrophobic," she says. "People tend to take up less space when they are seated higher."
This is a design used well at Petit Trois in Los Angeles, an almost shotgun style space that measures less than 900 square feet. "I love Petit Trois. It’s my favorite restaurant," says owner Ludo Lefebvre of the 21-seater in his four-restaurant empire. It’s simple, homey, classic. The floor is black and white-tiled. Orb lights hang from the ceiling. On the left wall, diners sit at a narrow bar made of wood — less than 18 inches wide — and face wood-trimmed, rounded-top mirrors to make the space seem bigger. On the right, the bar is wider — a little over two feet — and made of a gorgeous slab of white granite that diners share with the chefs in the kitchen, located on the other side of the bar. To get to the bathroom at the end of the room, it’s a maze of barstools. But, as Lefebvre says, "People are happy. People meet each other. The waiter bumps you. You bump the people next to you. I love that about it."
One night at Petit Trois, a French actress was sitting at the bar. People were shoulder-to-shoulder, as they always are, and she leaned forward maybe to order a drink or chat with a friend, Lefebvre doesn’t remember exactly. What he does remember is that before anyone could stop it, her long hair had fallen into this little candle. "Boom, it was on fire," Lefebvre says. "That night was crazy."
Later, she came back, and she came back again until soon, she and Lefebvre were friends. "In a big restaurant, you want to treat the guests like a king. Me? I want to treat the guests like friends," he says. "I want all the guests to be my friends. I want people in the restaurant to be my friend that’s in my house."
"When you walk into a space that’s the size of a private dining room, you feel like you’re in the arms of something."
No one wants their hair to catch on fire while enjoying an evening at a restaurant, but in a small space, the vibe is different. It’s not like being in a place of business, it’s like being in a home. Every single owner emphasized this about their tiny restaurant: that they wanted it to feel like people belonged there.
"It’s like coming over to someone’s house. Why do people like going to dinner parties? Because it feels great," Pomeroy says. In her case, Beast actually grew out of an informal supper club she and a friend were hosting in her backyard. The premise was the same: small group, set menu, plated courses. Only the venue changed. "When you walk into a space that’s the size of a private dining room, you feel like you’re in the arms of something," she says. "The person that’s greeting you is greeting the person behind you, and everyone just feels really connected to each other."
Owners are hoping that connection starts the minute you hit the door, more like a homecoming than an introduction. "The job when you’re running a little restaurant is honestly super domestic. It’s kind of like running a little tiny household," Olexy says. "It’s everyone’s job to know where everything is. You can’t see that a lightbulb is out and not change it." In fact, Talula’s Table looks like a home. The space is decorated with art on the wall from Olexy’s own limited collection. The napkins are handmade with vintage fabrics that would never hold up in a more commercial setting.
Cooke of CORE says that once a tiny-restaurant owner has made their desires for the tone of the place clear, it’s the job of the designer to edit that feeling down to one or two features. "We really want to get to the heart of what the concept is about," she says. "And in a small space, we want to get to one main feature so we don’t overwhelm the senses."
At Talula’s Table, there are indeed two main elements: The beautiful central farm table is made of yellow pine, a wood too "soft" to hold up under the stress of a normal restaurant. But Oxley wanted it anyway: She wanted the statement. "I want it to become worn and sculpted," Oxley says, "so people can relax in this environment and feel at home." The second piece is a vintage oven, is also more domestic than commercial. It’s also deeply personal — Olexy relocated it from her mom’s home.
But it’s not just the actual owners that treat the space like a home. "Everybody feels like they own it. I’ve always cherished that little commune feel," Olexy says. "Small places are such a respectful environment." Olexy and Lefebvre both mentioned that in their smaller restaurants, staff are more careful. Wine glasses that might get tossed haphazardly into a dishwasher and shatter at a larger restaurant can be kept for years safe and sound in a smaller one. Special plates can be bought to accommodate a chef’s specific dish idea, and everyone will hold them a little tighter, set them down a little softer, just to protect them.
"I’ve had people start dating just because they sat next to each other," Pomeroy says of her guests at Beast. "I’ve had people become incredible friends through this meal, and that really makes me happy — that we can give our people even more than food."
At some tiny restaurants — like Bad Saint and Little Serow, also in DC — the bonding begins early, when customers wait in hours-long lines to put their name on a list to eat there. At others, like Talula’s Table and Beast, the intimacy arrives over the course of an extended dinner seated at a large table with total strangers. "When it’s full and the music is on and it’s dark, it’s magical. You feel good," Lefebvre says. "When I'm stressed, I’ll take a Xanax. And when I go to Petit Trois, it feels like that. It’s calming."
Dinner at a small restaurant doesn’t necessarily mean the food is far better or the service more attentive — though obviously that is the goal. Dinner at a small restaurant is special because of the ambiance and the company, the dimmed lights and the soft music, and the joke made between two people who just met because one — literally — bumped into the other.