In the frequently macho restaurant culture, bigger is traditionally better. Restaurateurs customarily brag about serving hundreds or thousands of customers at each meal. It’s a badge of honor, a way of proving to all comers that you’ve made your bones.
Recently, an opposite trend seems to be emerging. Restaurants are getting smaller, and many chefs feel that it’s impossible to turn out truly outstanding food for large numbers of guests. A survey of the eateries around the world awarded three Michelin stars reveals that very few serve more than 100 covers per meal, and the norm is closer to 60. Some are smaller still. Below 60, the trend is toward the chef-driven restaurant, with a single menu served to all diners derived from the best ingredients in the market on that day.
The trend has definitely infiltrated Asia. Sun Tung Lok, a new Michelin three-star in Hong Kong, serves a total of 70 guests each night. At TBLS, which bills itself as a “kitchen studio,” Chef Que Vinh Dang serves a set menu to 20 customers nightly; the website describes the experience as being “like a dinner party thrown by a new friend, who happens to be an innovative professional chef.” At The Lab by Commune, 18 guests are served a private meal in the production kitchen of a catering studio.
The newest Michelin three-star in Paris is L’Astrance, where Pascal Barbot serves 26 guests each evening. The offerings are “surprise menus,” based on whatever he has concocted for the occasion. As charming as it sounds, operating a restaurant this size can be a nerve-wracking experience. One cancellation or no-show can ruin your profit margin. These places are not cheap, either—expect to pay an absolute minimum of several hundred dollars per head, alcohol excluded.
This passion for smallness has found its way to America. The hottest chef at the moment in Manhattan is a guy named David Chang, who owns an assortment of places throughout the city. His flagship restaurant, Momofuku Ko, consists of 12 seats at a counter in an informal downtown space. Those stools are currently the hardest restaurant seats to acquire in New York. Closer to home, I recently reviewed a restaurant in Boca Raton called Six Tables, which really does have only six tables and 24 seats.
The smallest restaurant in the world? It has to be Solo per Due (“only for two”), in central Italy, which has exactly one table. Lunch and dinner are served, at a price of 250 euros (about $335) per person, not including wine or special flower requests.