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Small Wonders

It's nine o'clock on a Friday night and you've waited three weeks for the hottest table in Dallas. You're sitting in a sleek room with cool white walls that make you think: Miami. But here, there is no headset-clad hostess in a skintight sheath working a touch screen. There's no VIP lounge--there's no need for one--there are only 12 tables. The food is so fresh it sparkles. When was the last time you saw three varieties of shell peas on the same plate?The chef comes to your table with a broad smile, as though she knows you. But her excitement is about the peas: Purple Hulls, Crowders, Sweet English. "This is the first week of East Texas pea season," she announces. "What do you think?"

Around the country, maverick young chefs are opening intimate spaces that reflect their personalities and tastes. They are following in the footsteps of chefs like Gabrielle Hamilton, who opened her 35-seat Prune in New York's East Village in 1999. Its charm comes as much from the subdued, homey comforts of marrow with toast and butter-and-sugar sandwiches as it does from the fact that you can watch her cooking from any seat in the house. And judging by the reservation books, diners are eating it up.

Why do we like small restaurants?We crave connection when we travel, and these places make us feel like part of the neighborhood. Call us old-fashioned, but we feel coddled when the chef is in the house. And there's also the peculiar joy that comes from occupying the most exclusive seats in town. Here, six of our favorites from coast to coast that prove good things do come in small packages.

Dallas: York Street

Sharon Hage was in charge of the kitchen at the Hotel St. Germain in Dallas, dreaming of opening her own restaurant—"a chef-y place, dinner only, thirty chairs"—when a meat vendor told her about a tiny French bistro for sale in East Dallas. She bought it and transformed the lace-curtained, brass-lamped space into a cool, airy room that seems far more spacious than it is. "I changed everything except the floor and the busboy," she says. Hage describes her cooking as simple and ingredient-driven, then wonders aloud, "Is that a clichŽ?" Not if it means winning combinations such as rustic duck-egg frittata studded with serrano ham, fingerling potatoes, and garrotxa (a Catalonian goat's-milk cheese), or orzo with favas, Chianti, and slender coins of poached veal marrow. Order tea: eight custom blends are brought to the table before you decide which to steep. 6047 Lewis St.; 214/826-0968; dinner for two $90.

Philadelphia: Django

A flea-market spirit reigns at Django: in the dime-store flatware, in the clay flowerpots used to bake and serve the bread, and in the antique chairs that once sat on a ferryboat's deck. But it's the vintage enamel stove in the front window that hints of serious food being eaten in this sunny room in the South Street shopping district. Bryan Sikora's cooking is inventive--there's nothing recycled about his aromatic herb soup, a beguiling electric-green bouillon of eight herbs, including apple mint and baby garlic, whipped up with a rich white-bean broth. Or perfectly seared scallops with a yellow curry that gets fruity depth from puréed apple and parsnip. Sikora and his wife, Aimee Olexy, have been working in restaurants since their teens, but Sikora's training as a painter and illustrator often comes in handy. "Sometimes I won't understand Bryan's vision for a new dish, so I'll ask him for a sketch," Olexy says. "Once he starts drawing, I get it." Greens freaks should reserve on Tuesdays, when a forager delivers wild lettuces like pepper cress, lamb's-quarters, and poke salet. 526 S. Fourth St.; 215/922-7151; dinner for two $68.


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