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Why Traveling “Small” Is Trendy

Canteen, in San Francisco

Photo: Courtesy of Hotel Room

And here we have the salmon belly with ginger and micro cilantro,” our waiter announces as he sets down a tiny plate. The previous dish, maguro tuna, was adorned with micro greens. Our potato-chip nigiri came with micro celery. To drink?A bottle of Koshihikari Echigo, touted by our waiter as “a rare microbrew from Niigata, Japan.” We’re at Boston’s 37-seat restaurant O Ya, enjoying an altogether excellent meal, but all this small talk has us trading amused looks. In the end, only the check is outsize.

If any trend has defined the recent trajectory of travel—and of consumer culture in general—it is the cult of the very small. While most Americans still supersize anything they can, a determined (and increasingly influential) minority seeks refuge in a modest scale. They champion the unsung little guy over big-time behemoths—the pint-size bar over the 20,000-square-foot club complex, the intimate trattoria over the multilevel theme restaurant. They fill their little black books with diminutive discoveries—the tinier, the better. How many times have you heard a fellow traveler rave about “this fantastic little pensione” or “this adorable little wine bar”?Hardly anyone goes rhapsodic over “this fabulous factory-size cheese shop.”

The obsession went viral with the please-make-it-stop trend of the boutique hotel, which originally meant “a small hotel.” But just as every beer wants to be a microbrew—hello, American Ale from Budweiser!—every corporate hotel now wants to be a boutique. Even a 250-room Hyatt can qualify, so long as it has hot bellboys and a cool logo.

In air travel, too, there’s a movement toward scaling down. While Airbus was busy inflating the new A380—an airplane the size of an airplane hangar—Boeing took off on an opposite heading. The 787 Dreamliner, arriving in 2010, will carry between 210 and 330 passengers (the A380 can hold up to 853). Its design emphasizes quality of experience over quantity of seats: a quieter cabin; better air and light; bigger windows. No doubt someone will label it the world’s first boutique airliner.

But nowhere is small-mindedness more pervasive or persuasive than in the food world. Tastemakers are enthralled by anything minute: small farms, small producers, and—now appearing on every last menu in America—small plates. These appeal for both their price points and, for indecisive diners, the prospect of ordering without anxiety: To hell with it, we’ll just take the whole menu.

Foodies have long traded whispers about the seven—count ’em, seven—Jersey cows that churn out all the butter served at Thomas Keller’s French Laundry restaurant, in Napa Valley, and his Per Se, in New York City. The fabled herd lives at the speck-size Animal Farm, in Orwell, Vermont, and produces just 300 pounds of butter a month. Animal Farm owner Diane St. Clair told the New York Times in 2005: “The reason I’m not big is because I’m a perfectionist.”

If, as St. Clair reasons, something good must be small, then conversely, something small must be good, right?Connoisseurs will gravitate to small things even if they’re inconvenient—especially if they’re inconvenient. Some years back a coffee-snob friend in San Francisco dragged me 30 blocks out of our way to the teensy Blue Bottle kiosk, in a tiny garage off a tiny back alley in Hayes Valley. Not only was it undersize, but it was also understaffed: we waited 25 minutes for our espresso. Was it worth it?Best coffee I’ve had in years. The stand’s diminutive dimensions only heightened the sense that we’d found something special, something rarefied. Last January, Blue Bottle finally opened a proper, full-size café, though my purist friend insists “it’s just not the same.”

This affection for the minuscule is right in tune with that of Europe, home of the Smart car and the three-bite container of yogurt. While the megastore has made inroads, European life still revolves around the neighborhood épicerie or abacería, where little old ladies with mesh bags buy single rolls of paper towels no thicker than a forearm. In Europe tiny is not a choice or a value; it’s a way of life. So it is that in America, home of the Monster Truck and the Big Gulp, teeny things (like cramped hotel rooms) are said to feel “European” and as such carry an aura of sophistication.


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