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Why Traveling “Small” Is Trendy

Canteen, in San Francisco

Photo: Courtesy of Hotel Room

Curiously, other cultures don’t share the little-is-better creed. In China, for instance, not only is there no stigma against the vast and over-the-top, both are actively encouraged. The most successful and critically lauded restaurants are often huge, banquet-hall–style monstrosities seating 1,000 or more.

For smart consumers who favor smaller footprints, scaling down at least appears to be the sensible choice. It also carries the illusion of frugality, though in fact the opposite is true: given economies of scale, little generally costs more to produce and distribute than big. Although outsize entities seem especially vulnerable these days—big banks, big automakers—small things, unless they’re exorbitantly priced, offer narrower profit margins. But fortunately for sellers, people will pay a lot more for something there’s less of.

And so savvy entrepreneurs are downsizing—big time. While the chains cash in with 20-story “let’s-call-them-boutique” hotels, others are taking small-chic to extremes—with three-room, two-room, even one-room hotels, such as the One Hotel Angkor, in Siem Reap, Cambodia, and the six-month-old Room Number One, in Helsinki. The latter, a 320-square-foot, funkily appointed suite in the scrappy Kallio district, is the first venture from the Finland-based Hotel Room collective, which plans single-unit properties in cities around the globe.

Restaurants, too, are shrinking. At many of the nation’s hot spots you couldn’t swing a pickled ramp without whacking every head in the joint: places like Atlanta’s great, bite-size Holeman & Finch gastropub, or Chicago’s Avec, which serves, yes, small plates at five communal eight-seat tables. I live in New York, and together my favorite haunts could probably fit in your garage: the 30-seat Prune restaurant, in the East Village; the closet-like Smith & Mills bar, in TriBeCa; and the Zibetto espresso counter, on Sixth Avenue, at which maybe seven adults can stand at one time. Of course, in Manhattan puny spaces are more a matter of necessity. It is surprising to see them pop up in places like Texas, given the cheaper square footage and big-and-brash tastes. Among the trendiest restaurants in Fort Worth is the pocket-size Nonna Tata, with all of 21 seats.

Chefs, for their part, work better in small settings. Scaling down allows for more control and more freedom to experiment. Dennis Leary is one of San Francisco’s more talented cooks, yet chances are you’ve never had his food—because Canteen accommodates only 20 people. Leary makes almost every dish himself; he also shops, preps, and occasionally takes orders when the lone waitress is busy. In an apparent effort to spend all 24 hours of his day in a kitchen, Leary recently opened the Sentinel, where he serves breakfast and lunch.

Leary’s food is terrific, but what’s most striking is how much fun he seems to be having. It’s clear why even big-name chefs who can afford to open (and can fill) a 300-seat restaurant are opting to work on a smaller scale. The toughest reservation in New York right now is Momofuku Ko, a 12-seat-counter dining spot where David Chang, Peter Serpico, and their sous-chefs cook for, and serve, each guest directly. Mean-while, Tom Colicchio has returned to the stoves with Tom: Tuesday Dinner, held every other Tuesday in the private dining room of his Manhattan restaurant Craft. For $150 a person, Colicchio will prepare a 10-course meal for you and 31 other lucky souls.

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