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Why Traveling “Small” Is Trendy

Canteen, in San Francisco

Photo: Courtesy of Hotel Room

Okay, it is a little strange that it’s a novelty to have a restaurant’s own chef cooking your food. But such is the way in this big abstracted world. Small things and small places, by contrast, promise a return to a (likely apocryphal) age when our cars, our televisions, our restaurants, and our waistlines were all modestly sized, and when all experiences, not just those of the rich, were intimate and personalized: each element made by hand, each space cozy and inviting, each patron of equal stature and taste.

Which makes you wonder: how much of the appeal of undersize things is about the promise of quality, authenticity, intimacy, and a personal touch, and how much is simply the thrill of being a member?Is “small” really a kinder word for “exclusive”?(Consider the website asmallworld.com, private chat room of the well-bred and well-traveled.) In a time when wealth and privilege might prefer a low profile—mindless excess is so gauche these days—small places and things convey status more discreetly. Why book the Presidential Suite at the grand 400-room hotel when you can book the entire one-room property next door and receive the same attentive service (and feeling of entitlement) without the ostentation?Why pay through the nose to be one of 200 people eating at a celebrity chef’s place when you can be one of 20 diners the chef cooks for personally?Why haggle your way into the VIP room at the splashy new megaclub when you’re on the list at the far cooler bar down the block—the one with no sign, just two stools, and a bartender who knows your name?

The funny thing is, such intimately scaled, exclusive experiences are no longer so very exclusive. At least they’re not so hard to find—or to afford. What we’re seeing is not just the proliferation but the democratization of small-scale experiences. Like heirloom tomatoes, they’re everywhere now. And anyone can take part.

Seizing on the affordable zeitgeist, Colicchio recently spun off his Tuesday Dinner concept with Damon: Frugal Friday. This casual weekly dinner from executive chef Damon Wise is held in the same space at Craft and has small plates with prices to match: skewers of escargots and savory bacon for $4, smoky beef tartare with cumin-dusted flatbread for $5. Wine tops out at $10 a glass. It’s a bargain compared with a regular meal at Craft, where a tab for two can quickly exceed $300. Indeed, the couple at the table next to mine couldn’t stop marveling at the prices: “Look, a cocktail for just four bucks!” When’s the last time you overheard that in Manhattan?

Then again, every person I saw was ordering five or six cocktails and a dozen or more dishes, so the whole “frugal” thing sort of lost focus by the end, and the room turned into a noisy bacchanal with an Allman Brothers sound track. Which is to say I loved it. Unfortunately, so does everyone else: on a typical Friday the wait for a table can stretch to two hours, and the bar is basically a clown car from 5:30 p.m. until closing. It’s been weeks since I was able to drop in and order a $4 cocktail, much less score a coveted seat.

It’s enough to convince me that, just this once, a little bigger might be better.

Peter Jon Lindberg, T+L’s editor-at-large, wishes he were maybe a little bit smaller.

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