Why Traveling “Small” Is Trendy
Published: January 2011
By Peter Jon Lindberg
Downsizing is the order of the day. T+L considers our obsession with intimate restaurants, “boutique” hotels, and other decidedly little gems.
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.
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.
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.
Where to Eat
Bar Lola 100 Congress St., Portland, Maine; 207/775-5652; dinner for two $55.
Neptune Oyster 63 Salem St., Boston; 617/742-3474; dinner for two $80.
O Ya 9 East St., Boston; 617/654-9900; dinner for two $300.
Damon: Frugal Friday Craft, 47 E. 19th St., New York City; 212/ 780-0880; dinner for two $60.
Momofuku Ko 163 First Ave., New York City; momofuku.com; dinner for two $200.
Prune 54 E. First St., New York City; 212/677-6221; dinner for two $86.
Shopsin’s Essex Street Market, 120 Essex St., New York City; no phone; breakfast for two $40.
Tom: Tuesday Dinner Craft, 47 E. 19th St., New York City; 212/400-6495; dinner for two $300.
Txikito 240 Ninth Ave., New York City; 212/242-4730; dinner for two $80.
Holeman & Finch 2277 Peachtree Rd., Atlanta; 404/948-1175; dinner for two $50.
Avec 615 W. Randolph St., Chicago; 312/377-2002; dinner for two $75.
Counter Café 626 N. Lamar Blvd., Austin; 512/708-8800; breakfast for two $24.
Nonna Tata 1400 W. Magnolia Ave., Fort Worth; 817/332-0250; dinner for two $60.
L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon MGM Grand, 3799 Las Vegas Blvd. S., Las Vegas; 702/891-7358; dinner for two $250.
Bubble Bar Guy Savoy, 3570 Las Vegas Blvd., Las Vegas; 877/346-4642; dinner for two $80.
Canteen 817 Sutter St., San Francisco; 415/928-8870; dinner for two $80.
The Sentinel 35 New Montgomery St., San Francisco; 415/284-9960; lunch for two $24.
Where to Drink
PDT 113 St. Marks Place, New York City; 212/614-0386; drinks for two $24.
Smith & Mills 71 N. Moore St., New York City; no phone; drinks for two $20.
Zibetto Espresso Bar 1385 Sixth Ave., New York City; no phone; coffee for two $6.
Bar Noir 140 Lasky Dr., Beverly Hills, Calif.; 310/407-7795; drinks for two $28.
Blue Bottle Kiosk 315 Linden St., San Francisco; 415/252-7535; coffee for two $6.
The Dime 442 N. Fairfax Ave., West Hollywood, Calif.; 323/651-4421; drinks for two $14.
Where to Shop
Salumi 309 Third Ave. S., Seattle; 206/621-8772.