16 Tiny Chef's Tables Worth the Lack of Elbow Room
It used to be that a seat at the chef’s table was exclusively a white-tablecloth and tuxedo’d-server affair, with a brow-raising pricetag in line with the formality. Sometimes, the experience lived up to the price—think restaurants like The Inn at Little Washington and 42 Grams—but in recent years great chef tables of all types have popped up across the country.
James Beard winning chefs Ken Oringer and Jamie Bissonette, for example, serve up family-style platters of Spanish favorites at their NYC outpost of Toro, while chef David Rosner takes guests on a farmer’s market tour through Santa Barbara before cooking their discoveries back at the Wine Cask’s chef’s counter. Want to learn a new technique? Consider a demonstration dinner at Philly’s groundbreaking COOK, an open kitchen-meets-classroom concept where every seat promises a chef’s table experience.
For the full list of got-to-gos, read on.
COOK in Philadelphia
When a standard dinner reservation won’t do, book a table at COOK, a restaurant-classroom where book signings, knife skills, canning classes, and restaurant previews are the norm. The brainchild of chef Audrey Claire, Philadelphia Magazine, and Foobooz, this intimate (there’s only 16 seats) concept brings in top culinary talent from around the city, allowing diners to learn from the chefs, watch them in action, and nosh on the results. The average dinner is five courses and runs $170 a person.
42 Grams in Chicago
With just two seatings a night, the eight-seat chef’s counter is akin to attending a private dinner party at a friend’s house—if that friend happened to be a two-star Michelin chef. The 18-seat restaurant, ran by chef-owner Jake Bickelhaupt and his wife Alexa, is anchored around its open kitchen, which dishes out Asian-influenced plates like peekytoe crab with blood orange and Japanese A5 wagyu with bone marrow. The prix-fixe menu runs $243 a person, including tax and tip.
Pearl Dive Oyster Palace in Washington D.C.
D.C. restaurateur Jeff Black’s Pearl Dive Oyster Palace is notorious for its extra-long wait times (it only takes reservations before 7 p.m.), which makes its reservations-only chef table, a.k.a. a hush-hush way to avoid the queue, even more valuable. There’s no stuffy prix fixe here, just bites of bacon-wrapped oysters and crawfish etouffee in between chats with the chefs. Bonus: exclusive amuse-bouches and intermezzos.
Umi in Atlanta
Umi’s 23-foot white oak sushi bar is easily the best seat in the house. Celebrity elbow-rubbing is likely, though the real perk is Tokyo-born chef-co-owner Fuyuhiko Ito’s omakase menu (meaning chef’s-choice). There are three versions, but the top-tier edition, dubbed Ito-Kase, is only available at the counter. Expect six-ish courses, with dishes like scored avocado with wasabi vinaigrette and buttery black cod glazed in miso. Also: sashimi and nigiri platters bursting with live scallop, sea urchin and otoro tuna, often spiked with truffled-soy and caviar. Sushi this fresh—shipments from Japan’s legendary Tsukiji Market are flown in daily—usually requires a transpacific flight. The Ito-Kase menu is market priced, but expect to shell out roughly $175 a person.
Zahav in Philadelphia
Savvy Philadelphians know the cure for a midweek slump awaits at the kitchen counter of chef Michael Solomonov’s Israeli hotspot, Zahav. The four-seat chef’s table is only available on Wednesdays at 7 p.m., but the 10-course tasting menu, which is constantly evolving and usually runs $180 for two, is worth the queue. On offer: seasonal, flavor-packed bites like hummus tahina with romanesco masabacha and braised lamb shanks with carrot pilaf. Counter diners are sent home with paper cranes courtesy of the chef, who also hand-delivers each dish.
Toro in New York City
At the chef’s table of Spanish favorite Toro, James Beard Award-winning chefs Ken Oringer and Jamie Bissonette serve up family-style platters hot from the neighboring plancha—which you have a supreme view of thanks to the raised siting of the 25-seat communal table. The menu, priced at $85, $100, and $125 a person with a minimum of eight people, includes jamon iberico (sliced tableside, of course) and sandwiches of sea urchin, miso butter, and pickled mustard seeds. Expect 11 courses, plus, with the pricier menu options, a mammoth platter of paella and/or dry-aged rib eye.
The Catbird Seat in Nashville
At Tennessee’s Catbird Seat, every restaurant-goer is seated at a chef’s table—12 seats are at banquettes overlooking the open kitchen, while a 20-seat bar surrounds chef Trevor Moran, a Noma alum, as he works his magic. The 15-course menu ($115 per person with beverage pairings available) changes nightly, but it’s always innovative and delicious. Case in point: the whole-roasted, bone-in Turbot that’s finished with a hickory dashi.
The Aviary in Chicago
When you’re craving a cocktail with as much attention as that required for the tweezer food at the best fine dining in town, head to the kitchen table at The Aviary, the cocktail bar from culinary geniuses Grant Achatz and Nick Kokonas (of Alinea fame). Here, at the four-person table overlooking the open cocktail kitchen, discover a $165-per-person prix-fixe tasting menu, complete with seven cocktails paired with snack-sized bites. Of course, these are not Don Draper’s cocktails; gadgets and techniques like infusion flasks, rotary evaporators, and liquid nitrogen are the norm. And that’s not even mentioning the some two-dozen varieties of ice. Advanced reservations are a must.
Oxheart in Houston
Though all 31 seats at this tasting-menu-only spot have a prime view of the open kitchen, you’ll get the most face time with James Beard Award-semifinalist Justin Yu if you opt for one of the 11 seats at the counter. Yu’s six-course menu, which also comes with a vegetarian option (both are $74 a person) and beverage pairings ($45 additional), changes seasonally, but Texas ingredients always comingle with creative techniques. For proof, see Yu’s dish of smoked wild boar with pork thailande, fermented mustards and kohlrabi.
Alma in Los Angeles
L.A.’s Alma, winner of Bon Appetit’s Best New Restaurant in America in 2013, is pretty unambiguously spectacular no matter where you sit, but you’re all but guaranteed one of the best meals of your life if you cozy up to the seven-seat chef’s counter, where you can watch chef Ari Taymor apply a surgeon-like level of focus and precision to his transcendental creations (think frozen duck liver with smoked maple and coffee granola, and egg yolk with caramelized sunchokes). The 10-course tasting menu (with vegetarian and pescatarian options available) uses local ingredients, even those grown in chef’s own garden, and costs $95 per person ($55 for beverage pairings).
The Inn at Little Washington in Washington, Virginia
At this Five Diamond property, dinner is much theater as it is a meal. James Beard Award-winner Patrick O’Connell offers a legendary $175-per-person tasting menu right inside his restaurant’s postcard-worthy kitchen. Groups up to 12 can reserve the two kitchen tables, flanked by baronial fireplaces, and each receives a dedicated waiter. No request is refused, whether you want a themed meal, special ingredients, customized palate cleansers or even a particular playlist. And note: there's a supplemental charge for the chef's table ranging from $395 to $595, depending on the day.
The Blue Room in Cambridge, Massachusetts
When the last thing you feel like doing is deciding the age-old question of what’s for dinner, book a spot at the four-seat chef’s counter, called “chef’s whim,” at The Blue Room, and let chef Andrew Bonner and his team decide. For $65 a person (plus $35 for wine pairings) get a five-course meal dubbed “The Chinese Laundry,” a nod to California’s famed The French Laundry. Dishes include watermelon soup with Sour Patch sorbet and duck teriyaki. Want more? There’s also an eight-course option, which goes for $88, plus $55 for wine pairings.
Holdfast Dining in Portland, Oregon
This reservations-only, 18-seat restaurant started as a pop-up, but eventually the space in the front of urban winery Fausse Piste became permanent, thanks largely to the chef’s counter. Here chefs Will Preisch and Joel Stocks describe each plate as they hand deliver it, offering up dishes including delicious spot prawn with jicama. Be sure to buy tickets online—you’ll have a choice of a six-course menu on Thursday with three wine pairings for $65, a nine-course weekend menu with five wine pairings for $90, or a 10-course collaboration dinner with chefs around the country for $125.
Wine Cask in Santa Barbara, California
On David Rosner’s farmer’s market tour, attendees check out produce stands with chef, learning about each ingredient before returning to the Chef’s Feasting Bar at the Wine Cask, where Rosner will whip up a customized three-course dinner. One bite of the wild arctic char with dragon fruit and pea shoots, and you’ll understand why in-season produce calls the shots. Groups of six to 16 are invited to partake, with a rate of $75 per person, plus $48 for wine pairings.
Maple Ave Restaurant in Vienna, Virginia
Tucked away in a private dining room in the back of Virginia’s Asian-Latin hideaway, you’ll find chef Tim Ma’s eight-seat Tasting Table. The six-course meal, which runs anywhere from $60 to $99 per person, plus $20 for wine pairings often has a theme like “An Ode to Game,” with foie gras croquettes, seared partridge and rabbit roulade. Later this year, chef Ma is launching a dining experience that people can book in the privacy of their own homes, too.
Greenhouse Tavern in Cleveland
Aside from having a front row view of chef Jonathan Sawyer’s kitchen at Greenhouse Tavern—a pretty big deal considering Sawyer was named Food & Wine’s Best New Chef in 2010—a seat at the chef’s eight-seat counter comes with complimentary surprise treats from the cooks, who are eager to share new dishes and off-menu items with those in the hot seats. Finish your meal of foie gras-steamed clams by buying the kitchen a round of “coffee,” actually a six-pack of beer—they’ll even let you ring a bell and deliver the beer directly to the cooks themselves.