It’s a Tuesday night at Atera, a restaurant cloaked behind smoky windows on a quiet street in New York’s Tribeca neighborhood. The stone countertop is occupied by two couples sipping cocktails in Necco Wafer pastels garnished with geranium leaves and sorrel stems. They gaze over the U-shaped bar into a glass-walled kitchen where a small army of cooks armed with tweezers perform surgery on a bowl of lime- and cream-colored ribbons flecked with black sesame seeds. Coos and soft murmurs hover over the curious plated landscapes that appear every few moments. Throughout the evening, two sets of 16 diners arrive, sit, and bemusedly take in their $150, 20-plus course tasting menu.
No menus. Counter seats. Cocktails as food. Impossible reservations. Open kitchens. Moss, nasturtium, tarragon dust, and beets that resemble lava rocks. And tweezers. Always tweezers. These are the things you can expect to encounter at micro restaurants like Atera, one of several establishments defining haute-petite dining. And for the restaurateurs behind each they are the definition of a passion project.
“I’ve worked in a lot of restaurants and I can say with a great deal of certitude that no one is doing what we’re doing.” Even over the phone, Chef Phillip Foss’s animation is palpable. “I wanted a place where I do the food, and I wanted my personality to come through.” His 22-seat EL Ideas in downtown Chicago was born of a commissary kitchen he used to prep for his former food truck business, Meatyballs Mobile. When he realized it had a restaurant license, he set up shop with his dining room table from home and started cooking one seating a night for 12 people at $135. Eventually the guest list crept up to 22. “The kitchen is wide open so guests will frequently come back and see what we’re up to,” says Foss. Dishes range from artfully composed mini-forests of snails and mushrooms to beautifully unrecognizable diner fare basics like french fries and ice cream. Though he prefers not to compare the atmosphere to that of a dinner party, the intimate set-up allows diners to interact with one another and the kitchen with a comfortable familiarity. As each of the dozen or so courses appears, a member of the kitchen explains the dish to the entire room: Oohs and ahs, coos and soft murmurs.
Atera and EL Ideas are two models that started small, literally. On the other end of the continuum are restaurateurs like José Andrés and his ThinkFoodGroup, which began with spaces as large as the 300-seat Bazaar in Los Angeles before opening the diminutive six-seat Minibar in an underutilized space at Café Atlántico, a former TFG venue in Washington, D.C.’s Penn Quarter. From a chef/restaurateur’s perspective, Minibar also served as a mad scientist’s dream lab, and it proved to be an effective, brand-boosting tool that paved the way for a pile of accolades. “That was when José’s national and international nominations kicked in,” says Rob Wilder, CEO of TFG. “It was an important part of our story.” “José talked for years about wanting a restaurant with one table,” says Wilder. Minibar originally served two seatings of six each night at $120. Recently reopened at a stand-alone location, the new Minibar serves a $225, 20-course tasting menu to two seatings of 12 a night. True to the laboratory concept, dishes from Minibar have made their way into Andrés’s other ventures: The Bazaar sends out 400-500 air bread and Kobe Philly cheesesteaks a night, while hundreds of salt-air margaritas cross the counters of Oyamel and China Poblano each week.
Though Chef David Chang’s 12-seat Momofuku Ko in New York is often cited as the driving model behind the current micro restaurant trend, Minibar opened in 2003, a full five years prior. “When Ferran [Adrià] was operating El Bulli [in Spain], it was a required experience,” says Wilder. “It was a big inspiration for the creation of Minibar.” Certainly the proliferation of Adriá’s modern cooking techniques has played a pivotal role in inspiring the micro restaurant trend. At the moment, New York—specifically Brooklyn— is a petri dish of Adrià–inspired, aspirational, nutshell spaces, including Chef’s Table at Brooklyn Fare and Blanca, a project from the team behind Williamsburg’s popular pizza restaurant Roberta’s. However influential modern cooking has been on any of their menus, this style of dining is a clear derivation of Japanese omakase menus—from direct interaction with chefs over counter-style seating to the surrender diners make to a meandering, menuless meal. And this new hybrid of personal attention, extended experience, and enthusiastic submission seems to be sitting well with those responsible for handing out Michelin stars: Chef’s Table at Brooklyn Fare was awarded three in the 2013 Michelin Guide, Atera and Momofuku Ko earned two apiece, and newcomer Blanca garnered one.
In Nashville, Tennessee, where Michelin stars don’t exist, Max and Ben Goldberg have opened The Catbird Seat in a rambling old home above genteel cocktail bar The Patterson House. “The impetus for The Catbird Seat was the ability to work with chefs Josh [Habiger] and Erik [Anderson],” says Ben Goldberg. “They have complete creative control, and we wanted to realize their hopes, dreams, and aspirations.” Like other scaled-down ventures, diners sit around a U-shaped bar or at one of two banquettes—32 to 36 per night—and wander through seven to eleven courses served directly by the chefs, including variations of Nashville standards like hot chicken—spicy chicken skin, dill pickle salt, and Wonder Bread puree. “They touch every plate that leaves the kitchen. Josh and Eric wanted to stay true to that standard,” says Goldberg, “so it forced us to open a really small restaurant.” It would be naïve to assume that the chefs and owners of The Catbird Seat do not enjoy the recognition they’ve received for the beautifully quirky experience they have created, but like all micro restaurants, it’s about the passion they bring to each plate. “I don’t see myself doing a restaurant like this anywhere else,” Goldberg admits. “Honestly, this is a love of the game situation.”