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Honey I Shrunk the… Restaurant?

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Honey I Shrunk the… Restaurant?
Text by Emily Auton Photos by Anthony Matula and Sara Essex Bradley

The bigger the better. The more the merrier. The tinier the trendier? There’s no doubt that the emergent trend of American micro restaurants sticks out like a sore thumb (perhaps more like a sore pinky), especially in our Man vs. Food, buffet-style, super-sized food culture. So what exactly is a micro restaurant and what is the miniature craze all about?

A translation of Japanese omakase dining, essentially defined as “leave it up to us,” micro restaurants are menuless, chef-centric establishments likely to have less seats than the number of menu items at your favorite haunt. Usually bar-style, the seats at a micro restaurant are arranged to give the chef direct access to every patron: imagine a single table at a hibachi grill but replace the hokey knife tricks and pyrotechnics with an intimate, exclusive multi-course dining experience. While reservations may be a nightmare, micro restaurants give guests the chance to practically sit in the kitchen, picking the mind of the chef as he or she delivers course after course of custom cuisine and personalized pairings.

While such a unique dining experience inevitably yields popularity, there has been debate over micro restaurants’ profitability. In the time honored restaurant business model, the amount of money made is in direct correlation to the number of guests served. So how can a restaurant with 12-16 seats and multiple courses per person keep their doors open? On the one hand, less space means less overhead, plus a fixed menu makes for a more efficiently priced and stocked kitchen. On the other, serving several intricate courses to a select few guests causes food costs to soar—those of us who have hosted dinner parties are awfully familiar with this phenomenon. On top of that, a business thrives in its potential to expand, but these tiny establishments can’t expand without losing their essence. Several micro restaurants have curbed costs by adding bars and event space to their real estate as a means of extra profit.

Are micro restaurants the next little thing, or an inherently underfunded fad? We’ve compiled a list of the South’s smallest spots so you can decide for yourself.

minibar, Washington, D.C.
The 12-seat brainchild of James Beard Best Chef José Andrés, minibar and its adjoining “cocktail lab” barmini opened in 2012 to impressive acclaim. Minibar boasts titles from toughest reservations and best wine to its own James Beard nomination for best design. Anderson Cooper even made his way over to profile the Chef and his space.

Square Root, New Orleans
Chef Phillip Lopez‘s open kitchen turns out inspired tasting menus of 9 to 15 small plate courses for 16 guests, with an artisanal charcuterie and cheese studio upstairs, aptly named Root2, which features a full bar and a charming wrap-around balcony.

The Catbird Seat, Nashville
A restaurant promising a dining experience as quirky as its name, chefs Josh Habiger and Erik Anderson personally serve 7 to 11 courses to a 20-seat bar and two banquettes for a total of 32 lucky guests who sample takes on Nashville classics like hot chicken. The oldest restaurant on our lists at the ripe old age of 3, The Catbird Seat has garnered some serious acclaim, including from us. We cleaned our plates.