Tom Downey explores what he calls the global moment for the micro-restaurant: a new approach to fine dining that feels both exclusive and conversational.
The price is high and the seats are hard to come by, says Downey, but you’re separated only by a countertop from the people preparing your meal.
The awareness for Downey began seven years ago, when a Japanese friend took him to a tiny restaurant in the Yoyogi neighborhood of Tokyo.
“Inside there were six seats arranged around a small kitchen with a young chef cooking behind the counter. She served one menu only: A reasonably-priced four course set that changed every day.
Downey wondered how this venture could possibly work? He discovered the reason this young chef could sustain her business was because she was chef, waitress, bartender, and maître d’, all in one.
Downey visited many other similarly small restaurants in Japan and realized hers was but one example of an entire universe of tiny chef or bartender-driven Japanese eating establishments.
“I loved the intimacy of the counter, the view into the kitchen, and the feeling that the meal was being prepared for me alone”
Besides, Atera, a 16-seat New York restaurant with 12 seats at the counter, situated around an open kitchen, Downey claims there are now three other restaurants in New York serving this same kind of high-end, prix-fixe, counter-style, open-kitchen dining in New York City.
The three restaurants are Blanca, owned by Roberta’s Pizza; Momofuku Ko, owned by David Chang’s Momofuku group; and Chef’s Table, part of gourmet grocery store Brooklyn Fare.
In a micro-restaurant, since the chef makes the same meal for everyone, they know precisely how much food to buy. The New York restaurants Downey mentioned asks diners to guarantee their attendance with a credit card so the restaurants don’t get stuck with cancellations.
Downey comments on the business model advantages: Micro-restaurants’ spaces are much smaller and cheaper than your average restaurant space. Additionally, they can charge very high prices.
But despite the advantages, three of the four New York ventures are part of larger restaurant groups. Chris Parachini of Blanca told Downey it’s very hard to make a profit off of this kind of endeavor.
“It doesn’t scale, because it can’t expand without losing its essence. The restaurants could, of course, simply charge more, but it’s difficult to conceive of a place that could charge more than these restaurants already cost, typically $175-$200 per person for food only”
But as Downey explains, profit is not what drives these chefs and owners involved in this micro-concept.
“They’re driven by a commitment to the pure pursuit of excellence, even when that excellence is just not terribly profitable.”
As Parachini put it, “You can’t make it in this business unless you put everything into it. Our work is our life. And so we have to ask ourselves: Is money more important than the satisfaction of doing something great?”