Small Spaces, Big Flavors: 6 Tiny Restaurants That Draw Huge Praise
Small restaurants can pack in outsized fun with their buzzing, communal atmosphere, inviting kitchen views, and ingenious use of space. Some spots step it up even further, bringing ambitious menus, fascinating backstories, and one-of-a-kind settings. We roamed the American culinary landscape in a quest to find restaurants with limited seating but unlimited appeal, places that should definitely be on your radar -- and your upcoming travel plans. We found a rustic, comfort-food haven in the mountains above Malibu, a pan-Latin hotspot in Denver (Señor Bear, the subject of our small-restaurant video), and a walk-in-closet sized fine-dining spot in Harlem, among other tiny titans. They all combine authenticity, high standards, and delicious food -- in a big way.
Hidden behind an antique wooden door in the back of the critically acclaimed Revolver Taco Lounge lies Purépécha, an eight-course meal served by the mother-son duo of Juanita and Regino Rojas. Regino is a James Beard Award semifinalist, but here, he cooks alongside his mother, the woman who inspired his career. “I have been in the kitchen with my mom since I was a baby, she would wrap me in a rebozo while she cooked and made tortillas,” he told us. To him, the reservation-only space that seats just 14 echoes the way his family gathered around the table during his childhood. “It’s the same way our family and friends grew up, watching my mother cook in an open kitchen while we chit chat,” he says. The food is inspired by traditional recipes native to Michoacan, Mexico, where the Rojas family is from. (Purépécha is also the name of the indigenous people of the region.) That means Juanita’s take on a Michoacan-style mole often makes the menu, where you’ll also come across a Miyazaki A5 steak taco or guacamole topped with ground chapulines (yep, those would be grasshoppers). The offerings are always unannounced, so the chef asks that you come with an open mind, since you won’t know what’s being served until you’re seated at his table.
Kennett Square, Pennsylvania
It’s not easy to get a seat at Talula’s Table, but it’s most definitely worth it. And it is literally just one table, with one seating, per night. To snag it, you need to call the restaurant exactly one year in advance, and you need to be able to rally a group of eight to 12 people to join you. That second part should be a snap, though, once you tell people about the menu. Built from a combination of locally sourced ingredients and high-end imported goods (Talula’s doubles as specialty food market during the day), it rotates seasonally and features offerings like braised suckling lamb, and sea scallop crudo with a pickled pasteurized egg. The restaurant’s concept began almost by accident, as owner Aimee Olexy (Talula is her daughter) originally planned to open a cheese shop that served occasional dinners capped by a first-rate cheese course. The eight-course program she put together proved so popular that, 12 years later, it’s not only the main attraction, but also one of the most highly praised dining experiences in the country. To meet the demand, Olexy expanded Talula’s -- but just slightly: She now offers a smaller “Chef’s Table” dinner inside the kitchen, where up to four can dine alongside chef Dylan Sweeney as he prepares the night’s meal.
Oklahoma City, Oklahoma
In Oklahoma City, where most restaurant dining rooms are as wide open as the plains, the 22-seat Nonesuch qualifies as tiny. But it’s made the biggest splash: In 2018, Nonesuch was named “Best New Restaurant” in the entire nation by Bon Appetit. It’s an underdog story that even baffled the Nonesuch staff at first. “We sold out all of our reservations immediately,” Head Chef Jeremy Wolfe says. “Originally we would have two to 20 people during the week, 30 to 35 on a Friday. After the article came out, we were booked for two months in advance. We had to get used to it.” With limited formal training, Wolfe and chefs Colin Stringer and Paul Wang serve up a nightly tasting menu featuring entirely local ingredients that they’ve either purchased from farmers or foraged themselves. The foraging ethos creates unique challenges. “A lot of these ingredients have micro seasons,” says Stringer. So local items like wood sorrel, pear flowers, or blueberries may only be available for as little as three weeks. Thus the 10-course program changes all the time. Among its highlights are a green garlic custard with six different spring alliums, chicken liver mousse and ricotta tarts, and a bison ribeye. “I think Oklahoma City is growing as a food destination city,” General Manager Kyle Kern says.“It’s kind of emerging.” Bite-by-bite, Nonesuch is leading the way.
As a boy, Morgan Runyan didn’t quite appreciate the treasure that was The Old Place, the tiny restaurant his father, actor Tom Runyan, built in a former general store back in 1970. Nestled in the Santa Monica Mountains between Agoura Hills and Malibu, the Old Place looks a bit like an Old-West saloon, and offers homey classics like bone-in ribeye and “Old Place Beef Stew,” seafood sourced from the local Channel Islands, and other “honest food cooked over fire.” But it’s something of a wonder it still exists today, given Morgan Runyon’s initial impression. “Having grown up around the restaurant, it was something I was never going to be involved in,” Runyan says. Then he watched his dad transform the place into a local legend, serving wild boar, elk, and lobster to Hollywood stars and adventurous local types. It prompted a change of heart: “In the hills of Malibu, so many things I had grown up with had gone away, or been... ruined. [The Old Place] was a completely unique piece of history,” he says. So he took over the family business, expanding the menu -- but nothing else. The Old Place still contains just five booths and three tables (and no freezer), and reservations for the evening’s three seatings are usually for four or more. But if you’re dining with a date or solo, you can wait for a seat at the bar. “If I was a good businessman, I might expand,” Runyon says. “But I’m a bad businessman.” Fortunately for us, that is.
New York, New York
In a city where 450-square-foot apartments are called “spacious” (with a straight face), there’s no shortage of teeny-tiny restaurants. But even by those standards, Belle Harlem is small: it’s a mere 275 square feet with just 12 seats. Yet chef and owner Darryl Burnette has big goals in mind. After living in Harlem for eight years, he imagined his restaurant as a place to bring the community together and celebrate its history (Belle Harlem sits right around the corner from the historic Abyssinian Baptist Church, a powerful cultural and political institution where Adam Clayton Powell, the first black Congressman from New York, was minister). With a rooftop garden and locally sourced, seasonal ingredients, the menu at Belle Harlem features elevated comfort food in a, well, highly comforting space, one designed “to feel as though you were in someone’s kitchen,” as Burnette puts it. The menu matches the dimensions too, with just five small plates, four large plates and three dessert options. But, oh, those plates: You could dive into some buttermilk fried chicken alongside lemon ricotta waffles topped with jalapeño truffle banana syrup; mac & cheese spring rolls with bacon marmalade; or the Long Island duck breast with lemon-olive tapenade and foie gras gravy.