When Zoe Birch and her partner Lachlan Gardner decided to open Greasy Zoe’s – a diminutive 10-seater located in the leafy suburb of Hurstbridge, some 45 kilometres outside of Melbourne’s CBD – it wasn’t necessarily born from a romantic notion.
“It came out of a bit of frustration at the industry,” says Birch. “It got to a point where we thought, okay, we’re either gonna open our own place and do it our way, or maybe we have to think about doing something else.”
Their plan was to run the restaurant as sustainably as possible, with a “hyper local” approach to sourcing produce from similarly small-scale farms and producers in the region. Rather than hire staff, Birch and Gardner opted to do everything themselves: from harvesting vegetables on their suppliers’ farms to washing dishes at the end of service.
“The space is tiny – about five by four metres, and that’s including the kitchen and the bar,” says Birch. “It’s like being in somebody’s kitchen at home.”
With only 10 covers a night, Greasy Zoe’s is at the pointy end of the trend. But in the last few years, tiny venues – seating no more people than might be invited to a moderately ambitious dinner party – have sprouted up all over the country. Often loosely inspired by the Japanese omakase tradition, these restaurants favour intimate spaces, short guest lists, seasonal produce, and set menus – a model which has proven surprisingly robust, even in the challenging environment of the pandemic.
“Hospitality can be on a knife’s edge at the best of times. It can be very fickle,” says Chris Chapple of Templo, a cosy Italian-inflected restaurant housed in a former butcher’s shop in Hobart. But with a smaller venue, there are lower overheads and fewer variables to worry about.
“In good times, we do two sittings every night of around 20 people each, and have the same amount of people on waiting lists. I’d rather have it that way than having half the restaurant empty and no one on a waiting list.”
At the beginning of Hobart’s lockdown, Chapple transformed Templo from a fully-functioning restaurant to a takeaway shop trading in rustic pasta, lasagne and tiramisù in just a few days. The size of his business served as an advantage: it meant he could pivot quickly, retain his staff, and refocus on providing for the local Hobart community, rather than cashed-up interstate tourists.
That’s not to say that it hasn’t been challenging for small restaurants, especially those located in Melbourne, where lockdown was longer and harder than anywhere else in the country. For Mo Zhou and Alicia Feng – who run Gaea (12-seat fine-diner) and Calere (coffee shop, 15 or so seats) respectively – Melbourne’s lockdown required some creative problem-solving. Their situation is somewhat unique in that they run two tiny venues from within the same space: by day, Calere operates at the front of the building and by night, Gaea trades in the back. The couple elected to close Gaea during lockdown and redeploy its three chefs to produce a small, inventive menu of pastries, sandos and Chinese manto for Calere, while Zhou used the fallow period to direct his energies towards research and development.
Both Zhou and Feng agree that compared to larger venues, small venues offer many advantages: a greater degree of creative control, less pressure around the cost of labour, and a different kind of relationship with their guests. “We can slow down a bit, focus on service and have a conversation with customers,” says Feng.
“On that small scale, you’re very close to the guests. You feel the connection,” explains Zhou. “That’s why we have a lot of people who come every month.” No small feat for a restaurant that exclusively offers a six- or eight-course tasting menu.
A love for that close connection is perhaps a prerequisite for running a tiny restaurant, with many such venues opting for open kitchens with only a whisper of space between chef and guest. For Sarah Scott, owner and chef at Fortitude Valley’s 10-seater Joy, that relationship is a driving force.
“It’s one big conversation all night,” she says of the dynamic. “It feels like a dinner party where you’re the boyfriend or girlfriend that hasn’t met the friends yet. There’s questions and laughing and drinking and you just get to know each other a little bit.”
With the help of bartender Maddie Sim, Scott delivers her 12-course tasting menu in two sittings, three nights a week – as well as handling all the reservations and staying on top of the administration that comes with running a restaurant. It’s a big job, but with only a handful of seats up for grabs, Scott is able to calibrate her offering exactly: “One of the things that keeps Joy sustainable is I know exactly how many guests I’m cooking for every single night and every single week,” she says. “Knowing how many customers we’re serving means we know how to order, which means there’s less wastage – which is sustainable, economically and environmentally.”
The intimacy that Scott and Sim foster at Joy is emblematic of the small restaurant trend. These miniature venues might deliver less pomp and grandeur than a 100-seater, but that doesn’t mean they are lacking in atmosphere. A limited footage can foster an air of cosiness, conviviality, or exclusivity, depending on how the space is pitched. This is equally true of pocket-sized bars: Melbourne’s 12-seat cocktail bar Above Board offers considered minimalism in spite of its compact dimensions, while Sydney’s mezcal temple Cantina OK! is a more raucous, standing room-only affair. (If tiny drinking dens are your thing, Bar Americano in Melbourne, Bar Peripheral in Adelaide and Brisbane’s recently opened Honour Ave Cellars should also be on your radar.)
In fact, there seems to be some kind of inverse equation at play: the smaller the venue, the bigger the drive to create a holistic hospitality experience.
“When you can see from one end of the restaurant to the other, you can control things,” says Astrid McCormack, who co-owns Brunswick Heads’ 14-seat mainstay Fleet. “I love the intimacy. I love the continuity that comes with having a tiny restaurant. Everything can be considered in a way that sometimes doesn’t translate in a bigger venue.”
In Fleet’s early days, McCormack and her partner, chef Josh Lewis, ran the show themselves. After having a child, the couple realised they would need to expand their team; now they employ a handful of staff both front and back of house. As with any venue, it’s about hitting the right balance. “That fine line between wage costs and having enough covers in the restaurant is complicated,” says McCormack.
The reality of running a small restaurant is that it requires certain sacrifices (“You have to have a good constitution because there’s no such thing as a sick day,” says McCormack) and a willingness to do any job that needs doing – no matter how unglamorous. It seems as if a particular kind of high-charisma, low-fuss personality is drawn to the trade: McCormack is so guilelessly open it’s impossible not to feel instantly drawn to her, Chapple is a practising Buddhist, and Scott seems to be the living embodiment of her restaurant’s moniker.
The small restaurant game is challenging work, but Scott wouldn’t have it any other way: “It was never about being rich or creating a restaurant empire – it’s an expression of our creativity and passion for the industry. Small just works.”
Seating capacity may vary due to Covid-19 restrictions.