June 18, 2024

For Montreal restaurants, smaller is often better

For many chefs and restaurant owners, a small space is the secret ingredient in creating a truly special dining experience.

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The hole in the wall. The hidden gem. Mom-and-pops, quaint bistros, cosy diners — no matter how you slice it, there’s something unique about a small restaurant. But what is it exactly?

As Montreal swept the listings of Canada’s 100 Best this year, many of them didn’t break the 50-seat mark. The most notable of them, Mon Lapin, took the No. 1 spot and today holds 60 after nearly doubling its seats in 2021. Eight out of the top 10 restaurants on the list had similar sizes for that matter, holding their own against larger addresses with more staff, more money and more clientele to spread a good word.

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All this begs the question: Does size affect the quality of a restaurant?

Why Montreal's small restaurants have an edge
“The smaller the restaurant, the more focused the restaurant, the greater the product,” says Sean Murray Smith, chef of the 42-seat Île Flottante. Photo by Pierre Obendrauf /Montreal Gazette

Up close and personal

Intimacy is among restaurateurs’ biggest considerations when opting for less seats. Fewer mouths to feed and ply with drinks can impose financial risks, but what’s lacking in physical space can be made up for in the emotional: Time for involved hospitality, sharing stories and knowledge, and creating an environment diners can feel they are a part of.

Julien Betancourt, who co-owns the 45-seat Little Burgundy restaurant Nolan, feels size is an essential part of his restaurant’s dining experience. “I often say smaller is better. It gives more attention to clients and it’s easier to focus on serving. It’s better for everyone, both for clients and ourselves.”

It’s a sentiment echoed by Sean Murray Smith, chef of the 42-seat Île Flottante. “I love more focused and more intimate service. With bigger places, it can feel less personal, like you’re another bill and not a client,” he says.

“The smaller the restaurant, the more focused the restaurant, the greater the product. … When it’s small, the people behind it put everything into it, and it’s a passion project.”

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Montreal's smaller restaurants have an edge
“I often say smaller is better,” says Julien Betancourt, co-owner of 45-seat Nolan with Abel Garcia, left. Photo by Pierre Obendrauf /Montreal Gazette

Being part of something bigger

Montreal's smaller restaurants have an edge
NDG Luncheonette co-owner Sophia Khalil-Griffin sits at the counter speaking with waitress Anya Gaither on July 21, 2023. Photo by John Mahoney /Montreal Gazette

This correlation between size and service isn’t reserved for finer dining; it’s sometimes at the most casual of places that a client can feel like they are finding a home away from home.

“The point of our diner is that people can walk in and feel like they’re in their own kitchen, where they can talk to who’s cooking,” explains Sophia Khalil-Griffin of the 24-seat spot NDG Luncheonette she co-owns.

Size “brings a more personable, family-style atmosphere to a space. It helps build regulars who can walk in and see staff that are always there and have a routine that’s part of their daily lives.”

That’s the secret sauce for chef Michel Lim’s 25-seat burger joint MangeDansMonHood in la Petite-Patrie, where a restaurant can play a key role within its community — something he’s experienced first-hand.

“Growing up, having a diner around the corner from my street, and I’d always meet up there with all my friends,” recalls Lim. “You become regulars, they see you grow, and sometimes you become their employees. There’s something I like about that, and that’s why we opened a diner, to recreate that experience.”

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And then there’s purveyance

Smaller establishments can often wheel and deal in less quantity, but higher quality, working with the limited and sometimes more sustainable work of foragers and bespoke producers of anything from wines to wild beasts.

These are oftentimes hard-fought winnings from suppliers and markets, and restaurateurs will be all too happy to tell clients how many proverbial shots they had to take on the chin to get them.

“Nothing special can be mass-produced, and that’s the direction I wanted to go in with my restaurant. Everything special comes in small amounts,” explains Massimo Piedimonte, chef-owner of the 33-seat Cabaret L’Enfer in the Plateau.

“There is a limited amount when it comes to getting the best, and there’s a lot of competition in Montreal with purveying.”

Montreal's smaller restaurants have an edge
Vanya Filipovic and her husband, Marc-Olivier Frappier, owners of Mon Lapin. Their restaurant seats 60. Photo by Pierre Obendrauf /Montreal Gazette

So what’s accomplished with said products? It’s possible to burn, spoil or poorly cook a product no matter how precious.

Alexander Quinton Brunet, of the 30-seat restaurant Entre-Deux in N.D.G., acknowledges that anyone can make a mistake in the kitchen but the more room there is in a dining room, the more room there is for error, he says.

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“Bigger spaces are generally known for consistency and safety,” he says. “Some restaurants could be bigger and still be creative, but it’s hit-and-miss.”

“Size is about how many people you can properly take care of. … If you have 30 people and only two or three servers of high quality, you know everyone there is getting the highest quality of food, wine and service because it’s small, and you can see everything happening in your space.”

Why Montreal's smaller restaurants have an edge
Marc Villanueva Felipe is the chef at Denise, a 25-seater in Parc-Extension. Photo by Pierre Obendrauf /Montreal Gazette

Big things come in small packages

There are, without a doubt, large restaurants numbering at 100-plus seats that cook, serve and host at a high tier. And many of those chefs are just as passionate as the ones in the kitchens of tiny restaurants. But often, those at the helm of smaller restaurants are driven more by passion than by profit. It’s a conviction that drives many of them. Even when customers are lining up out the door, they resist the urge to expand — these restaurateurs wouldn’t have it any other way.

“People ask if we want to add to our space, but that would lose the soul of Denise,” Morgane Muszynski says of the shoebox of a 25-seater in Parc-Extension she oversees. “It’s tiny, it’s intimate, and we are close to one another — the kitchen, the staff, the customers — and I would never change that.”

Ari Schor, who runs 28-seat Beba in Verdun alongside his brother Pablo, couldn’t agree more. “Small restaurants are not just the best, but the most unique and special,” he says.

“At small spaces like ours, we’re all wearing our hearts on our sleeves. … Size lets your personality shine, and that’s important.”

Montreal's smaller restaurants have the edge
“Small restaurants are not just the best, but the most unique and special,” says Ari Schor, who runs 28-seat Beba in Verdun with his brother. Photo by Dave Sidaway /Montreal Gazette

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