Threesome Tollbooth, which has a maximum capacity of three people, is sold out through July. Plus, why other tiny bars and restaurants that seat under 10 guests are doing big business.
That’s what bartenders and restaurateurs are doing when it comes to curating intimate dining and cocktail experiences in tiny spaces like closets, sushi counters and outdoor wooden shacks.
Maximum capacity is limited to three people at Threesome Tollbooth, a bar tucked inside a supply closet in a now-closed but not defunct Italian restaurant in Bushwick, Brooklyn. It’s big enough for a bartender and two guests.
Prepaid reservations for parties of two start at $100 to $120 per person for one cocktail hour tasting experience inside the wood-paneled mixology chamber adorned with stirrers, shakers and antique glassware. There’s no food on the menu, just drinks and plenty of them; guests will get between five to 12 drink courses of small-volume libations crafted with a variety of rare liquors and concoctions. They’re served only three nights a week, Thursday through Saturday.
“I think of it in terms of courses, and I want you to just have this whole cocktail journey,” said owner and bartender N.D. Austin of his inspiration.
After a year and a half of searching for the perfect tiny space, Austin started up Threesome Tollbooth in 2017 as a passion project. His main gig is designing custom immersive experiences for clients, like speakeasies around the world, which allowed him to learn how to make cocktails.
While there’s never a “set” menu, guests can expect sips like Mama Juana — a drink native to the Dominican Republic that’s made with wine, honey and rum — or a more refined cocktail called the Gin and It, made with Italian vermouth and gin. Another, called the Mosquito Bite, is served in just one droplet that’s delicately dispersed on the back of a customer’s hand. Each “course,” like a food tasting menu, is meant to be a flavor experience.
The experience draws around 120 guests per month — and as Austin puts it, it’s meant to be an experiment with being present and tasting in the moment. That’s why no phones or photos are allowed in the booth.
“If you’re making a memory, it’s a memory you’re inscribing on your heart, and in your mind,” he said.
Guests find out about Threesome Tollbooth through word-of-mouth, and press, but Austin has chosen to refrain from using social media. Customers who are happy with their cocktails tell their friends, and the word spreads fast. Reservations are currently sold out through July, and new booking slots will open up again in August. Interested imbibers should book quick: Austin says reservations fill up just 15 minutes after they open.
Like Austin, more industry folks are taking advantage of underutilized spaces tucked away within existing establishments like bigger restaurants or bars, and transforming them into posh, speakeasy-like dining dens. At Sushi by Bou, chef David Bouhadana and owner Michael Sinensky offer an intimate, quick-service sushi counter with an omakase (chef’s choice) menu concept, serving just eight people at a time. The seatings are done in 30-minute intervals and guests get 12 pieces of sushi for $50.
Bouhadana, who honed his culinary craft in Japan, has a number of locations sprinkled throughout Manhattan, like beneath the Sanctuary Hotel in Midtown and above the scene-y club-staurant Jue Lan Club in Chelsea, along with one at its sister location in Southampton. Each offers a maximum of eight to 10 seats.
“I have seen a downward and almost spiraling trend the last several years due to out-of-touch politicians and increased costs, especially rent, that makes owning such a business in New York City extremely difficult,” said Sinensky of why he decided to downsize adding: “We decided it’s best to live within a larger place.”
Smaller spaces lend themselves best to menus with small bites, like tapas. At é by Jose Andres, an eight-person counter hidden behind his bigger restaurant, Jaleo, at the Cosmopolitan Hotel in Las Vegas, there are just two dinner seatings. For $195 per person with 21 courses excluding wine pairings, customers can expect delights like the cod jowl sandwich; chickpea stew with chorizo oil or caviar tacos; reservations can be made via email. And the smallest restaurant in the world is in a tiny wooden shack in Finland at Kuappi, fit for just two customers. The menu includes meaty bites like pepper steak and reindeer tenderloin.
As for spirits, Copper & Oak, a dimly lit whisky den on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, opened in 2014 with just eight seats at the bar targeting an ultra-niche clientele: lovers of dark liquor like bourbon, rum, aged tequila and scotch. There are no cocktails on the menu, or even vodka served.
It makes sense that mixologists and chefs are seeking smaller spaces, with astronomical rents in major food cities like New York causing many restaurants to shutter at unprecedented rates. The number of independent restaurants in New York City alone fell 3% from March 2015 to March 2016, a little more than the 2.7 % decrease nationwide, according to the market research firm NPD Group.
“It’s a very appealing thing for a restaurant owner to have a small space, as long as the rents are low enough and you can charge a high check,” says Jason Kaplan, a New York City-based restaurant consultant.
“It’s difficult to make sure you find someone to fill every time slot,” he added. “If you’re priced too high, you can only be available to certain types of customers.”
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