When you’re trying to create a sense of intimacy in a restaurant space, bigger is never better. Two new McMillan-neighbourhood establishments demonstrate this maxim vividly by daring to operate in spaces that are not just small, but minuscule.
The Roost, a converted loft on the Corydon strip, seats precisely 18 people. Close Co., on Stafford Street in Grosvenor Village, has sit-down space for a grand total of 10.
Both tiny spots offer a short menu of small plates and a similarly sized selection of cocktails. Both pretty much require their customers to interact with each other, given the small amount of seating. Both, as a result of their menus and physical environments, offer the potential for a tremendous amount of fun.
But there’s something else going on here. On a philosophical level, the Roost and Close Co. are making a bold and staunchly urbanist statement. They’re essentially pocket bars, the neighbourhood establishments that serve as a foundational aspect of everyday life in cities that are much more dense than Winnipeg.
And given the modest profit margins involved in the food-and-beverage industry — margins that usually demand restaurants go big and rely on volume to survive — the people behind these pocket bars are putting their dreams of recreating a tiny piece of Brooklyn or Barcelona ahead of their potential for profits.
It’s not quite altruistic, but it is a radical move in a city where the suburban surface-parking lots can be seen from the International Space Station.
"People are super-excited about it," says Tammie Rocke, one of the three entrepreneurs behind Close Co., which opened in February in a space occupied by Steve’s Hairstyling For Men for the previous 61 years. "They don’t want to tell anyone about it. They want us to be their secret."
That was never going to happen, given Close’s pedestrian-friendly location between the Grove pub and Máquè restaurant. But Close is a destination unto its own.
There are precisely six items on the regular menu right now, including a great warm salad of squid rings and tentacles, shaved fennel and orange slices, dressed with an acidic and spicy roasted-pepper mayo. There’s also a pair of meatballs swimming in a salty but addictive tomato sauce, and dish of roasted carrots and beets placed over the strained yoghurt known as labneh in the Middle East.
The cocktail menu is only six items, too. Try the Close take on a Diablo, an old cocktail traditionally made with tequila, ginger beer and cassis. This version goes with espresso and ancho syrup.
In order to gain an occupancy permit, Close Co. is technically a food service and not a restaurant. This space was created by Rocke, who pays her own bills as an interior designer.
The Roost is a similar labour of love, but licensed as an actual restaurant. It opened in September in a former office space above a structure best known as the former home of Soup Pierre.
The upstairs location presented as many regulatory challenges, as did the small size of the space itself, said Caiden Bircham, one of six partners in the Roost — four of whom are in their early 20s.
"You may have noticed we’re upstairs, and we have a wheelchair-accessible washroom," he says. In more sensible cities, officials would have granted an inaccessible, second-floor loft an exemption from an accessible-washroom requirement. But I digress.
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Compared with Close Co., The Roost is more focused on cocktails. Over the winter, they offered an eye-popping array of 26 (including an amazingly dry, basil-infused number called the Cleo, which is no longer on the menu but still available). That list has been whittled down to 10 cocktails, as the Roost prepares to open a patio that will effectively triple its capacity.
The kitchen has ambitions of its own, however. Over the winter, they served a decent mushroom risotto topped with slices of seared duck breast, a classic dish of gnocchi tossed with brown butter, butternut squash and sage and a playful plate of minced-rabbit fritters that would have worked better as "Kentucky fried rabbit" had they been bunny nuggets instead of meatballs.
They’ve just switched over to a spring menu, which includes a satisfying dish of pork-neck meat tossed with spaetzle and topped with a poached egg, plus (unsampled) offerings such as mackerel ceviche and quinoa salad.
In both the Roost and Close Co., you can not help but speak to your neighbours. You may, in fact, be required to share a table with strangers, should you desire to sit.
A living nightmare for introverts? Perhaps, but welcome additions for a city plagued by too much personal space.