I recognize that my mild agoraphobia makes me rather biased in matters of space (I have trouble sleeping in big rooms, especially if the door is open) but every time I go back to Japan I am reminded of how much better bars and restaurants are when they are not gargantuan. It’s rather ironic that in NYC a lot of Japanese eateries are associated with godzilla-sized boxes like Buddakan, Morimoto and Ninja, the latter being an embarrassing recreation of a Disneyfied Seven Samurai village that makes me want to stab my eyes out with ninja stars.
Back in the motherland, most of the best places to go are the size of a bathroom stall in the Olive Garden. Yes, that means it’s harder to get a seat and you’ll probably end up smashed in some uncomfortable position while sucking in secondhand smoke from the guy at the next table who is, by the way, sitting 5cm away with his shoes off. All of this may read like a bad Yelp review, but in actual experience these things are inconsequential inconveniences–all necessary parts of creating that most difficult-to-achieve vibe: an authentic sense of intimacy.
By intimacy, I’m not necessarily talking about a Cheers-style exclusivity where everybody knows your name and if they don’t, then you’re in the wrong place (though Japan excels in producing those kinds of places as well). There are many super-intimate places that I’ve been to where despite it being my first time there, I felt immediately comfortable and at home. Oftentimes the owner may not even be that welcoming (a silent nod is all you really need), but there’s something in the packed-like-sardines feel of a place, the sheer tininess of it, that makes the atmosphere profoundly appealing for the non-claustrophobic. Perhaps as urban-dwellers we find the proximity to other people comforting, the lack of personal space somehow nostalgic?
During last month’s trip to Tokyo a friend took me to a teeny, wobbling shack of a place on a Shibuya side street where we were seated on the attic floor, just big enough for two. We ate our baked onion and sipped our French wine in smoke-filled gratification while crouched on the floor with about 6 inches of space above our heads. Uncomfortable? Sort of. Wonderful? YES!
Another time I was invited to dinner at a remarkable little wine bar called the Ahiru Store run by an adorable brother and sister team who bake their own bread behind the counter to serve with their selection of wines. The place was just big enough to seat about 6 people at the counter, and also had a couple of barrel-tables for people to stand around in the narrow corridor. As everything happens right behind the counter, you immediately get a feel for the duo’s relaxed sensibilities; from how they languidly yet efficiently managed to cook for a full house and casually chat with their customers without breaking a sweat. The whole experience was like going to someone’s tiny apartment for dinner, where you get to snoop around the kitchen and covet their collection of Staub and Le Creuset.
There are countless other places that I can spend all day writing about but basically my point is that most of the time, in matters of drinking/dining spaces, smaller is just better! And all of this kind of tangentially reminds me of Junichiro Tanizaki’s classic, In Praise of Shadows. A must-read for anybody interested in architecture and aesthetics. Wow, that was a random jump!