Small Spaces, Big Impact

Design solutions that make you rethink whether size really matters

Small restaurants are learning to get a lot of mileage out of a few square feet.

“Every night is like a ballet,” says Mike Pierce, co-owner of Maverick, San Francisco’s 35-seat Mission District spot. “Because we don’t have much space, we have to know where each other is, and plan how we stand and move. It helps us turn 120 seats a night on weekends.”

A Baryshnikov-like attention to flow is one thing. A stunning set is another. For restaurants, that means innovative design that grabs the eye and enhances operations. These crafty design solutions have allowed restaurants to do big things with small spaces.


Medi, Arlington, Va.
1,400 square feet, 40 seats

Griz Dwight of GrizForm Design Architects transformed a former boutique into a Mediterranean quick-serve with limited seating. Controlling customer circulation presented a challenge, which Dwight met by creating a single walking corridor—or “spine”—along one side of the room, with the back exit, bathrooms and service counter extending from it. “We needed to let people know where to go and move in one clear direction for everything to work efficiently,” Dwight says.

Interior of Medi, Arlington, Va.


Thea Pizzeria & Cafe, Miami 
1,800 square feet, 38 seats

What could have been seen as a prohibitively long and narrow space turned out to be anything but in the hands of Thea Goldman. The owner played with levels to add depth, hanging gold pendant lights from the 23-foot ceiling and installing a silk pewter curtain that sweeps from the ceiling to floor. “It all gave the room better proportion,” Goldman says. Using various textures helped, too. Black wood, marble and leather mingle with the real showstopper: a 30-square-foot, 210,000-piece, Italian-made glass mosaic of flowers.

Table at Thea Pizzeria & Cafe, Miami


Maverick, San Francisco 
1,000 square feet, 35-40 seats

Space constraints led the regional American restaurant to forgo a host stand in lieu of a touch screen attached to a slender wooden pole for OpenTable reservations. But the biggest design idea is on the walls: an art installation made from repurposed speaker boxes that resembles a U.S. map and doubles as ambient lighting. Keeping with the uncluttered flow, the artist, Trey Gerfers, also crafted wall sconces from speaker boxes.

Interior of Maverick San Francisco


1,125 square feet, 70 seats

To create more room in the small, historic space (a converted house with a second-floor kitchen), Chef-owner Christopher Lee put the bar on a diet, narrowing a deep, cumbersome 25-inch bar to 20 inches and curving it into an arch. The space savings and new stools allowed for up to five more seats.“The new stools are smaller, won’t have backs and will swivel,” brand consultant Dana Spain says, adding that the change also makes the space more social.

Red Farm New York interior


RedFarm, New York City
1,300 square feet, 44 seats

Taking a cue from the farm-to-table menu at the modern Chinese restaurant, Manhattan’s Crème Design channels a pastoral aesthetic with communal tables, custom rustic wood built-ins and gingham fabric banquettes. Unlike rambling country farmhouses, the restaurant is tiny. To maximize space, Crème installed pipes above tables from which menus, containers of chopsticks, plants and lighting fixtures hang.

Kelly Aiglon is a Chicago-based freelance editor. She writes for DailyCandy, the Chicago Tribune and AAA Living, and offers web content consulting for lifestyle companies.