This morning Adam Roberts, aka the Amateur Gourmet. posted an essay comparing communal tables to communism — nice in theory, he says, not so great in practice. He's not the first — here on Squid Ink last year, Elina Shatkin penned an op-ed expressing a similar opinion.
Roberts offers many reasons why this seemingly great idea doesn't work out so well for the customer. Here's a taste:
Let me tell you something about communal tables. In theory, they're new, they're fresh, they're exciting. They're trendy! That's what restaurants want you to think. But here's a secret. Restaurants don't have communal tables because they make the dining experience more pleasurable. They have communal tables because they make the restaurant more money by squeezing more people into a small space and turning those seats more quickly.
He goes on:
Dinner at a communal table is a struggle. You're vying for space, you're vying for the server's attention, you're vying to be heard. If you're sitting next to your dinner mate, chances are you have your back turned to the person sitting next to you, which is just awkward. If your dinner mate is sitting across from you, you're probably leaning halfway across the table to make conversation. And if the people next to you are loud, you may find yourself backing down and just spending the night eavesdropping rather than fighting to be heard.
At most regular restaurants, the communal table is awkward at best, and just plain uncomfortable at worst. The one exception is at special dinners or events when interaction with your tablemates makes sense. On a regular night out, chances are you aren't looking to make friends — you've gone out with a date or friend and expect to spend your energy focused on that one person. In many instances, becoming super social with those around you might seem downright rude. But at a special dinner, you usually come with the expectation of an experience — one that's likely to take your attention away from your companion here and there anyway.
Which is why the only positive communal table experience I've had lately makes some kind of sense. It was at the Scuola di Pizza at Mozza's now-regular Thursday night salumi bar. Because the salumi bar operates only one night a week, it somehow feels more like an occasion to settle in and be social. Something about the room and the vibe foster interaction. Just yesterday I was talking to chef Chad Colby for a Chef's Library post that will go up later this week and I commented to him, “When I was there for the salumi bar, there was this very festive feeling, very communal. I ended up chatting with the other folks at the table, and people were sharing their wine. It's interesting, because it's really the only instance I can think of when a communal table actually worked the way it's supposed to.”
The takeaway is this perhaps: Communal tables are fine, if there's an actual reason for there to be a communal feeling in the room. As a place to jam people in and turn tables, not so much.
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