Gone are the days when communal tables were relegated to cafeterias, beer halls, Benihana, and the odd farm-to-table restaurant. In recent years, restaurants from McDonald’s to Momofuku have gotten in on the communal dining action. But up until a few years ago, most restaurants never dreamed their clients would tolerate dining with strangers. So, all this collective noshing raises a couple questions: How did diners come to be so accepting of eating with strangers? And, are we so starved for social interaction that we welcome being forced to sit with random people?
To the latter, Jay Miranda, a principal at Chipman Design Architecture, says yes. “People clamor for more interaction in their daily lives. The restaurant industry responded by experimenting with putting strangers together.” Starting about three years ago, Miranda says clients from across the country began asking to incorporate communal tables into their restaurants’ seating plan. Today he estimates that 85 percent of Chipman Design’s casual and fast casual restaurant clients demand it. “When you go out, the purpose is to enjoy yourself. You want to eat and be a part of a bigger community.”
But the social experiment doesn’t always work. Google “communal table” and you will come across screeds denouncing the trend of eating so close to random people. Though some enjoy the sense of kinship, others could do without overhearing their obnoxious neighbor’s conversation. And it doesn’t feel very elegant to rub elbows with your tablemates when you’re cutting into a $50 filet mignon in a fancy dining room. There have been entire articles written on the delicate etiquette of dining with strangers. Bon Appétit recommends that you mark your territory with cutlery and have no delusions that your neighbor wants to chat.
So communal tables suffer from a mixed reputation at best. But there’s a reason restaurants are eager to try them anyway: “It’s about money,” says Dr. Stephani Robson, senior lecturer at Cornell University’s School of Hotel Administration. After the recession it became even harder for restaurants to meet their bottom line. “The only way to make money was either to raise prices or do more covers in the same space.”
This increasingly aggressive use of space is a double win for restaurants: Adding more seats makes room for more customers and a tightly packed space creates an infectious energy which in turn lures in more customers. And as a bonus, customers have an opportunity to “meet a new friend or a cute stranger,” as Miranda puts it.
Both Robson and Miranda stress that communal seating is not for everyone or for every occasion. When strangers gather happily together at a table, it’s because they’re getting something more than a standard meal or drink out of it.
The opportunity to be social may be a larger part of the dining experience, but as most of us know from awkward dinner parties, people’s inner social butterflies can only be released in the right circumstances. “Communal tables only work when you have a social lubricant,” Robson says. Few things are more awkward than staring at a stranger’s face while you silently chomp away at your food. Diners and drinkers will only tolerate being squished around a table with strangers if they can choose from this menu of situations: a) if booze is involved, b) if there is interesting food to entertain them, or c) if it’s entirely acceptable to ignore their tablemates.
Communal tables are commonplace today, but they are certainly nothing new. Sharing a table with a stranger has long been a part of certain dining experiences: lunch counters, cafeterias, and, of course, bars.
Alison Pearlman, the author of Smart Casual: The Transformation of Gourmet Restaurant Style in America, sees the communal table trend as something that has been brewing for a while. In the 1960’s, Benihana popularized the idea of dinner as a show and the communal table provided the perfect setting. Food theatrics was the shared experience that made it comfortable for strangers to dine next to each other as they gazed in collective amazement at the chef chopping, flinging, and grilling food with a circus performer’s dexterity. Then, beginning in the 1980’s, changing economics and demographics kindled the casualization of dining out. When Danny Meyer opened Union Square Café in New York in 1985, he famously set up dining at the bar. For a gourmet restaurant, this was revolutionary. But it also made good economic sense. It instantly added more dining seats and provided a comfortable setting for solo eaters—a growing demographic. The 1980’s saw a rise in single-person households as people waited longer to marry. These yuppies, including single working women, were also spending the most money on food.
“Dining at the bar offered single diners more options and more comfort, and it’s economical for the restaurant,” Pearlman says. By seating diners together at the bar, Meyer took advantage of its function as a casual, social space where talking to strangers is accepted and even expected.