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.