Alone Together: The Return of Communal Restaurant Tables

As more establishments seat people in close proximity, friendships are not forged.

Dennis Wong/flickr

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.

Traditionally, at a fine dining restaurant, serenity and space are included in the price of the meal. As Robson notes: “Space is status in our culture.” While this is the still the expectation at white tablecloth establishments, the status of dining has dramatically changed elsewhere. The appeal of eating out shifted from the value of an intimate dining experience to the quality and uniqueness of the food itself. Whether at a pricey farm-to-table restaurant or a trendy noodle shop, gourmet foodie culture today is not about the crisp white table linen, but about perpetuating the sense of being in the know and being amongst others equally in the know. It also means pouring creative efforts into food instead of the decor.

By the late 1990’s and 2000’s, a number of enterprising trendy restaurants embraced communal tables without the flying food. The tables were popping up either as the only seating option or in addition to traditional seating in places like Asia de Cuba and Momofuku in New York, the Publican in Chicago and A-Frame in Los Angeles. “When you’re eating in a rec room environment, you’re highlighting the food,” Pearlman says. And what is more rec room rustic than a communal table? When interesting food is the focal point, we suddenly feel free to chat with our neighbor about that locally sourced pork or steaming bowl of ramen in front of us.

So what happens when there is no artisanal food, fancy tricks, or allure of “a cute stranger”—just a big table?

Some evidence can be found at a Starbucks on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, where half a dozen strangers recently sat around a hulking wooden table in relative silence, stooped over various screens and taking occasional sips of coffee. When this particular branch got a facelift a few years ago as part of Starbucks’ redesign, out went the old, little cafe tables and in came a large communal table. Is it strange to sit inches away from someone at a shared table and not even acknowledge their existence? Maybe. But it’s what we do. “People like to be alone together,” Robson says. “Communal tables can build a community, but not through verbal interaction.”

Unlike at a restaurant or bar, customers do not necessarily want to meet new people at a Starbucks. They want a place to work alongside like-minded people while not being bothered by them. Here the communal table is transformed into a communal desk—part of the Starbucks’ model as a “third place,” a kind of public living room where people can gather and stay for long periods of time and, essentially, be alone together. The term “third place” was coined by sociologist Ray Oldenburg to describe informal public spaces where people gather outside the workplace or the home. It was a central focus of Starbucks’ expansion during the 1990’s.

In the absence of booze or entertaining food, we use technology to make sitting around the communal table an acceptable practice. There is an understanding among customers that although the space is shared, there is no need to socialize because that’s what smartphones are for. The communal table lets us indulge our social needs without actually socializing.

Now an increasing number of fast food chains are Starbucksizing themselves. When Wendy’s debuted its redesign two years ago it included comfy chairs, a fireplace and some tall communal tables. McDonald’s also redesigned its restaurants to encourage patrons to hang out, work, and eventually, spend more money. Several redesigned branches added large tables that are used by groups, families, and individuals tapping away on laptops. The idea was to create a comfortable and inviting space for customers to relax or work. Nobody is particularly tempted to chat up their neighbor about their Filet-O-Fish.

Communal tables have come full circle from the utilitarian cafeteria to the gourmet dining room and back to mainstream casual fast food restaurants and cafes. It’s a shift that embraces a different kind of dining experience fueled by an increasingly strained industry and changing social needs. They may not be universally beloved, but in our casual culture where the line between dining and social experience is increasingly blurred, and where communal tables offer so much economic potential, there will certainly be more opportunities to take a seat at a communal table for a long time to come.