In theory, it’s bringing together people to turn the dining experience into a social event. In reality, it’s throwing total strangers together at a table with predictably mixed results.
Finding yourself at a communal table in a restaurant is growing more common and even made the top spot of Zagat’s “The 10 Most Annoying Restaurant Trends.” It’s a way to maximize the space (and therefore profits) for the restaurant and helps to reduce wait times for seating. But is it a positive from the customer’s perspective?
My experiences at public communal tables has run the gamut of everything from lively dinners with some hilarious characters that I would never have met otherwise to uncomfortable meals that seemed to drag on and on.
I’ll use two recent, and very different, experiences to illustrate this point.
My favorite dinner spot in Portland, Oregon is Le Bistro Montage, with its dark and almost sinister interior juxtaposed with the rollicking party atmosphere. From the quirky waiters with an attitude to the Creole menu featuring delicious mac and cheese, yummy crawfish etouffe, and awesome cocktail menu, it’s a place to let the good times roll. Just leave some leftovers for your waiter to create a tin foil sculpture that is part of the experience of dining here.
Perhaps it was because I knew going in to expect the large communal tables, but from the get-go I was ready to share the space. They cram you into tiny spots so you have little choice but to interact with your neighbor. Each trip here has meant dinner with interesting people from across the country, getting some great tips from locals, and even sharing food with total strangers. I would never have tried their delicious crawfish hush puppies if a fellow diner hadn’t insisted I try some, and I’m glad they did.
I have had things happen like getting wine spilled on me by a particularly boisterous woman next to me but she was very nice about it and, quite frankly, at that point her wine was probably better off on me than in her.
In contrast, there are places where I would really prefer to have my own table. Just last night, we finally made it to Tom Douglas’s much hyped pizza destination, Serious Pie, in Seattle. I wasn’t expecting the communal tables and just wasn’t in the mood.
Added to that, we were seated with some people that never acknowledged our presence although, to be fair, they didn’t seem to interact with each other either. At first I was a little put off by their glazed over death-stare at their phones but then I looked around the restaurant. Almost every person in the packed restaurant was entranced by a tiny screen. It’s a dark place and I couldn’t help but wonder what it is about dark interiors and communal seating. Maybe it’s better not to get a good look at your table-mates? Then it dawned on me. This is one of the grazing spots of the ellusive native Seattle hipster. So when in Rome…
Nah, luckily I was with some friends that I found more interesting than my phone and the pizza was so fantastic that I would gladly share a table with Genghis Khan if I had to. It was my first time here and I have a pretty strict rule of 3 visits before passing judgement on a restaurant, which has served me well.
But their sweet fennel sausage, roasted pepper, and provolone as well as the Yukon Gold potato, rosemary, and pecorino pizzas were so beyond my expectations that I feel pretty confident that my next 2 visits will be very, very soon and will lead to an unreserved positive endorsement from me. Their hand crafted crusts that are cooked to a crispy/chewy perfection in the wood-fired oven could be topped with anything and still be amazing. But they judiciously apply the locally sourced toppings to achieve maximum flavor and produce a superior product.
So how do I feel in general about communal tables? In spite of some good times, I think I would rather chose who I share my dinner table with. I don’t know of any places in Gig Harbor that have adopted this concept. Sure, there is seating at a bar or lunch counter. But that is an entirely different experience. When going out to a nice dinner, especially with people that I actually want to talk to, I prefer to have a table to ourselves.
Have you experienced communal seating in a restaurant? How did you feel about it?