The communal dining table both scourged and praised in dining circles has its issues. In some cities like Chicago and Dallas there is a lot of traffic on how much it is despised, while other places like New York and Seattle tend to favor the social benefits. Some in the discussions insist it is all about money, seating more in less space, while others intone that it’s about the conviviality and buzz that it can create in the dining room. Without people a restaurant is an empty shell to be sure. The food can be great and the wine flowing freely, but it is all for naught if there is no one there to enjoy it. And the enjoyment is the catch. For survival, as my brother Chef Bill Kinslow points out, “In this business you are only as good as your last meal”, pointing to event memory as the reason one returns to your restaurant. That meal encompasses all aspects from the greeting to the dessert. So where and how you are seated for your meal is important.
So when is close too close?
The plan dimensions of typical seating are 54” between tables and 24” wide place settings. Tables are usually 30” deep. So a 48” x 30” table seats 4. A 24” x 30” is a standard two-top size. If the 54” dimension is compromised you are backing into someone all night. Not a comfortable feeling. Every time you lean back you touch someone. If greater than 54” between tables you are removed from the buzz of nearby diners. The feeling is more like an empty hall. We seem to favor “being there” with an amount of privacy simultaneously. We’ll watch the action but want to have a place that is one’s own.
Where did we get this from? In the 1600’s dining tables were pretty much all communal. Buildings were smaller and no one would sacrifice the space it took for smaller separate tables. Your socializing took place in “the Local” or pub in the neighborhood. The picnic table harks back to these days for example. Late in the 1700’s smaller separate tables for high dining (haute cuisine) were introduced in Paris. We don’t see an obvious return to communal dining until, by most accounts, Philipe Starck’s Asia de Cuba in New York City in the late 1990’s.
Recently I dined with a colleague in New York at a busy restaurant on 7th Avenue in the theater district and we were seated at a banquette against the outside wall at a 24” x 30” table. Tables were spaced from the other tables of the same size by about 9”. Your thigh is about 6-7” in diameter at table height for a man so the 9” just allows you to turn sideways when accessing the banquette seat. The opposite seat is a floating chair. A Principle at a design firm I worked with once said he hated the banquette because only one person gets a view of the room, and he is right on that. Or you employ the ubiquitous mirror wall so you get some kind of view. In reality you watch yourself eat. But the distances, 33” center to center of the diners and the 30” deep table both combined to allow for free conversation across to each other, while masking the neighboring conversation. And there was a lot of conversation going on. This place was ripping. If the table was deeper the cross conversation would have been lost and the neighboring conversation would have drifted in. I have noted this with 36” deep tables in that you may gain the shared plate space but you sacrifice the necessary closeness for conversation. Any deeper and you are talking to the person next to you for the night.
Enter the planter
By that I mean the grass planter that was placed between diners at early versions of communal tables in the 2000’s. Interesting to note that in the 70’s, grass did bring people together and lots of eating took place as a result. So the employment in this venue does have a certain irony. But it was the way of easing the forced closeness at the communal tables by possibly providing that magic 9” that the banquettes use between tables. Most communal tables don’t have the planter or any divider any longer. And odd numbered groups are allowed to overlap into other groups. These are the communal diners working without a net. Socializing is a must in that scenario. Maybe that is why the visceral reactions against forced communal seating are heard from some places. It may just be that, as some suggest, pulling a chair or two out of the communal table seating run and increasing the space a bit between diners is a way of getting back to the both/and aspect of being there and having the option to watch. The communal table certainly solves the one-view issue that is endemic of the wall banquette. And it increases the buzz of the space. Smaller restaurants can seat enough to thrive as a business. That all works toward a good event memory and possible return visits by diners.
What is happening in the new restaurant is that we are coming out of our houses (and virtual communities) to socialize again in places of food and drink. People are interacting at restaurants again like our ancestors. How close we are depends on the planimetrics of seating design. And it seems the table is at the center of it all. – Tom