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October 28, 2009

The communal table, a not-so-terrible trend

Communalable.jpgWhile the discussion under 10 Terrible Dining Trends was very interesting, and I think it will cause readers to be a little more careful about joking about dogs and Asian restaurants, it did get us a bit far from the original post and the dining trends. (Other than the foam, of course, which holds endless fascination for everyone because, well, I have to admit that when done badly it does look like dog slobber.)

But I wanted to talk more about Trend No. 7: the Communal Table, which we've discussed before. ...

Did it surprise you that anyone felt strongly enough about communal tables in restaurants to include it in a top 10 of worst dining trends? It did me.

The only communal tables I can think of around here off the top of my head are at the Lebanese Taverna in Harbor East, Tabrizi's in Harborview and the Iron Bridge Wine Company in Columbia. I haven't a clue whether people enjoy eating at them or not; I've never heard anyone express an opinion.

But isn't it sort of like eating at a bar (only without having the bartender to talk to, of course)? You can interact with your neighbors or not, I would imagine. Or do you just not sit at them unless you want social discourse? Or to pick up cute guys or gals?

The reason they are so awful, according to the story, is this:

Said Michael Schwartz, the chef/owner of Michael's Genuine Food & Drink in Miami: the communal table "assumes people who don't know each other want to sit together."

Well, duh.

(Tribune photo by Antonio Perez)

Posted by Elizabeth Large at 7:06 AM | | Comments (27)


I personally HATE communal tables and avoid them at all costs. I don't want to talk to strangers, I want to talk to my dining partner(s). I also don't want to hear other conversations. Bad trend as far as I'm concerned.

Oh, go up to Amish country in PA, the communal table is big up there.

And of course about 90% of all bed and breakfasts are communal table.

I had a communal table for a special wine dinner at Petit Louis once. (then again, the way they pack them in there, it seems like all the tables at Petit Louis are communal tables all the time) I actually had a very good conversation at the dinner, but the problem was the seats were too close.

If a restaurant insists on doing a communal table, it needs to provide adequate elbow room for its diners. It is one thing to crowd out your wife and friends at a table, but when it is with strangers, I feel like I'm at the Preakness and I'm defending my turf from the encroaching people all around me.

Every Basque restaurant I have been to have communal seating with many dishes served family style. Only the main meat course is served individually. My family and have always enjoyed this experience. At Gritty's in Maine the seating is communal picnic tables and I love eating there. Frontera Grill in Chicago has a counter with four or seats and since I have been there by myself the conversations I had with fellow diners was a welcome benefit.

Durgin-Park in Boston has had communal tables for decades, if not centuries. (There has been a restaurant at the site near Faneuil Hall since 1742, and Messrs. Durgin and Park bought the place in 1827.)

There may be some mystique in dining with complete strangers at a communal table, but it's all a mystery to me.

The Hofbrau Beer Garden is communal table seating, with really long benches as well. So if your party is a small one, you hope to find an open end on one of the tables.
They do have individual tables, but they are all outside.

My wife and I dined at the Iron Bridge Wine Company a couple months ago with friends ( a party of 10 altogether). They seated us at their communal table which worked out well for us. About 15 minutes later they seated another couple at the table, followed by a lone diner who brought her book to read. As respectful as you may want to be, with a party of 10 the conversation does tend to get loud...especially after some flights of wine. I cannot imagine that the other diners at the table had an enjoyable time. The place was packed, so I doubt that there were other seating options.

I like them. Sometimes you sit next to someone interesting, sometimes not. Nothing mysterious about it, just something fun. But I can understand that it's not everyone's cup of tea.

Iggies has one and I think it works well there, and in casual places in general.

Sometimes at Pazo, I've felt like I was at a communal table, sharing a date with the couple at the table next to me, just inches away.

As a rule, I would think shared tables become less desirable as a restaurant's level of expense and formality increase.

I love the idea of communal tables. I think the American society is so programmed for the "table for two, intimate dinner", we forget the joy of encountering new and interesting conversations. Communal tables should not be hoarded by a larger party. Welcome the two's and ones... especially the ones! It's hard to eat solo and I hate eating at bars. Sitting down strangers and walking away full of new conversations is a joy. Keep yourself open and look for new adventures. I've often asked strangers to join me at a table when a restaurant is full... sort of a mini-communal table. Often I am not disappointed. The good outweighs the bad.


This sounds like another communist idea, is Obama behind it?

Corey -- You just opened up a can of worms with that last comment :-)

Mike - you hit it on the head for me.

when the dinner isn't as expensive it's a nice chance to meet other people, or at least feel like you are...but if i'm about to throw down some major cash, then i could see how sometimes it might bother me.

I like the communal table as an option not an edict.
After all, people joining the table are there for the same reason you are.
Would you want "seperate pews" in your church?
Do you sit next to strangers at the movies?
Do buses only allow "one party at a time" aboard?
Does EL limit her bloggers to just one opinion per subject?

I hope to sit with some of you one day at a communal table. It's not after all a lifetime commitment.

The big issue about communal table is that for upscale places you don't know that fact until you get there. I know sometimes I want to bring sand to the beach.

Lone Lady, a communal table may not be a lifetime commitment, but I'm afraid D@L is. Weren't you told that the first time you commented?

Misha - I agree with you about sharing your table with another person or two. I have had enjoyable past experiences doing this.

I love the concept as an option, although I have only encountered communal tables in B&Bs, or the equivalent experience of eating at the bar. Since I live alone, and it is often difficult to gather friends from around the city on the spur of the moment, if I knew of some local restaurants that had one, I would be more likely to patronize them.

Many years ago, I was at K. Paul's in New York City, when Paul Prudhomme did a pop-up restaurant in Soho. He had communal tables, and we were lucky enough to be seated with Craig Claiborne and Pierre Franey.

When in Rome, we were frequently seated at communal tables, each couple taking a corner of the large square table.

I like communal tables for the sense of family and sharing. I've met very interesting and fascinating people while dining at Asia de Cuba in New York and Il Latini in Florence. I love the interaction and meeting new people from many walks of life.

If communal tables are not to your liking then you sit at a regular table. That is why there is vanilla, strawberry and chocolate...something for everyone's taste.

I wrote a similar story back in February on communal dining:

For me the key to enjoying a communal table experience is a server with a lot of character, like the women I remember from years ago at Durgin-Park--the take no guff, but heart of gold type. They had everyone laughing and enjoying the experience.

A while back four friends and I were seated at one end of the communal table at Iron Bridge. A couple of seats farther down, some woman spent about 15 minutes rubbing her finger on the edge of the glass making "music." I really thought I might go mad. I'm sure that would have been annoying even from a neighboring table, but having her right there seemed to make it so much worse.

I do not like communal tables. I'm an introvert, and dealing with strangers is stressful.

However, I do remember one night, when I was eating alone at a high class vegetarian restaurant in Northampton, MA after driving from Detroit. I was so tired I was wired.

After I finished my meal, the couple at the table next to me asked if I'd like to join them for coffee and dessert. I did, and we had a lovely conversation about Italian cheese making (the gentleman was part of a cheese-making family from New Haven).

It was very kind of them. I still think of them fondly, 20 years later.

There's a difference between a restaurant with a single communal table, and one (like Durgin-Park) in which communal tables predominate. One may have a pleasant experience in dining at what amounts to the chef's table, or in being adventurous and dining with strangers in a different city. At its worst, though, communal dining has all the ambience of your garden-variety high school cafeteria, with a conversation level to match.

Communal tables are pretty much mandatory at teppenyaki-style (think Benihani) Japanese restaurants. When I lived in Mount Vernon, I ate often as a single at Nichi Bei Kai in the basement of the Belvedere and never have a problem with being assigned to a communal table - but maybe there wasn't as much conversation going on there, as everyone was distracted by the theater involved?
I've also been to Durgin-Park a few times and always understood the lack of ambiance there was supposed to be a big part of the attraction (e.g., brusque waitresses, no-nonsense service, etc.) I'd think that if you balk at communal tables, you're not going to like _anything_ about Durgin-Park.

There's also a difference between dining voluntarily at a communal table and being placed on a bench seat with a small table that is exactly 4 inches away from the next table on your right and your left. especially when you are dining at the restuarant for a special occasion and you'd like some privacy. And, you're in the process of spending $150 on dinner for 2!

Yes Mia Carolina, I might be talking about you!

I hate those bench seats. It's bad enough that you see it a places like the Cheesecake Factory, but the worst I've ever seen was at the Inn at Little Washington.

The most uncomfortable bench seats I have encountered are at the Cafe at Chez Panisse. I assume the idea is to get you moving at the end of the meal.

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About this blog
Richard Gorelick was appointed The Baltimore Sun's restaurant critic in September 2010. Before joining the paper staff fulltime, he contributed freelance criticism and features articles about food to area and regional publications. Along the way, he dispatched for short-distance trucking companies, shilled for cultural non-profits, and assisted in cognitive neurology research – never the subject, always the control.

He takes restaurants seriously but not himself, and his favorite restaurant is the one you love, too.

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