A new restaurant dining room concept has materialized in recent years, and it’s proving to be a hit—communal dining.
Communal dining is when you enter a restaurant, and instead of the usual seating arrangement found in other eateries, you can only see a few tables surrounding a large one at the middle of the dining room, with a seating for more or less 20 people. The host in personalized apron welcomes you and leads you to wherever you want to seat—to a smaller table for 2 or 4 people, or to the long table with 20 or more diners having a spirited but hushed conversation. The food in communal tables is typically not shared, but the space is.
In California, for instance, communal tables have been cropping up everywhere—in chic and hip neighborhood restaurants, casual breakfast spots to almost any type of dining place, such as West County Grill in Sebastopol, A Cote in Oakland and Salt House in San Francisco. Large family-type tables are placed in the center of the restaurants, and strangers could be seen, men and women alike, sharing space and talking to each other engagingly.
The idea of communal dining has been brought to the state about twelve years ago, but the concept didn’t sit well at once with the Golden State diners—they weren’t ready to sit with strangers just yet. Americans aren’t so good at sharing space, and it took a while before they warmed to the idea.
New York, however, didn’t have that much resistance, as when Asia de Cuba started offering communal dining ten years ago. The idea easily became a real smasher; the restaurant’s main attraction then wasn’t the drinks, the food or the service given by servers in personalized aprons—it was their 25-foot table with 36 seats that allowed people to come and share a meal together, first as strangers and eventually leave the place as friends.
Industry experts say that the trend is the effect of two things: the popularity of small plates and man’s yearning for human contact in these isolated times. “People have been spending so much time on the internet these days, and at some point in the day, they’d crave for a sense of community and simply want to gather in groups,” an analyst explained.
Single men and women now love the idea of communal tables, such as San Franciscan Terri McKenna and her friends. “My girl friends and I would come in groups, and we’d ultimately leave with a group of single guys,” she said. “My roommate met her boyfriend at a communal table in one of San Francisco’s cozy restaurants. She ordered a chocolate ice cream with strawberry as dessert, while he got a bottle of Veuve Clicquot for himself. Pretty soon they were already sharing tastes, which led to a date, and the date paved the way to a long-term relationship.”
Another patron attests that it’s all about camaraderie. “We started out as strangers, then we became regulars—sharing hangovers, passing the sugar, and swapping free magazines. We talk when we feel like it, and have a quiet meal when we don’t. We would ask ‘where have you been?’ when someone’s gone for two weeks and reappears. I know their favorite football teams, and how they like their eggs. It’s like having a family that you can get out of seeing once they start to become annoying.”
But those who enjoy it the most are restaurateurs–communal dining is said to be one of the most effective ways to increase restaurant sales, as the physical dynamic encourages fast turnover and the no bookings policy maximizes traffic. Some restaurants now are even encouraging their diners to eat “family style” meals with other customers, encouraging them to make have fun making new friends while dining.