The Dilemma Surrounding Community Tables
Different Countries Different Customs
Growing up, it was not unusual to eat at a restaurant and be in the company of complete strangers seated either right next to or across from me. Growing up, I lived in Germany where this custom is very much common place.
I must preface that we frequented mostly casual places which lent themselves well to this communal seating. I am speaking of places such as beer gardens, pubs or family friendly establishments where the possibility of gathering with others was an unwritten (even if not an unspoken) part of the agenda. The choice to go out for a meal was by design also a choice to be social.
Tables were generally long and big enough that even if we were seated together with others, we were able to create our 'private' space. An empty chair between us and the next party sometimes served as a 'natural' dividing line. Ideally we would score a few spots that included the head or the foot of the table so that we could easily engage in conversations. Being seated across from one another was ok, too, but definitely second best - our eyes and ears were definitely more compromised.
Or maybe not. I am still amused by the time my older sister, my Mom and I went to an ice-cream parlor and we ended up sharing a table with a (middle-aged) couple. While licking the ice-cream off our cones, we took interest in their conversation which was clearly more exciting than our own. It was quite apparent that this couple was on their first date and that he was trying his best to 'impress' her. We could not contain our laughter any longer when he asked her her astrological sign and upon sharing his own, he claimed he was a 'tiger' and began to growl. Literally.
The American Equivalent of Communal Seating
The best American equivalent of the German communal seating I can think of is Benihana, our version of a Japanese steakhouse. Meals are cooked to order on a table side grill with eight surrounding chairs. We celebrate most of our birthdays there, and I can't think of a single time when our party of five had the table of eight all to ourselves. My husband usually ends up in the 'hot seat' and has the job of engaging in friendly conversation with our table mates. I gladly take the job of 'manning' the kids.
Just because I grew up with communal tables does not mean that I am always a big fan of them.
And then there is the widespread Bed & Breakfast experience some love and others love to hate. The advantage of staying in someone's home is the personal touch which these accommodations offer, and usually their breakfasts are true gastronomical delicacies. It is also a wonderful way to learn about the local culture and gather tips on local favorites. However, waking up to start the day with strangers gathered around the dining room table is enough to make some turn their backs. Whether too intimate or not relaxing enough, it is clearly not everyone's cup of tea.
On a trip to Vancouver many years ago, my husband and I chose to stay at a B&B. After all this time, a two things remain fresh in our minds. The room was very comfortable and the breakfast was divine. But eating in the company of the other guests, we were stuck in what seemed a never ending conversation which began to cut into our sightseeing plans. It was definitely difficult and awkward to make a polite exit.
Just because we chose to join a meal at a communal table does not mean these arrangements always work out as planned.
How To Sit 'Communal Style'
Growing up, I don't recall anyone ever playing hostess or seeing signs that read 'please wait to be seated' as is common practice here in the United States. Upon entering the restaurant, my parents scanned the space and came up with a plan of attack. If a table big enough for all of us was still available, then the decision was made for us. However, when space was tight, my Mom or Dad would approach the people already seated at the table and say "Sind diese Plaetze noch frei?" ("Are these seats still free?"). After a couple of niceties and nods, we seated ourselves and waited to be served.
Whether we ended up be-friending our table mates or not depended on a bunch of factors. There was no right or wrong here, as every situation seems to be unique. But in general, I would say that watching body language is a good indicator. My parents typically chose to share a table with people who appeared open to conversation and who were out for an informal meal. If the mood and circumstances on both sides were right, then the conversation seemed to begin almost naturally. If it never came together, no ones feelings were hurt.
Keep in mind that Germans are by and large reserved and private people so the practice of sharing a table at a crowded restaurant might be more out of need for efficiency than an opportunity for social interaction. Clearly we are not socially inept, but the reason behind communal seating does necessarily always equate to a desire to make new friends. With space altogether tighter in Germany than we enjoy it here in the United States, we must make certain accommodations.
The Rise of Community Tables in the United States
Not so long ago, I could only think of one place in the Bay Area where it was common practice to eat dinner at a table with complete strangers. And of course, this restaurant is a German restaurant in San Francisco. Shall I mention that it is almost impossible to get a table there during any night of the week? Clearly it has a wonderful and loyal list of followers.
In the meatime, the practice of community tables in the United States is steadily gaining momentum. I would like to believe it is not just a passing trend but a return to an old (perhaps German influenced) tradition. I usually joke when I say that all good things come from Germany, but this time I might just mean it.
From the restaurants perspective, communal seating is better for the bottom line. Why not maximize the number of people who can be seated at one time if all it takes is sharing the space a little? We do so very willingly in elevators, airplanes, cafeterias, and the like. It's also an effective move to 'reserve' space for walk-ins who are often annoyed to be told a restaurant is fully booked.
For the customer who keeps an open mind, it feels cozy to enter a restaurant with a community table. I must admit, the table serves as a great focal point for creating a relaxing and inviting ambiance. Customers by an large enjoy an atmosphere akin to being in someone's home and being treated like valued guests. And for those who previously felt awkward about dining alone, the struggle is over. You may arrive alone, but won't be alone for long.
If you are not a fan yet, think again. You might just find a little space in your life for eating 'community style'.