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Communal Dining


pdk204
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I'm working on a mock business plan for a restaurant in D.C. and part of my unique selling point is to have communal dining. I'm sure most of you know what that is, but in case anyone doesn't, I think the best way to describe it is where there are long, extended tables with a lot of chairs on both sides, and people who aren't necessarily in the same party end up sitting together. My concept is still casual fine-dining, so it wouldn't be like sitting at long picnic tables or anything. If you want an idea of the type of setting I had in mind, Buddakan has some good pictures of their communal table on their website.. I just wanted to hear everyone's opinion about communal dining (comfort levels, good idea/bad idea, etc.) and see if it might actually work in D.C. Thanks guys!

- Peter

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I've long thought this was an unfilled niche in the DC dining scene. I'm not sure I'd go "fine dining" necessarily, though. I'd have it be a casual and fun spot for people to drink and socialize (think Lauriol-esque with communal tables). If it were accommodating to big groups, that would be a huge draw. Too many restaurants are unable (unwilling?) to accommodate large groups without a long wait or awkward seating arrangements.

I also think you should have something on the order of seat numbers, so one can "pay by spot" in order to avoid the awkwardness that comes along with splitting a bill at a communal table. I know many traditionalist may cringe at the idea (and bristle at my mention of Lauriol), but I think it would be attractive to many people, even just as a change of pace.

GOOD LUCK! What type of cuisine will be served? And what potential areas are you looking into? 14th St/U St/ Logan needs a place like this.

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I've never been a fan of the communal dining thing. I believe le pain quotidien has some sort of communal table in Bethesda (might be a company-wide thing, I don't know).

Really, if I ever felt the desire for "communal" dining, many restaurants have a bar where you can eat. Just my $0.02, I'm sure others feel differently, so maybe there is a market for this sort of thing.

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When I was a kid growing up in Los Angeles, my family used to go to a French restaurant near downtown L.A. called Taix. It opened in the early 1920's I think. Everyone paid a single (cheap) fee, went through a turnstile and sat at long tables. As soon as all of the seats at the table were filled, a waitress came and gave each person a choice: chicken or beef, and then they started bringing the food. Pea soup, salad, sliced French bread. It was set on the table in big bowls that were passed around. Plates with roast chicken or sliced roast beef were delivered along with big bowls of peas and carrots and french fries. I don't remember what dessert was, but I do remember that coffee was served in the diner's emptied water glass with a teaspoon inside, which prevented the glass from cracking, and I was allowed to drink coffee. It was very simple, and I enjoyed sitting with my parents and strangers and sharing around the table. Alas, it closed sometime in the late 1960's I think. The owners had a second Taix restaurant that had regular table service that stayed open longer, but it wasn't nearly as good.

I believe that there are still some Pennsyvania Dutch restaurants in PA that operate on that same "family style" model.

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We just ate at Le Pigeon in Portland, OR. The food was phenomenal but the communal dining was miserable! We were seated at the end of the table close to the front windows and next to the door. Aside from the fact that the hostess' fanny was in my face, when two people were to be seated next to us we had to get out of our seats so they could squeeze past us into theirs. We could hear every word of their conversation. We had no personal space or privacy. It was so awful that we asked to be moved to the bar. I can't see how the "power broker" types in DC would ever tolerate eating like that, especially not in a fine dining establishment.

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I'm working on a mock business plan for a restaurant in D.C. and part of my unique selling point is to have communal dining. I'm sure most of you know what that is, but in case anyone doesn't, I think the best way to describe it is where there are long, extended tables with a lot of chairs on both sides, and people who aren't necessarily in the same party end up sitting together. My concept is still casual fine-dining, so it wouldn't be like sitting at long picnic tables or anything. If you want an idea of the type of setting I had in mind, Buddakan has some good pictures of their communal table on their website.. I just wanted to hear everyone's opinion about communal dining (comfort levels, good idea/bad idea, etc.) and see if it might actually work in D.C. Thanks guys!

- Peter

It already exists in DC - Hook has one as does the just opened Posto, to name 2. Both, however, are adjacent to the bar area. They seemed popular when I have visited these restaurants. I'm sure there are others.

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Wagamama has communal tables, at least they did when we went there in London. As they haven't opened here yet, it remains to be seen if the comfort level here will be the same as it was in London. It actually reminded me of the communal tables in the Saimin shops in Hawaii.

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I've experienced a version of it in London where there are some Chinese restaurants with a number of large round tables. If there's only two you end up still sharing a round table of about 8 with a bunch of other people. I found it a bit strange and awkward at times, since I was much more shy at the time.

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This is not new to DC. Zaytinya has had a huge communal table for the past 6 years. Buck's fishing and camping, 3+.

There are numerous others but I am hungover and can't think too quickly right now.

Whteher people like it or not is a different story. If I am paying more than $15 for an entree, I want my own table.

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I went to a restaurant in Boston in the "Italian section" long ago that had communal dining. I recall that in my late teens I found it charming to meet folks to the left and right and across from me. Looking back on that experience my fear now-a-days would be bothersome on several fronts.

1) Community food/basket such as shared corn, peas, appetizers - Pros: keep passing around the item and then

Cons: having to share with others and not knowing how much they take, double dippers, people who just picked their nose (ewwww) and picked up a piece of bread and then decided it wasn't what they wanted and putting it back in....

2) People who sit adjacent to you with poor hygiene or worse socialization skills (talkers vs folks who like to eat quietly)

3) Getting someone's whiny kid next to you

4) "elbow room"

5) If the dining room was half and half perhaps that would be better! That way those of us less "friendly" types can sit with their own group or by themselves. I know folks who are far less "yenta-y" or social than I am who prefer to just sit down, maybe text folks and eat.

Well that is just my 2¢ worth.

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Most of my communal dining experience has been in chinese resturants, especially at a busy dimsum place they asked if I want to sit at a large table with people I don't know. This has happened a lot when I use to go to full key a lot in chinatown for lunch.

Not sure that communal dining is a selling point for me. Largely because I believe there is a distinction to be made between family style dining and communal dining. There is a difference between sharing a space and sharing a meal. I think conversation and social interactions can happen in communial dianing but it is less likely to occur when you a order separately and are simply sitting next to folks.

However, family dining (places i've gone to in PA dutch country, few places down south serving family style dinners/lunch), because we are sharing the same food I find it to me much more of a social occation. I would love to see a place like that in DC area especially if they could serves some great southern comfort food.

Good luck in your research and venture.

Soup

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You know, just the mention of the Hoffbraeuhaus makes me a little sad for the younger generation. Back when I was in school, on the German class trip to Germany, we actually had a scheduled stop there, and we all hoisted a liter or two.

My son's first year in his elitist private school -- a veritable warren of monied (dramatically moreso than me) liberals -- two kids got expelled for drinking on a field trip to one of those francophone islands in the Caribbean, where they were actually of legal age.

Why have we become such tightasses?

But I still remember the song:

In Munchen gibt ein Hoffbraeuhaus

Ein zwei zuffa

Das gibt so vielen Manschen aus

Ein zwei zuffa!...

Und spat zum abend gand er zu haus

So shchon war im Hoffbraeuhaus...

Regarding communal tables, I find them largely unappealing. I don't like to share a table with anyone whose leg I can't grab. But I'm a misanthrope.

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Nos Ancêtres Les Gaulois

16th century temple to la table d’hôte and is best avoided by those who go out to be social lepers. An itinerant guitarist plays campy jingles and drinks from your all you can drink Corbiéres carafe. Wicker baskets of whole vegetables with hard boiled eggs and enough all you can eat charcuterie, pickles, and condiments to make Sizzler’s top brass bump knuckles. Meats are grilled in one of the many fireplaces. The labyrinth of worn stone floored rooms are decorated with helmets, hides, swords, shields and Asterix themed novelty bric-a-brac that would be appreciated if Ren-fair were cool(er) in France.

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Since this has turned into a travelogue, this was my favorite communal dining experience. It was too many years ago for me to be able to relate now much of the particulars. Notwithstanding being an overtly tourist destination, I do remember it being one of the better meals we had in Kenya.

Treetops

treetops_dinner.jpg

That strip in the middle of the table holds a wooden plank on wheels that is used to pass food down the table. And yes, everyone did enage im much convrsation with tablemates over many glasses of wine. Quite enjoyable.

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Strangely enough I first encountered this thread while browsing on the iphone during the always interminable wait at Eammon's. The chipper doesn't exactly have communal dining, but it gets so crowded people end up sharing by necessity. Except for those asswipes who walk in the door and immediately drape their coats over every part of a bench, even before they've ordered, thereby effectively reserving a four-seater for two people, or the really long bench that could easily seat six or maybe seven for just four adults and a baby, which is exactly what was happening as I read the initial post.

It seems to me that communal dining is most feasible when the entire space is set up that way, so there's no expectation of intimacy. And if the cuisine and ambience match, that would help. But I agree with the poster who wrote it would be a turnoff if the prices were higher.

The communal table at Cafe Pasqual's in Santa Fe can be a lot of fun when everyone at it chose to sit there, rather than being forced to because no other seats are available, if you have the right mindset. And likewise communal breakfasts at B&Bs.

Mostly I'm posting this to bitch about the people at Eammon's, though.

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The communal table at Cafe Pasqual's in Santa Fe can be a lot of fun when everyone at it chose to sit there, rather than being forced to because no other seats are available, if you have the right mindset. And likewise communal breakfasts at B&Bs.
When we gave our names to the host there, he asked if the communal table would be okay if it was available first, so I imagine we could have said no. It just would have been a longer wait. We said yes, but a regular table opened first.
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When we gave our names to the host there, he asked if the communal table would be okay if it was available first, so I imagine we could have said no. It just would have been a longer wait. We said yes, but a regular table opened first.

The communal table at Cafe Pasqual is one of the more successful ones of the many I have seen or sat at over the years, almost always travelling on business. I believe it works because it is so difficult to get a seat in Cafe Pasqual and this is more or less a default kind of option. Black's in Bethesda has a communal table and I don't remember it being very popular. I've had dinner at the bar three or four times and each time chose the bar over an empty or near empty communal table.

Stephen Pyles is one of Dallas' best restaurants. Similar to Black's there is a communal table (12 seats or so) which I have sat at and swore never again. Four or five visits to Pyles with two at the table. Both times the hostess sat either a couple/couples or a single at the far end leaving a number of empty seats between us. With the couples-even several seats away-I felt like I was intruding.

Seasons 52 is the best singles' dining experience I have seen anywhere. A 36 seat bar with supper club ambience (it IS casual fine dining however) and a piano player after 7:00PM and 70 or 80 wines by the glass: www.seasons52.com They also claim that every dish is under 475 calories. I've been to four of them now (two in Orlando, Atlanta, Ft. Lauderdale) with a total of 20 or more meals over the past three or four years. My guess is that at least half of the people at the bar will have food before 9:00PM. While Rock Creek's food may be a bit better Seasons 52 has an outstanding concept that sooner or later someone will duplicate here. If Darden does't open here first. I much prefer this over a communal table.

http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/165051 is the link to a post of mine from seven years ago which was dinner at the bar at Gary Danko. This is probably what a communal table should be like; I just haven't found it.

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You know, just the mention of the Hoffbraeuhaus makes me a little sad for the younger generation. Back when I was in school, on the German class trip to Germany, we actually had a scheduled stop there, and we all hoisted a liter or two.
We were in Munich earlier this fall (during Oktoberfest, natch). I was hesitant about going to the Hoffbrauehaus, as I had heard it was far too touristy and tacky. I'm glad we went. Even though it WAS touristy and tacky, it was the communal tables that made all the difference. I was there with my wife and a female friend of ours. Two young Bavarian women (in rather spectacularly architected dirndls, rawr!!) joined us. This attracted The Dirty Old Man Brigade. And there we were - over a dozen people in various states of drunkeness and with limited communication abilities. We all had an amazing time.

I'm not really advocating communal tables as the only seating option in a fine dining establishment. But there is a time and place for them. And what is a bar, if not a communal table?

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We were in Munich earlier this fall (during Oktoberfest, natch). I was hesitant about going to the Hoffbrauehaus, as I had heard it was far too touristy and tacky. I'm glad we went. Even though it WAS touristy and tacky, it was the communal tables that made all the difference. I was there with my wife and a female friend of ours. Two young Bavarian women (in rather spectacularly architected dirndls, rawr!!) joined us. This attracted The Dirty Old Man Brigade. And there we were - over a dozen people in various states of drunkeness and with limited communication abilities. We all had an amazing time.

I'm not really advocating communal tables as the only seating option in a fine dining establishment. But there is a time and place for them. And what is a bar, if not a communal table?

My great fear is communal tables where no one is drinking!

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Thanks for all the input so far! I think I might have been a little unclear in my first post so I'll try to clear some things up here. I was thinking more of a communal seating situation than actual communal dining. The menu would be designed around small plates (not just tapas!) with a few large share plates. The idea I was going for is that people would have the chance to share food with people around them if they wanted to, but if not they can just keep their small plates to themselves. I'm also hoping to have a rather large selection of beers (from all over the world) as well as pairing dinners and tastings, so hopefully there will be drinking to relax people at the communal tables. To answer some of you who are concerned about comfort, there would be a handful of small tables in the main dining room, as well as a bar and lounge area with a decent amount of seating. If there is anything else I can clear up, please let me know because I found a lot of your comments incredibly useful. Here is a picture of the type of communal table that I had in mind

communal-table.jpg

Thanks again

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The communal table is common in private clubs. For members dining solo and reciprocal members from out of town, gives them a chance to sit at a table with others they have something in common with and so can chat up. They order their own dinners and pay their own tabs. Sounds like what you are thinking. Where the table is located in the room is key, so people don't have to get up to let others sit.

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Here is a picture of the type of communal table that I had in mind

OK you are serious. This is arguably the best of all the communal dining experiences anywhere, Magazin, near Salzburg. It is literally built in a bomb shelter from WW II and, yes, has a Michelin star. Click on "restaurants" then "Austria" then "Red Guide" then "Salzburg" then "Michelin stars" and you'll pull up Magazin. <a href="http://www.viamichelin.co.uk/viamichelin/g...roller/Tourisme" target="_blank">http://www.viamichelin.co.uk/viamichelin/g...roller/Tourisme</a> This is what they had to say about it:

"Augustinergasse 13 A - 5020 SALZBURG

Phone (0662) 8 41 58 40

Fax (0662) 8415844

E-mail office@magazin.co.at

Site http://www.magazin.co.at

Name of owners

Opening times closed Sunday-Monday, except festival

Meal prices 42€/49€ - Menu: 41€/61€

Cuisine creative

Remarks A unique modern restaurant with its individual mixture of uncoated concrete and high quality furnishings. Good wine selection and creative international cuisine."

It is an incredible dining experience made all the more so by the combination of the incredible location (absolutely paramount to its success), communal table and excellence of its cuisine. http://vt1.moving-pictures.de/vrtour_v4/re...gazin/index.php is from their website and shows photographs of the main room which were lit for the photograph. The actual dining experience is much darker as shown in this video: http://www.intercontinentalvideo.com/ Click on "Germany" then click on "Berghtesgaden" then, after the video starts, you'll have to go 75 to 90 seconds into it before you'll see the restaurant. Quite a bit of it is shown. The restaurant opened in 2003 and has received virtually no publicity in the U. S.

By the way if you are looking for concepts what about a restaurant in total darkness? There are a half dozen of these in Europe and Asia and these are the ultimate communal experience where you are served by blind staff in a room that is absolutely black. http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/fo...ing-639780.html

Good luck!

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I'm not really advocating communal tables as the only seating option in a fine dining establishment. But there is a time and place for them. And what is a bar, if not a communal table?

FWIW, the Bavarians have taken this to the next logical step, which is to designate a stammtisch (regulars' table) so the elite can sit with their buddies apart from the hoi polloi. Or in the case of the Hofbraühaus, quite a few of these. It's communal, but not necessarily open.

With that out of the way, I'm fascinated by the concept of a communal table restaurant, as long as it's properly communicated in advance to avoid disappointing guests who might not be expecting a non-private dining experience. Obviously a similar plan has worked well for DR.com events, but I've also had some fine meals made even better by conversing with previously unacquainted neighbors at a communal table, mainly in Italy. I suppose it would attract a few lounge lizards, but on the other hand it should be a boon to people who like to eat out but find it awkward to eat out alone.

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Hi Pete, Not sure if you're still working on this, but I am an interior designer doing my thesis research on communal tables, and whether they have any hope of working in DC. Would love to read the results of your research, beyond what everyone has posted here. Drop me a line or post back here.

Thanks+

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I quickly read through this thread. As others have commented, communal tables aren't new to DC or other American cities. Le Pain Quotidien's communal tables are the ones I've frequented most (and which, in my personal experience, have yielded more social interaction here than in Belgium). I've also eaten a few times at the communal table at Mario Batali's Lupa in NYC and it was OK although on one of the occasions when I was with a small group, we would have preferred a private table.

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