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Communal Tables, Good and Bad


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Hi, I am a food lover and interior designer, working on my thesis on communal tables. They are such a hot/trendy item, I'm wondering: what factors motivate restaurant owners and designers to include communal tables in their spaces? Some reasons I've heard are the following. Please add/comment!

1. creates warm/casual feeling

2. develops a sense of community (how do you/your staff foster that?)

3. looks good/my interior designer recommended it

4. fit more people in same space as separate tables (really?)

5. higher revenue from large parties

6. however, I have also heard reports of lower revenue due to 'camping out' - what's your experience?

7. everyone else is doing it/customers seem to like them/suggest them

I'm interested in communal tables in DC that really seem to work - socially or financially - and WHY.

Thanks+

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I'd still be interested to read what you had to say!!

Mainly that I dislike it, especially in the "picnic table" format.

I think it can work somewhat in a few instances:

1. Where the clientel is VERY homogenous, like in a school cafeteria, a cruise ship or a jail

2. Where it is part of an established theme, like in a PA dutch place, a german beer hall, a japanese hibachi place, a texas roadhouse or...a jail.

I also think that if a place REALLY wants communal space, then a counter like you see in diners is the way to do this - as it picks up community through the "commonness" of the kitchen or whatever the counter faces. And I think more high-end places could put a high (bar stool height) counter facing the kitchen (with a glass wall if the noise is too high) and let people be semi-communal while getting a kitchen 'show'.

A well-thought out place should be able to handle larger groups by pushing tables around, or simply set aside a room for that. It shouldn't cater to large groups then make small ones suffer by sitting together.

One of my worst dining experiences was years ago at (I think it was called) the Evans Farm Inn in McLean, VA. I was expecting (and paying) for a decent meal with my girlfriend. I sat next to some guy. Maybe I should have expected more of a 'farm' arrangement.

Ultimately I didn't really read the request closely, and realize that for the thesis the OP is seeking professional input of a different sort.

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Pain Quotidien would be a fun case study. The G'town communal table is a blast -- hung-over college girls debriefing about their sex lives, cheek and jowl with foreign tourists, next to local European-wannabes. At the more suburban locations (AU Park, Bethesda), people avoid the communal table and/or use it to spread out (or give little kids more room).

I've always liked the communal table at Buck's. At PQ I eavesdrop; at Buck's I'm more likely to have a brief funny exchange with someone nearby. Maybe that's because geographically and thematically you feel like the setting is more neighborly (genuinely communal). And/or because people are drinking and/or commenting on food, menu, chef (old days), etc.

Bottom line hypothesis, communal tables work under two scenarios: variation on the bar in Star Wars/human zoo theme or the shared-but-somewhat-esoteric tastes/sensibilities theme. They fail the vast majority of the time because there's little or no entertainment value in watching so much stultifying sameness in such close proximity. Give each party it's own space so we can all just eat without being reminded of our own generic-ness. Communal tables just emphasize the feeding trough aspect of certain environments/rhythms.

So alienation and integration work; replication doesn't.

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They fail the vast majority of the time because there's little or no entertainment value in watching so much stultifying sameness in such close proximity. Give each party it's own space so we can all just eat without being reminded of our own generic-ness. Communal tables just emphasize the feeding trough aspect of certain environments/rhythms.

You may need a hug.

I recognize that most other humans have a head on top, arms on the side and legs beneath. I'm no different. But it doesn't bother me - I think this is simply more about expectations. Airlines have done a masterful job of breaking down that expectation to he point of almost seating others in our lap - yet most trudge through it and aren't stultified by the sameness factor.

It is, however, an interesting perspective. And in my undergraduate philosophy days, I might have put down my Sartre long enough to realize I was at a communal table, falling evermore victim to its intense sameness. And this might have led me to action, going so far as to seek alernate seating arrangements.

But prob'ly not. I was more likely behind in my preparation for my nihilism 101 test.

Anyway, I'm just kidding. I think it is more a personal space thing, and that space is born of custom and expectation. We're creatures of habit and the communal table attempts to break that.

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I really don't think it's a personal space thing -- as I said, in some places, I really like communal tables. In others, I don't. The difference isn't how physically proximate I am to other diners. And the stultifying sameness is usually conversational. It's just not that entertaining to hear the same logistics/kid wrangling/shopping/gossiping discussions in surround sound while you're eating something decent but not exciting.

Maybe the difference is the type of community constituted by the communal table. Bucks is a potential community drawn together by somewhat shared tastes/sensibilities. (Who are these people? Why are they here? Same reason I am? Why am I here?) The G'town Pain Quotidien is a globalized urban melange. (Throw all these conversations in a blender and what do you get -- poetry or sludge? What would the people on my left think of the people across the table on my right?)

In the end, communal tables work when they add entertainment value to the meal and detract when they add tedium. Which would mean that whether I'd put one in a restaurant would depend on how I wanted or expected the diners to interact. If they're just performing the eating function, give 'em space. If they're people-watching (Georgetown) or if the whole dining experience is a kind of performance (Buck's), then the communal table has a better chance of working.

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Thanks, all. I love a juicy disagreement - keep talking! I'm still in the research phase, and have compiled a list of DC area restuarants with communal tables (seats a minimum of eight guests from two or more unrelated parties). I am most interested in how people react to being seated with strangers - do they make friends, stay longer and buy another round, or do they leave faster and spend less? I am looking only at table-service restaurants, no take-out or cafeteria-style/seat-yourself places.

This is my attempt to list all the communal tables at full-service restuarants in DC. My definition of "communal table" is one which seats a minimum of eight guests from two or more unrelated parties. Unrelated parties are the key here - if it's just a banquet table and is only used for large parties/bookings, it doesn't count.

Am I missing any?

1905

Black's Bar & Kitchen

Blue Duck Tavern

Bucks Fishing & Camping

Cava

Circa

Circle Bistro

Comet Ping Pong

CommonWealth

Food Matters

Founding Farmers

Good Stuff Eatery

Granville Moore's

Heights, The

Hook

Jaleo

Japan Inn

Kemble Park Tavern

La Strada

Le Pain Quotidien - Bethesda, Georgetown, CapHill, and more

Lebanese Taverna - Bethesda, Tyson's, Baltimore

Liberty Tavern

Logan Tavern

Marriott Renaissance M St

Masa 14

Minibar

Posto

Public

Sette Bello

Sonoma

Sou'Wester

Sova

Taylor Gourmet II

Urbana @ Hotel Palomar

Vapiano - Ballston

Vapiano - Chinatown

Vapiano - Dupont

Zaytinya

Zengo

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I am looking only at table-service restaurants, no take-out or cafeteria-style/seat-yourself places. . . . My definition of "communal table" is one which seats a minimum of eight guests from two or more unrelated parties.

You may need to change your definition. minibar only seats six (unless there has been a change). I would characterize Vapiano as cafeteria-style/seat-yourself.

Does "Unrelated parties are the key here - if it's just a banquet table and is only used for large parties/bookings, it doesn't count" exclude restaurants serving dim sum?

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Not quite your definition, but we formed an "ad hoc" communal table last week at Masala Art. Place was crowded. Two other couples and we were waiting in the bar area for two-tops to open up. The host said it would be awhile, but that he had a six-top in the front window area that would be free soon and that we could have it if we were willing to share. None of the couples knew each other, but we agreed to give it try; it worked out great. Engaging dining companions and easy conversationalists. Server handled it well. Fun experience. (Great food, too, of course.)

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You may need to change your definition. minibar only seats six (unless there has been a change). I would characterize Vapiano as cafeteria-style/seat-yourself.

Does "Unrelated parties are the key here - if it's just a banquet table and is only used for large parties/bookings, it doesn't count" exclude restaurants serving dim sum?

Right you are on both counts... I left Minibar in because it's really popular, even though it doesn't really qualify according to my definition ;) Vapiano's I left on the list because it's a new chain and I'm wondering how the concept is doing in translating a very European idea. Their US HQ is in McLean... been meaning to contact them.

New additions:

Dino in Cleveland Park

ZenTan at the Thompson Hotel on Scott Circle

Pho75..... yum... thanks for that reminder, Don!

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These probably won't fit the bill either but two that come to mind are Dolcezza Dupont, which just has a small counter and one big communal table, and Freddy's in Bethesda which has two or three bigger communal tables along with a bunch of booths, smaller tables and counter seating. Oh, and Jeff's other outpost, Grapeseed, has a cool private room with large table but sounds like you're looking for the 'communal table where you sit with strangers' type variety.

Oooh, oooh! Simpatica Catering is a communal table fave but, alas, that's in Portland (OR).

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Previous threads with some suggestions:

click

clack

cluck

Damn there's a ton of content on this website. The above is great stuff. Loved Joe's 2001 recounting at Gary Danko in SFO. I had dinner at the bar there once years ago but didn't have 1/10th as much fun as Joe. Also, buried in one of the threads was one mention (by 'ledderjkn' sp?) for the brainstorm I had yesterday after unhelpfully suggesting Dolcezza, Freddy's and PDX's Simpatica Catering upthread: Le Pigeon (also in Portland), which is a strong contender for my personal "best restaurant in America" designation these days.

Anyway, the Gary Danko (my beyond-food experience wasn't memorable) and Le Pigeon (my +1 and I had a super experience there at the communal table just a few months ago--rhetorical: did I post that on dr.com?) examples lead me to conclude that communal table experience quality may not have anything to do with anything under the control of the restaurant.

Type of food probably doesn't determine likely fun or fulfillment since the Germans nailed this very long--as in hundreds of years--ago in Munich (totally agree with the props for hofbrau haus--surely one of the world's best communal tables) whereas Le Quotidien in Bethesda isn't cutting it for most, including me. Some hate or love Bucks and other higher end communal table spots closer to home.

Type of furniture probably doesn't so much matter with evidence that Joe H had time of his life obstructed by a pillar at Danko while the erstwhile restauranteur that did research on this topic (not Plum but the other one) had a concept in his photo that was especially corporate/Barry Sternlicht-ish and sleep-inducing.

So, I'm no psychologist or sociologist but this seems to have everything to do with the types of diners (their appearance, knowledge, experience, sense of humor or lack thereof, background, personal hygiene rituals, etc) at such a table at any point in time and their moods. That multivariate hypothesis alone could be an 800 page research study which Michael Pollan would then dismiss as surely, amusingly and credibly as he did all nutritional studies ever done at the Strathmore earlier this week.

Especially random thought not already suggested in all the threads preceding this one: the Saudi desert. I spent a bit of time there years ago and was invited to what the expats would call a "goat grab." The basic idea being you had to be invited by Saudis to go to a spot in the desert typically just off a highway very late at night. There, a goat would be roasted and shared by 12-25 people with some level of connection but not always that strong. Definitely very memorable way to share thoughts on US/Middle East relations circa late 80s/early 90s. This came to mind more recently when I found myself at another would-be goat grab outside Buenos Aires with friends and workers building a vineyard. Where we grabbed goat is now a Napa-worthy tasting room. But getting way off topic now since neither of these even included a literal table. Just sand, concrete and a few odd-looking dogs roaming about.

Of course, none of this has anything to do with answering the OP's question about where to go. But, all the posts above did a fab job of that and reading them inspired me to write-out-loud about this. It is an interesting topic.

Finally, randomly and perhaps more relevantly, I think there's some muddiness embedded in all of this with definitions. To be sure, there were some good definitions of communal and community tables upthread but, depending on what the OP was really looking for, tons of restaurants might qualify that have large tables available for private use. Those aren't "communal" or "community" in the way I think about those terms but, if it's about finding spots where 18 friends can have a good meal, the options are endless. Palena's beef feast being just one excellent option.

That is all.

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