Maybe you’re flying solo, but you still want to be social during dinner. Or maybe you and your bestie want to make some new friends over a midweek meal. Communal dining is growing in popularity at restaurants and is a fun way to interact and make connections in a casual setting. But there are things you should know before taking a seat at the table. Chefs and restaurant pros share tips for communal dining to help you make the most of it without making a faux pas. Try them out at a restaurant on OpenTable and get to know your neighbors.
When you’re sharing the dinner table, you’ll want to mind your manners. You should be aware of the volume of your voice, and, of course, the topic of your dinner conversation. It’s not so much that diners will be eavesdropping, but you are sharing a space with others who may inadvertently be privy to your conversation.
Le Fanfare in the Greenpoint neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York, is known for its inviting communal seating, locally-sourced Italian dishes, and standout specials like off-menu pasta dishes. The restaurant has two communal tables that stretch the length of the space, seating 18 and 20 diners each.
Co-owner Nico Paganelli, who has overseen many nights of diners rubbing elbows, offers advice that cuts to the chase: “Do not loudly talk about your love life, colonoscopy, or politics.”
A little more conversation
When dining at a communal table, you don’t have to engage with your neighbors, but, the experience is best when congeniality is at play.
Courier, a market, restaurant, and bar, housed in one of Denver’s first newspaper buildings and tucked inside the Grand Hyatt Denver hotel, offers communal table dining. The idea is for the space to mimic a busy newsroom, and the livery eatery has a menu that grabs diners with reinvented classic dishes, like the gnocchi mac and cheese and a cocktail program with on-deadline sips like The Tabloid (pomegranate, iced tea, and prosecco).
Chef de cuisine David Lillich advises communal diners, “Chat with your tablemates and use it as an opportunity to meet new people,” he says. “We spend so much time on our phones, writing emails…it’s an opportunity for some human interaction and to get outside of your comfort zone a bit.”
Owner Luigi Coccaro thought it would be pretty great to have a “family table” in his Kelowna, British Columbia, fine dining concept La Bussola so he had a friend build one. It is still the place where he can be spotted with his family or friends hanging out and socializing over a meal. And then he had an aha moment and thought it would be fun to introduce family-style dining at his craft-beer focused pizzeria, Curious Cafe and Bar Nocino. He added communal tables there and has learned a few things about diners sharing the space. Coccaro notes, “At the end of the day, it’s like when you are on a plane. You are sitting next to a stranger and sometimes people are just on their own schedule and don’t want to converse — but sometimes they do. If engaging with them works for you, you’ll be surprised how many new friends you make or tips about the city you may learn.”
Expect an innovative menu with influences from Creole to Korean and a stirring cocktail program at Radiator in the Mason & Rook hotel in Washington, D.C. The restaurant also flaunts a communal dining table that seats up to 14 people.
Jesse Lynn, assistant general manager, counsels, “Be mindful of shared areas. Do not have your personal belongings spread across another seat or portions of the table being shared with other guests.”
And paying attention to even the little, less obvious things can enhance the experience for everyone at the table. “Observe if your neighbor is left-handed or needs an additional amount of space to eat. Cutting steaks can be challenging when there isn’t enough elbow room,” he adds.
As the name suggests, Communal Table in historic downtown Provo, Utah, is all about communal dining (their table seats 20), as well as local and farm-to-fork local sustainable meats, cheese, and produce. For all you first-timers out there, “You share your dishes family-style with your party, not the whole communal table,” says Andrew Hansen, director of hospitality at Heirloom Restaurant Group, of which Communal is a part. As for the reticent communal diner who may balk at sharing a table with strangers., he cautions, “You’ll still have your own space and experience.” However, “you’ll find that some of the most memorable dining experiences can happen at a communal table. You’ll never know the magic if you don’t give it a shot.”
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Laurie Bain Wilson is a Boston-based journalist, author, and essayist who writes often about travel, food, and baseball. Find her on Twitter @laurieheather.