Communal tables like the ones at The Populist, which I review this week, are "in," and from a restaurant's perspective it's not hard to see why. A long table accommodates more people than a string of two-tops, and open space between tables doesn't generate much rent, either. What's harder to understand is whether customers like or simply tolerate the trend. See also: - Review: This restaurant may be named for the common man, but it's uncommonly good - Deconstructed duck cubano: Have it your way at The Populist - Photos: Behind the scenes at The Populist
The idea is that by sitting next to strangers, you're part of a larger community -- which is one of the reasons you went out rather than making dinner at home. But since when did strangers become friends? Don't we go out of our way on airplanes to avoid talking to those same folks? Let's be honest: At least once in our lives, haven't we all feigned interest in the location of emergency exits so we didn't have to make small talk with the person in 8E?
Communal seating isn't so cool in other locations, either. In school cafeterias, for example, kids would "rather die," as they put it, than be forced to sit with the wrong clique. Without a buffer between parties, the simple logistics of eating can be harder, too, with elbow room at a premium and not enough space for your salad plate when the main course arrives.
Admittedly, bars have communal seating, and they're cool. But you're either at the bar for a pit stop until your table is ready, or you're hoping that cute stranger will become more than a friend, so you don't mind brushing elbows. Chef's counters are also communal, but the focus is on what's in front of you, not who's next to you, so they can't be exhibit A for either side.
While this is far from a scientific survey, I've heard more people decline than request seats at communal tables, especially if more private and/or spacious seating is available.
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When I go out to dinner with people, I want to talk to them, and anything that gets in the way -- be it a smartphone or the chatty ladies next to me -- does just that: gets in the way. And don't get me started on conversations I wish I hadn't overheard, tales of marriages dissolving or, as restaurant consultant John Imbergamo recalls from tight seating at a now-defunct restaurant, intricate details of someone's colonoscopy. Just what I want with my boudin blanc.