A restaurant trend I'm noticing lately is to be seated at community-style shared tables if your party doesn't fill the whole table. I'm never really sure what's appropriate when my party is being seated with strangers. I tend to acknowledge the other party and proceed with my meal. I've had some couples engage my party in conversation and others ignore us. I don't want to intrude on someone's romantic evening out, nor do I want to be rude. What is the best way to approach the communal table?
—Dining with Perfect Strangers
Dear Dining with Perfect Strangers,
The communal table may seem like a contemporary gimmick, but it's actually a return to tradition. Rebecca Spang, author of The Invention of the Restaurant: Paris and Modern Gastronomic Culture, explains in an email: "Communal tables were the norm in inns and eating houses of the early-modern period (1600s-1700s)." The first establishments to be called "restaurants," which appeared in Paris in the late 1760s, introduced the concept of dining at separate tables, which gradually grew more and more popular until it became the norm.
Philippe Starck is probably responsible for introducing the communal table to the modern restaurant, at the Asia de Cuba restaurants he designed for the Ian Schrager hotels. But he got the idea from visiting the first branch of Le Pain Quotidien in Belgium, says Mitchell Davis, vice president of the James Beard Association. "Alain Coumount [the founder] says he remembers the day Starck walked into his bakery." The communal table can serve as an aesthetic statement or just help set the ambiance. At Earl's Beer & Cheese in New York, the communal table—which is made out of an old bowling lane mounted on cast-iron legs—gives the place a casual feel. As partner Michael Cesari says, "This is not a 'date restaurant.'"
Restaurateurs would have you believe that the communal table is meant to satisfy our longing for community. I suspect that profit motive has more to do with it. A communal table, depending on its size and shape, can allow a restaurant to squeeze in more diners. Cesari says: "A bunch of two-tops would have left gaps, which would have meant less seating." The communal table also allows a restaurant to fill more seats, because at individual tables it's often necessary to leave vacant seats (as when a threesome sits at a four-top).
When you are seated at a communal table, the etiquette is similar to when you sit next to someone on an airplane. Any time you'll be close enough to confuse your drinks, you should acknowledge the other person with a nod or greeting when you sit down. But you shouldn't assume that person is interested in talking to you. Restaurants typically reserve communal tables for walk-ins, so some diners are simply there because it's the only table available, and definitely not by choice. In fact, Zagat recently counted the communal table among the 10 most annoying restaurant trends.
If you're not feeling the communal vibe, you can easily indicate that to other diners. Just avoid eye contact and turn your body away. Liz Subauste, general manager of San Francisco's Flour + Water, suggests that you and your companion avoid seats on opposite sides of the table and try to sit at a corner or side by side, so you can face each other.
Finally, even if you are itching to make new friends, I suggest you follow the rule I stick to on planes: Don't make conversation until you are at least halfway done, because if the other party turns out to be a bore, he'll only bore you for half the time.