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Communal dining — cozy setting or terrible trend?

3 min read

Restaurant and Foodservice

This post is by Restaurant SmartBrief contributor Janet Forgrieve.

For many of us, dining out at a nice restaurant offers a leisurely chance to get reacquainted with those closest to us over a fine meal. For others, it’s an opportunity to mix, mingle and make new friends. A growing number of restaurants offering communal dining tables are finding they can accommodate both groups.

The idea for Jonny Hunter’s new Madison, Wis., eatery began in the chef-turned-restaurateur’s home, where the best dinner parties often included more than 20 people gathered around one big table and getting to know each other over a gourmet meal. Hunter’s Underground Kitchen features communal tables that seat up to 10 and, while guests can opt to keep their parties private at smaller tables, they’re encouraged to break bread and mingle with strangers.

Communal dining is common in many European cities and in some major U.S. markets, but apart from the teppanyaki tables at Benihana, the concept is still a relative rarity in many parts of the country. The setup brings business benefits for restaurants, since communal tables don’t require reservations and more patrons can be seated at the same time, cutting down on wait times and serving more guests at peak mealtimes.

Some in fine dining credit Asia de Cuba founders Jeffrey Chodorow and Philippe Starck for sparking the trend of upscale communal dining more than a decade ago, with a 25-foot table in the middle of the dining room that sat up to 36 guests at once. The setup quickly won fans, and the duo expanded the concept from New York to San Francisco, creating an atmosphere that many younger patrons found conducive to making new connections.

Patrons seem to either love the concept or absolutely hate it, and few restaurants offer communal dining as their only option. In late 2009, the Baltimore Sun ranked communal dining as one of the decade’s 10 worst dining trends, but at least some of the food bloggers who have written about the topic see it as a positive. Kitchen Scoop!’s Alicia Ross found her first communal meal, in 1993 at London’s Wagamama, overwhelming, but fell in love with it on the second try, at Seattle’s Art of the Meal last fall. “One couple was celebrating their anniversary, the other four at our table were friends celebrating a birthday. My friend and I were celebrating seeing each other after almost a month of separation. Conversation flowed easily among the eight of us.”

The “love it or hate it” hypothesis proves true at Underground Kitchen. While guests don’t have to sit at the communal tables, servers don’t typically ask about seating preferences before leading them to the big tables. That sits well with most, the owners say, but some patrons quoted in the Wisconsin State Journal said they much prefer the relative privacy of a smaller table.  “We wanted to have a private conversation and not socialize with people we didn’t know,” said one guest who was enjoying an evening out with his girlfriend.

Does your restaurant offer a communal-dining option, or have you tried it? Do your guests like the concept?

Photo credit: woodringt via iStockphoto