May 19, 2014

More restaurants are featuring communal tables.The communal table, a long dining space where strangers sit next to one another, used to be reserved for farm-to-table restaurants, cafeterias and Hibachi grills, but no longer is that the case. Now trendy restaurants across the U.S. have begun seating their patrons in rows. While the idea may seem nice (promoting socialization while serving sustainable dishes), not all diners are feeling it. As a student of Austin culinary arts courses, you may consider adding communal tables to your future restaurants – or not. Here’s a look at the trend and how to behave in a group-dining setting:

Part of the community
Designing dining rooms with group seating may seem natural to some. If you wanted to be secluded or to eat a meal away from others, your home is the perfect spot. However, those dining out chose a public space to enjoy their meal. For this reason, communal tables could seem like a natural direction.

“People clamor for more interaction in their daily lives. The restaurant industry responded by experimenting with putting strangers together,”Jay Miranda, a principal at Chipman Design Architecture, told the Atlantic. “When you go out, the purpose is to enjoy yourself. You want to eat and be a part of a bigger community.”

Miranda also notes that more restaurateurs began asking for communal tables starting in 2011. The trend has grown so much that Miranda estimates 85 percent of Chipman Design’s fast casual and casual restaurant clients ask for group seating in their floorplans.

While restaurateurs may be demanding communal tables to promote socialization and conversation in their establishments, not all customers like the arrangement. Those who want a private conversation end up leaning across the table to speak to their partner or finagling their body language to exclude neighbors. The noise levels in the room can be another challenge, requiring people to talk over one another to be heard by their date or friend.

And what about servers? A whole row of people has to struggle to get the attention of their waiter all while someone down the line is doing the same thing. Some may feel that eating at a communal table feels a bit competitive.

When it works
Communal tables must work out well in many cases for it to be such a trend. The trick is to make the restaurant feel like a home. If all diners feel welcome and important, then sitting next to a stranger could turn into a conversation or even shared bread. If people are competing for the attention of their server, however, friendly community eating doesn’t quite pan out.

So how do you go about creating a positive experience in a group dining setting? Here are a few etiquette tips to make your eating experience a good one.

Say hello: You may bump elbows with your neighbors, but it won’t be a big deal if you’ve acknowledged them earlier in the night. Make a casual hello or wave to those seated next to you when you first sit down.

Don’t keep talking: Stop talking after the hello. Chances are, they are trying to focus on the people with whom they came.

Draw in: Pull your silverware and glasses closer to you so you know which is yours and which is your neighbors.