Yes, you have to eat with strangers.
December 14, 2014 6:19 PM   Subscribe

Can you tell me about your experience with shared or "communal" tables at restaurants or coffee shops? Where are they common? Can you point me to any research, analysis, or good commentary about them?

To be clear, I'm asking about (usually very large) tables where strangers are expected to sit next to each other. I'm not sure if they have another name.

I'm wondering how common they are and how they are dealt with, in and outside of North America. They seem relatively new here. Can you tell me about places where there're not new? What is the etiquette there? How is "eating with strangers" dealt with? Are there guidebooks or websites that talk about it?

Also, have you seen them in Starbucks outside North America?

Please tell me about your experience or (preferably) point me to resources talking about this. Thanks!
posted by delezzo to Society & Culture (54 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I've been to a few at a few different types of places in North America.

1. the trendy charcuterie place that was open for lunch. They had a few small tables and one big one in the middle. You ordered at a counter and brought your food to a big table in the middle where you ate with everyone. People mostly hung out with the people they came with but were friendly to other places. It was done because it was small not really a social thing.

2. the Basque place in Reno NV where food was served "family style" and you ordered and got big bowls of stuff that you would share with the people at your table. Tables were often big and they'd seat more than one party at a table but people ordered with their group, shared condiments.

3. BBQ joints everywhere. Many of these are extremely casual and have big tables and if you see places to sit, you sit. People share condiments and are often friendly and chatty with other people but don't have to be.

I also see them at a lot of coffee shops where there are big tables and people show up with laptops. Or they're ledge-style and a lot of people sit all on one side, facing a wall or a window. Here's a recentish article about them in the Atlantic with some explanations and links.
posted by jessamyn at 6:29 PM on December 14, 2014 [3 favorites]

From a 1998 NYT article "Large communal tables -- hailed as social equalizers during the French Revolution, copied by New York hotels in the 19th century and resurrected briefly in the 1980's -- are turning up again, and in the unlikeliest of places: New York, a city of seven million people who prize their solitude in public places."
posted by three_red_balloons at 6:30 PM on December 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

Beer gardens and some traditional German restaurants often have large communal tables.
posted by peanut_mcgillicuty at 6:32 PM on December 14, 2014

Many Vietnamese restaurants in Austin and elsewhere have these kinds of tables - often in the center of the establishment, surrounded by smaller two-to-four seat tables.
posted by doctor tough love at 6:44 PM on December 14, 2014

When I was a kid, Shakey's Pizza was a big deal, and it was all big, long communal tables.
posted by Thorzdad at 6:47 PM on December 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

Ate at one the other night in a tapas joint on the Lower East Side. We had a party of three and were seated at a six-top where a couple was already sitting. In NYC where space is at a premium it is really not uncommon to be seated at a table where another couple or group is already seated directly adjacent. In my experience it's been in cheaper, less formal places such as the Indian dives along 2nd Ave downtown, and generally only if there's one or two in the party being seated. But it does seem to be increasingly the mode elsewhere.
posted by Otter_Handler at 6:55 PM on December 14, 2014

Wagamama over here does this so I imagine the Wagamamas in the US all do as well?

When I was a kid one of the major pizza place -- either John's or V&T -- in Manhattan did this.
posted by DarlingBri at 7:02 PM on December 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

The chain Le Pain Quotidien has communal tables. There are lots of places in NYC who have them - coffee shops mostly, but I'm seeing it more and more in casual restaurants and bars. I've also encountered communal tables in the UK and Belgium. I think they're more common in larger cities.
posted by bedhead at 7:13 PM on December 14, 2014

Can I just say how much i looooove these? I wish we did it more in America. But then, I can make conversation with a rock. And I enjoy doing it!
posted by harrietthespy at 7:22 PM on December 14, 2014 [2 favorites]

Most inner city breakfast places in Melbourne, Australia, do this. It's probably only been popular for the last...5-10 years, I guess.

Occasionally ppl use them to chat to other ppl at their table. Quite often ppl just ignore each other. I am used to them now and go either way depending on my mood.
posted by jojobobo at 7:31 PM on December 14, 2014

I've seen this at authentic dim sum places -- one place in Chicago's Chinatown I've been to seats you at whatever table has space, depending on the size of your party (the tables are those large round tables that seat 8-10). I've also seen this at trendy charcuterie places (the Publican and the Bristol in Chicago). And when I was a kid in South Texas, there was a pizza place we used to go to that had only long communal tables -- it was more like eating at a church dinner or something -- but it was also a piano bar/singalong place, so the vibe was less "restaurant" and more "experience." I think communal eating has also long been pretty common in the private clubs/lodge setting (like the local Elks lodge).
posted by devinemissk at 7:32 PM on December 14, 2014

I went to a wonderful Japanese sushi restaurant for a sake tasting last night-- a huge long table with chairs on either side and bottles and bottles (and bottles) of sake down the middle. Everyone sat down at the table together in no particular order, which meant that I had friends to the right and left but there were strangers across from me.

It was wonderful and really added to the experience! We got to see (and sometimes sample) the beautiful sushi and sashimi other dishes everyone ordered, the hosts would grab particular bottles off the table and come around filling sake cups for anyone who wanted to try, and we got to meet a lovely Chinese woman and her Mexican-American friend, who were major sake enthusiasts, across from us. I came away from the whole thing really wishing there were more restaurants that were set up at shared tables like that, and doubly so that there were restaurants with shared tables that hosted communal events that really emphasized the joy of sharing food and drink with strangers.
posted by WidgetAlley at 7:33 PM on December 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

Montreal's iconic deli Schwartz's is a small place, with a counter and a row of tables that seat 6 each. Often you'll get seated at one of these tables alongside strangers. It's been like that for years, and if people are ill at ease it's just too bad, since if they've lined up for a half hour they will lump it.

A new coffee place in my Montreal neighbourhood has some small tables and counter spaces but the largest space has one big square table. This too is a small place overall, and the table works well given that the café only sells hot drinks and a few pastries, not meals, and most people are focused on their laptop or on reading material anyway.
posted by zadcat at 7:35 PM on December 14, 2014

I've lived all over the Northeast, and now in California, and they're extremely common - from coffee shops to fast casual to fine dining. I've always thought of them working well with the now-ubiquitous "farm to table" movement that focuses on locally sourced, community focused food. Having a "community" table is another extension of neighbor-focused dining. Plus, they boost seating in a small space: one long table seats far more diners than individual two-tops or four-tops with space in between each table.
posted by missmary6 at 7:40 PM on December 14, 2014

It was very common in London at lunchtime. The restaurants filled up with office workers and tourists, and no table space would be wasted. None of this "joy of sharing a meal with strangers" business though; all those English people did their level best to politely ignore their tablemates' existence.
posted by Harvey Kilobit at 7:45 PM on December 14, 2014 [8 favorites]

I've seen it most often in Pho places and trendy small places in gentrifying areas. Given that the latter tend to be pretty small spaces, I'd guess some of the recent trend has to do with those restaurants needing to squeeze in more customers and others without as much constraints wanting to ape them.

Here's an article with some background on it.
posted by Candleman at 7:50 PM on December 14, 2014

Also, have you seen them in Starbucks outside North America?

In the UK, they had communal tables at the Starbucks inside the local Borders - of course, both are American chains.

Communal tables in coffee shops feel normal, just like a big shared study table at a library. But I was very surprised the first time my group was seated at a communal table next to people we didn't know - this was also in the UK, in an Asian restaurant that was very popular with international students from China or Taiwan. I have seen it elsewhere in Asian restaurants.
posted by jb at 7:57 PM on December 14, 2014

I took Amtrak from San Francisco to Chicago last year and the dining car was all four-person booths. I never sat at a table that wasn't full, and you were forced to make small talk with the people you were sitting with. It was an uncommon experience IME, but everyone seemed to have a shared etiquette around it.
posted by bendy at 7:58 PM on December 14, 2014

Oh! I believe that cruise ships will often have communal dining tables. I don't have much experience with them, but I think there are various "rules" used by various ships; if it's a one week cruise, you'll have the same set of people sitting at a 10 or 12 place table all week. I have a vague recollection that longer cruises may mix things up a bit, but don't trust me on that.
posted by doctor tough love at 8:04 PM on December 14, 2014

I'm in the GTA and have always used them. I didn't realise they were uncommon. I have sat at communal tables in very high-end restaurants all the way down to plastic table-cloth dim sum joints in both urban and suburban communities. Do you not have stools at the bar (where the bartender actually works) or at diner's with the waitress behind the counter? I talk to strangers all the time, breaking bread with them is great. I try to engage with the people around me but if they are formal/stiff I don't press the issue (especially if it is obviously a first date and things are a little awkward).
posted by saucysault at 8:22 PM on December 14, 2014

Several of the Starbucks in my area (semi-rural Japan) have large tables that seat 8 or 10 people. I've never thought twice about using it, even when I'm by myself.
posted by Kevtaro at 8:44 PM on December 14, 2014

Beer gardens and some traditional German restaurants often have large communal tables

I would say more accurately, long communal tables, like extended picnic tables. For communal dining around large round tables, try a Singapore food centre when it gets crowded.
posted by Rash at 9:04 PM on December 14, 2014

The only surviving long time burger spot across the street from Harvard, Mrs Bartleys Burgers, has a table down the middle as long as I remember. Etiquette was rather elevator like, corners then sparse in the middle with a polite smile and care to not make eye contact too often, but it's been a while.

The trendy bakery "Flour" has a communal table that seems to be always packed with very nice, very "down to earth urban" well-off, post-yuppies chatting away.
posted by sammyo at 9:11 PM on December 14, 2014 [2 favorites]

I've seen chain (Starbucks and local chains) and small one or two location coffee shops have communal tables here in New Orleans. Most of these seem to be for people with laptops doing solitary business where you might as well share the space rather than monopolize a two or four top table. Good manners is to at least make eye contact and a "Can I sit here...?" gesture or words or eye contact or whatever before you sit down, especially if you're quite close to another person already using the table.
posted by MadamM at 9:16 PM on December 14, 2014

I've frequented a few places with communal tables in NYC. Most notably a chain called Search Results "Le Pain Quotidien". There's really not much difference than sitting at a table by yourself other than the fact that you can overhear cellphone conversations a lot easier.

But then NYC tends to be a place where strangers don't really talk to one another anyway. It's one of the reasons why it's not so easy to develop strong friendships here. I imagine your experience at a communal table will largely depend on where in the world it is and the social culture of that area.
posted by rancher at 9:18 PM on December 14, 2014

Durgin Park in Faneuil Hall, Boston, is like that. I don't recall there being anything noteworthy about the shared table, however; generally different groups would ignore each other. (Which is how it is in Boston; they don't talk to strangers on the street or on the bus or train.)
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 9:35 PM on December 14, 2014

Very common in Chinese restaurants.
posted by modernnomad at 9:39 PM on December 14, 2014

As already mentioned by jessamyn, Basque restaurants in Nevada. I've never eaten in one where family style wasn't the norm at dinner. And I can personally attest that that goes back several decades.

People are often put off initially when they learn that they'll be sitting with strangers, but then find it's not awkward at all. I'm pretty far to the introvert end of the scale, but I've never had a bad experience. People (at least people who eat at Basque restaurants in Nevada) are pretty nice.
posted by bricoleur at 9:47 PM on December 14, 2014

Trendy San Francisco restaurants are awash with them. They were also coming in to fashion in NYC in 2007-2008 when I lived there.
posted by kdar at 9:57 PM on December 14, 2014

The two new Chipotle restaurants built in my area have them. There's a few 2 tops and 4 tops but as crowded as those restaurants are right now, those communal tables get used a lot. It's interesting to sit back and watch people choose a place to sit.
posted by MultiFaceted at 10:14 PM on December 14, 2014

People have already mentioned Le Pain Quotidian as a restaurant that does this. What I haven't seen mentioned is the fact that the chain that originated in Belgium. They're all over the place here. I've also seen other restaurants in Brussels with common tables.

I lived in Berlin for three years, and common tables were quite common there (at Starbucks too). In general, I've found that Europeans are more accustomed to sharing table space than Americans. I've sat at a lot of longer common tables (room for 8-10 people) and also at a 4-person table with a friend and two complete strangers multiple times before: either the server just puts the other people there, or if it's a more casual place, people come up and ask. I've even sat at a 2-person table with a complete stranger before.

The etiquette is basically bus etiquette. If the place isn't busy and there's lots of room, it's normal to take seats that are one seat away from another group. If it is really busy, then it's fine to squeeze in wherever there's space. Don't take up too much space at the table: if you're there by yourself, don't spread out your stuff over three seats. When you're sitting down, it's nice to make eye contact and smile with the people you're sitting next to, but it's not absolutely necessary. After that, you can totally ignore each other. But if something happens that grabs the attention of you and one of your neighbors, or if your gaze is drifting (you don't just have to sit and look stiffly straight ahead), and you happen to meet someone else's gaze, then you can totally smile at them and then go back to whatever you were doing. It's fine to eavesdrop on other people's conversation around you as long as you're not too obvious about it.

The whole thing can feel a little awkward at first, but once you get used to it, it can be quite nice.
posted by colfax at 11:50 PM on December 14, 2014 [2 favorites]

I do remember being a bit confronted by this the first time I came across it in a cafe/bistro in Melbourne about 10 or 12 years ago. But then it became so ubiquitous that I stopped caring and just learned to subtly adjust my body position and vocal-style to engage with my companion if I had one and disregard nearby strangers I was co-tabling with.

Or subtly eavesdrop neighbours while pretending to be absorbed in my coffee/brunch/magazine if I was solo.
posted by evil_esto at 12:18 AM on December 15, 2014

In the San Francisco area, we seem to have hit Peak Communal Table maybe two years ago. They're still super common at mid to mid-high level restaurants of nearly every cuisine, especially of the "fancy salumi and wood-fired pizza" or "beet salad/deviled eggs/burger/roast chicken" type places, but these days, I'm seeing fewer new restaurants open with them.

Honestly? I hate them. They tend to have long benches or tall chairs, either of which are awful for a shorty like me to get on to. Conversation with your dinner companion across the table is hard, and, competition for elbow room and under-table coat hooks is intense, and it's altogether more contact with strangers than I prefer. That said, I'm a big ol' introvert, so YMMV.
posted by mostlymartha at 12:56 AM on December 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

Large communal tables are very common in coffee/lunch places in the Netherlands and I think they have been around since forever. In most places, there is one large communal table and a lot of smaller tables. They are mostly occupied by parties of one or people who are working on their laptops (or bigger parties, depending on how occupied the rest of the place is). In most cases, there is a range of newspapers you can take and read while you eat/drink coffee. Mostly though, people tend not to sozialize with the strangers sitting next to them (in my experience). You could of course, but it's not expected. I think this is also where the newspapers come in handy: reading a newspaper = not open to sozializing.

When I worked at a place like that, I found it was also convenient for the buisiness itself: You could seat all the single parties at this big table, so they would not keep the smaller tables for 2+ parties occupied and in result, you could seat more people.

Most of the people who sat at this table just enjoyed going out and drinking a coffee while reading the morning paper. Sometimes the table was also used as a regulars' table, where people meet up.
posted by leopard-skin pill-box hat at 2:00 AM on December 15, 2014

Shared tables or long benches are common in noodle bars and Japanese restaurants in the UK (allegedly this is in imitation of similar places in Japan, but I've never traveled there).
posted by James Scott-Brown at 2:28 AM on December 15, 2014

In the south, we call this "family style dining" and it's very common.
posted by pearlybob at 3:32 AM on December 15, 2014

This is compulsory in hibachi restaurants. I live in the southern US and there are at least a dozen places like that in my town (of less than 200K).

The restaurants must prioritize filling these tables, so your party will be seated with others unless you have ten people. However, it's rare IME for conversation to even spill over from one party to another. Most of the time, people behave as if they're seated at separate tables, and conversation is slightly quieter for privacy.

I have never seen parties share food. The atmosphere does provide an opening for a certain sort of generosity, though. I have ended up at a table with a businessman that was celebrating a big sale who bought sake and plum wine for everyone at the table, and I have seen people pay for strangers' checks when they overheard about money problems.

I haven't addressed the hibachi chef who sometimes grabs everyone's attention by making flaming onion volcanos and flipping rice balls into people's mouths. That bit lets everyone have a laugh together, and there is regularly applause for the chef's demonstrations/hijinx.
posted by heatvision at 4:56 AM on December 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

There's a burger place here in Atlanta that uses communal seating and I'm firmly in the "hate it" camp. I often want to have a private conversation and use colorful language, so having to furtively say "shit" or whatever is really annoying to me. But I also am a big ol introvert and even going to a restaurant at all can be trying at times.
posted by masquesoporfavor at 5:11 AM on December 15, 2014

Monells in Nashville, TN does it. They do a fixed menu every day of the week and you show up, pay a flat rate and eat whatever is offered, family style, from communal dishes at a communal table.

I've never been there when it hasn't been packed with happy people munching fried chicken and biscuits.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 5:38 AM on December 15, 2014 [2 favorites]

It's getting pretty common here in London. Started with Wagamama's, but I have also experienced it in burger joints, breakfast cafes, thai restaurants. They are all pretty casual joints.

I haven't felt our privacy was compromised, even when I'm just with one person and we have people on either side of us. Because no one pays attention and the low level noise of all the other conversations going on actually keep our own conversations private if that makes sense?

I have never spoken to strangers at these places even if they sit right next to me (unless it's to ask them to pass the soy sauce or whatever). But maybe that's a British thing.

I have also been to a meal at Mac Dario in Tuscany and that was also communal but it was another extreme. We all got seated around the same time and we shared the food and drink with complete strangers. The chef made a point to introduce us to our neighbors and provide lots of drink to get people chatting away. That was amazing.
posted by like_neon at 5:40 AM on December 15, 2014

I've read books in which restaurants had "maverick" tables for solo diners.
posted by Carol Anne at 6:35 AM on December 15, 2014

The Dakota Tavern in Toronto serves breakfast like this with live bluegrass music. It's great! I've only been in large groups so there wasn't much interaction with others.

I've also had a chance to eat at one of Buenous Aires "closed door" restaurants. Where I sat with a couple of expat marketing professionals. There was a tour of their beer brewing facility and since we were only two couples at one table, there was a lot of talking.
posted by Gor-ella at 6:47 AM on December 15, 2014

I haven't seen this in very many places. Now that you have mentioned it, I will probably start noticing it everywhere.

The Chipotle closest to my house has this -- one long, high table in the center, but also plenty of individual tables. I typically get take out there so never long.

There was a barbecue place in Bethlehem, PA that I cannot for the life of me remember the name of which had communal tables. The one time I ate there I managed to find an empty table and no one else sat there but me for the duration of my visit.

I personally hate communal tables -- As someone who tends to consistently get INTx on the Myers-Briggs test (the last letter tends to vary), I can't do small talk, especially not with strangers.
posted by tckma at 6:59 AM on December 15, 2014

Not exactly what you were asking, but in Japan, if you walk into a crowded restaurant where there are no free tables at lunchtime, they'll seat you at someone else's table if there's room. This is called aiseki. I've never had this happen at dinner.

There are restaurants in Japan with family-style seating, although it's not particularly common or a product of some deep-rooted cultural factor.
posted by adamrice at 8:02 AM on December 15, 2014

I live in Florida, and have only recently encountered the communal table situation. One, in a breakfast shop and another in a BBQ place. I prefer NOT to sit at them, because it's quite awkward, but in the cases that I have - the experience wasn't bad. People tend to stick to their own situations minus the polite, "Hey, how ya doing? Is anyone sitting here" greeting.
posted by Sara_NOT_Sarah at 8:34 AM on December 15, 2014

There's a locally famous truck stop / restaurant near Bangor, Maine that has communal tables, but I don't frequent truck stops enough to say how common the arrangement is.
posted by gueneverey at 8:45 AM on December 15, 2014

Can you tell me about places where there're not new?

Bartley's Burgers in Harvard Square (Boston) has a table like this. It's mostly because the place is very small and cramped. It is a sit down restaurant (as in you are waited on) but, obviously, casual (burger place, duh) and caters both to college students and reminiscing alumni. The restaurant has normal booth and one large common table, IIRC (I'm neither a student nor an alumna so I haven't been in a while). People sitting at the common table are generally polite to each other (making room where possible) while trying to retain as much of the giant New England personal space bubble as possible. It is not a restaurant with many solitary diners so mostly folks just chat with their companions - there is little to no cross conversation between groups.

I can think of a couple newer places in the area that have common spaces, but they tend to be counter service places that attract more single diners or people settling in for independent work.
posted by maryr at 9:36 AM on December 15, 2014

As others have said, they're common in London cafés. Restaurants, less so.

I hate them, because I am a singer and hate having to shout to talk (which you do if your interlocutor is across the table.) Inevitably, the shared-table places are also no-soft-furnishings, tiled-surface kind of places where the acoustic is annoyingly loud at busy times anyway. I suspect that they deliberately discourage conversation because conversation breeds lingering and they'd rather have a high turnover.

I did eat at a shared-table restaurant near Santa Trinità in Florence, Italy. Two British tourists spent the entire dinner making "subtle" anti-American barbs that they thought I didn't get. This was during the Bush years, but they didn't stop when I told them I'd voted against him twice. When I pointed out that their own city had just elected Boris fucking Johnson, they completely failed to see the irony.

Yeah. Hate shared tables.
posted by Pallas Athena at 10:16 AM on December 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

This is very common in Hong Kong, at big and little tables. The etiquette is that you politely ignore the stranger across the table from you, and fiddling with your phone makes that easier. If it's lunch time you're eating quickly anyways. It's most common in cheaper restaurants, and it happens as the restaurant fills up.

As I discovered and also heard from other westerners, some locals don't want to share a table with a foreigner for whatever reason. In one notably painful night, three different couples of Hong Kongers refused to sit at my table when told to do so by the waitress and insisted instead on other tables, all occupied by locals. At another restaurant, the waitress sat locals with locals and sent the only other westerner to sit at my table. There might have been other sorting going on, like Hong Kongers with Hong Kongers and mainlanders with mainlanders, but I can't say for sure.
posted by ceiba at 12:43 PM on December 15, 2014

If you haven't seen it already, this Wikipedia article might be useful and links to some research. I'd add that the Hong Kong places that sat me with strangers weren't just the cha chaan tengs but also "regular" restaurants, like Korean restaurants at dinner time.

An additional etiquette observation: All the times that I ended up at a shared table, the people involved were led there by the waitstaff; strangers didn't come in off the street and ask to sit at the table.
posted by ceiba at 1:05 PM on December 15, 2014

And one more thing: The site EatWith is based entirely on sitting down to eat with strangers, but in someone's home. I've done it twice in Madrid and the expectation (the whole point, really) is to have a conversation around the table.
posted by ceiba at 1:19 PM on December 15, 2014

It happens in casual, old-world diner-type places in India. Haven't seen them in the more modern restaurants.
posted by redlines at 3:43 PM on December 15, 2014

Beast in Portland has this & they call it "communal dinner seatings."
posted by peep at 10:01 PM on December 15, 2014

When we visited Chicago a few years ago, the Purple Pig was like this. They did it well however, there was ample space between smaller groups if needed, and it appeared that you could be as social or as anti-social as you wanted to be. I really credit their wait staff for taking very good care of us. It was just the two of us, and the only time we spoke to others at the table were to ask what a particular dish was.

On the other side of the coin, in EPCOT, the German restaurant is "family style." You will be seated side by side until the tables of 8 are full. While this might not be as uncomfortable during the stage show, we were the first seating of the morning (pre-show) and our table was shared among three groups. I've never had a more uncomfortable meal in my life, and that's at the "happiest place on earth." I suspect however that it was a matter of sticking three sets of introverts together, with wildly different lifestyles.
posted by librarianamy at 12:04 PM on December 16, 2014

« Older pop behinds   |   First words Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.