Visitors can't get enough stories on communal table dining! One of the most frequently
visited pages on SoloDining.com is "Diners of The World Unite!"a story about communal table dining in
the United Kingdom.
The following story, "In The Company of Strangers" © Terry Durack - 2003, (Independent On Sunday - published in London on November 23, 2003) discusses communal
table dining in the U.K., Australia and the United States AND more.
(Did you know that a combination of the physical dynamic — including hard benches and backless seats — and
a no-bookings policy drives turnover?)
SoloDining.com thanks Terry Durack for sharing this story with SoloDining.com and SoloTravelPortal.com visitors.
To contact him, click: Terry Durack
(For an update on the dining out alone trend in Australia, click: food bars)
Short on time? The following links will take you to the specifics:
For a discussion of communal tables in the U.K., click: Wagamama
For a discussion of communal tables in Sydney, click: bills
For a discussion of communal tables in Melbourne, click: Chocolate Buddha
For a discussion of communal tables in the United States: click: Carriage House
In The Company of Strangers:
Communal dining is a global hit with lonely hearts, friendly souls and astute restaurateurs
Terry Durack meets his neighbours.
When the long communal tables first arrived to be installed in the half-finished Wagamama
in 1992, the builders went into a huddle, muttering amongst themselves. Finally, one approached the owner, Alan
Yau, with a worried look on his face.
We have to tell you,” he said. “The British don’t like sharing their table with anyone. Are you sure you know
what you’re doing?”
Yau’s ambition to create a new dining environment made him persist with the idea, but he had to admit that they
had a point.
“When we first opened, people tried desperately to create their own space,” he recalls. “They would territorially
put a bag or a coat on the bench beside them so nobody could sit there.”
It’s not surprising. While communal dining has long flourished in Spain’s tapas bars, Germany’s beer halls and
Japan’s sushi bars, the idea of eating with strangers is enough to make your average Brit lose his or her appetite.
Gradually though, the barricades were torn down. As the queues grew longer outside Wagamama, and the Wagamamas
themselves grew across the country (now without Yau at the helm), the communal table began to establish
itself as the new British way of eating.
At first it was associated only with noodles and chopsticks, at Asian influenced eateries such as Tiger Lil’s,
Satsuma, Tampopo, The Pan Asian Canteen, and Yau’s own Busaba Eat Thai.
Today, the communal table has broken out of its racial straitjacket. It can be as casual as the help-yourself breakfast
table at the casual Monmouth Café in the Borough Market; as practical as the big wooden monoliths
in the Aziz deli in Fulham; as romantically quirky as the glamorous, raised models at Asia de Cuba
and the Gallery at Sketch; and as contemporary as the white-washed picnic tables at Yau’s recently opened
Italian bistro, Anda.
It doesn’t suit all manner of cuisines, however. The traditional sharing of a number of Chinese or Indian dishes
can lead to nasty excuse-me-that’s-my-rice-not-yours issues with the diners-next-door. At the swanky L’Atelier
de Joel Robuchon in Paris where there are no tables at all, the elegance is strained as sommeliers lean over
sushi bar-style counters in order to pour one’s wine.
Yau claims he was initially inspired by the communal dining tables of Japan and by movies depicting boys eating
in English public school dining halls. “It creates a whole new social dynamic at the table” he says, “and it gives
the room an almost instant buzz through the density of noise it generates”.
But the heart and soul of the communal dining concept lie in that which is most precious to the restaurateur:
the hip pocket. Yau admits that the combination of the physical dynamic (including hard benches and backless seats)
and a no-bookings policy drives turnover in a way that no other dining concept could hope to achieve. “That’s the
beauty of it,” he says. “It acts as an automatic mechanism that makes people eat and go, without you having to
put any physical pressure on them.”
The Wagamama influence spread far beyond these shores. One of the most sought-after communal
tables in the world is to be found in a sunny little corner café in Darlinghurst, an edgy inner suburb of
Sydney. When twenty-two year old art student Bill Granger opened bills in October 1993, the local council
presented him with a somewhat unique problem.
The café could only be licensed to seat 32 people, far fewer people than the room could have accommodated.
Having heard about the communal tables at Wagamama, Granger decided to put in a giant pine table that seated 16,
in an effort to fill up the space.
“I wanted the place feel domestic, and for people to feel like they were coming to my house,” says Granger. “But
when the table arrived, I totally freaked out and wondered what I had done.”
Almost overnight, the table became as Sydney an icon as the Opera House, its broad blond surface and matching Chris
Connell chairs pulling everyone from Kylie Minogue, Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, to Leonardo Di Caprio, Baz Lurhmann,
Sir Terence Conran and Robert Carrier. This motley crew is typical of the communal dynamic. At the many early morning
breakfasts I have spent at bill’s, I have sat next to end-of-shift nurses, dreamy all-night clubbers, teachers,
chanel-clad fashion editors, off duty chefs, and — it being Sydney — property developers.
We regulars became a mini club, as we shared hangovers, passed the sugar, and swapped the free magazines. We talked
when we felt like it, and shut up when we didn’t. We said, "Where have you been?’ when anyone reappeared after
a two week absence. I still don’t know any one else’s names, but I do know their footy team, and how they like
their eggs. It is like having a family you can get out of seeing when they start to get annoying.
Communal tables spread through Sydney like a bushfire, from the surgical stainless steel of the modern Fu Manchu
and Sailor’s Thai, to the feudal monsters at Longrain, and the elegantly long counters at Jimmy
In Melbourne too, diners sit elbow-to-elbow eating pizza at A Taglio, Afghani breakfast
pancakes at Blakes Cafeteria, and nabeyaki udon noodles at Chocolate Buddha.
Communal dining suits the easy, democratic Australian style, but its success in Britain has surprised more than
Alan Yau’s builders. After all, everyone is on the same level, and gets the same treatment. There are no discreet
corners, nor natural "heads," and it’s extremely difficult to insist on the best table when there is
only one table in the house. It has to be Michael Winner’s worst nightmare.
Worse, the average Brit is stricken with decisions: do you talk or make eye contact with your fellow diners,
or not? (Entirely up to you, it’s like being on the Tube). Do you sit beside or opposite your partner?
(Opposite if the table is narrow, side-by-side if the table is too wide to see each other). What do you do about
jabbing elbows, and women who put their handbags on the table? (Glare at the offenders). What about groups?
(Three or more people should be given a table of their own so they do not dominate). Is there a ‘best’ seat?
(Yes, on the end, with one’s back to the wall).
In America, the very things that stress out the British about communal tables — that they
might contain lonely losers with the temerity to address you as you eat — have been turned into a positive feature,
as solo diners discover the romantic possibilities of dining alone in a crowd.
Wesbites such as SoloDining.com give solo dining tips and alert single diners to good communal tables such as the
bright yellow suspended communal table at the Carriage House in New York and the large stainless steel table
at the Aureole-Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas.
SoloDining.com’s editor, Marya Charles Alexander, claims that communal dining became a phenomenon in America soon
after the press focussed on the Phillipe Starck designed 36-seater table at Asia De Cuba in Morgans Hotel,
“Communal dining allows the solo diner to blend into the restaurant scene more easily,” she says. “As a result,
they are now less content to remain at home, and restaurateurs report large increases in the numbers”.
The only threat, says Alexander, is "The Couple." Couples are starting to discover communal tables and
their natural synergy, and are crowding out the solo diner. So the message seems to be that if you do find love
on a communal table, please take it elsewhere.
Unless, of course, you met at Café Pascal in New Mexico, a colourful and popular restaurant famous
for its fried eggs with tortillas, plantain and re-fried beans, and its twelve-seat communal table, known as the
Joiners. The table is now also known as the Love Boat, as at last count, it had two marriages to its credit, not
to mention two children named Pascal.
We may well see the same thing happen here, where the very top levels of dining still discriminate against the
lone diner by placing them on a table for two and then pointedly removing the unused cutlery, crockery, and, sometimes,
the chair. I’m just waiting for the day one of my work colleagues pulls a photo out of his wallet and proudly announces
the names of his new twins: Gordon and Ramsay.
Note: Originally published in the Winter 2005 issue of SoloDining.com, the newsletter for SoloDining.com
and SoloTravelPortal.com visitors.
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