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Wednesday, August 23, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Strangers at the table

Special to The Seattle Times

Dining with those you don't know isn't everyone's idea of fun, but an increasing number of local restaurants are encouraging customers to do just that by offering seats at communal tables.

Across Europe, in bistros and beer halls, tavernas, trattorias and tapas bars, people are accustomed to eating at large shared tables.

But when Americans go out to eat we tend to like an aura of privacy to envelop the experience.

Chefs and restaurateurs love communal tables for reasons that range from economic to emotional.

Customers' reactions are mixed. Some enjoy the camaraderie that develops during a shared meal; others have to be coaxed to try it. Few express regrets when they do.

Recently communal dining has become more widespread. You can rub elbows with the hoi polloi or hobnob with the highbrow at local restaurants as diverse as Salumi in Pioneer Square, Typhoon! in Redmond or The Herbfarm in Woodinville.

The newest restaurants to embrace the idea include Veil, Boat Street Café, Sitka & Spruce and Barolo, the upscale Italian ristorante expected to open downtown this month.

Where to find communal tables:


Asteroid: 3601 Fremont Ave. N., Suite 207, 206-547-9000

Barolo, 2200 Westlake Ave., 206-770-9000 (ETA: late August)

Boat Street Café, 3131 Western Ave., 206-632-4602, www.boatstreetcafe.com

Brasa, 2107 Third Ave., 206-728-4220, www.brasa.com

Feierabend, 422 Yale Ave. N., Seattle; 206-340-2528; www.feierabendseattle.com

The Herbfarm, Willows Lodge, Woodinville, 425-485-5300, www.theherbfarm.com

La Carta de Oaxaca, 5431 Ballard Ave. N.W., Ballard, 206-782-8722

Pair, 5501 30th Ave N.E., Ravenna, 206-526-7655, www.pairseattle.com

Salumi, 309 Third Ave. S., 206-621-8772, www.salumicuredmeats.com

Sitka & Spruce, 2238 Eastlake Ave. E., 206-324-0662

Tavolata, 2323 Second Ave., 206-838-8008 (ETA: Oct. 1)

Typhoon!, Bella Bottega Center, Redmond, 425-558-7666,

www.typhoonrestaurants.com

Veil, 555 Aloha St., Lower Queen Anne, 206-216-0600, www.veilrestaurant.com

Vios, 903 19th Ave. E., Capitol Hill, 206-329-3236

But the "Mama Mia!" of all communal tables may well be the 30-foot slab of Vashon Island fir that will grace Tavolata, slated to open Oct. 1 in Belltown.

Co-owner Patric Gabre-Kidan is finishing the tabletop himself. "I think it might be the biggest communal table in town," says Ethan Stowell, chef/owner of Union and Gabre-Kidan's business partner at Tavolata.

The idea for the large table was driven in part by the narrow dimensions of the restaurant. "When you have banquettes on one side and tables for two on the other, no one wants to sit in the middle of the room," Gabre-Kidan explains.

So they turned what they viewed as the weakest part of the space into its focal point.

Stowell anticipates serving customers family-style platters of antipasti, pasta and grilled fish. "Sharing is what this place is about," he says.

Both hope the communal table will be everyone's first choice of seating. "After all, it is the tavolata," says Gabre-Kidan. "We hope it will become the party table."

The Varchetta brothers, who own Barolo, were inspired to have communal tables in part by their Italian heritage. "In 1898, our great-grandfather opened a restaurant in Naples called Trattoria di Nonno Filippo that was all communal tables," says Leo Varchetta. He hopes Barolo's two big tables will become a gathering place for the couples and singles moving into the surrounding condos.

But customers don't always leap at the suggestion of sharing their table with strangers.

"We've learned not to say 'share,' " says Carrie Van Dyck of The Herbfarm, where parties of one, two or three are encouraged to sit at the restaurant's "European Common Table."

The nine-course meal at The Herbfarm lasts four or five hours. "Outside stimulus is nice during a long meal, and you end up talking to people anyway," says Van Dyck. "Our common tables fill up sooner than the others, and it is always the last table to leave. Singles are excited at the option. Business travelers like it because so often they have to eat alone. Many customers request it."

"A few customers don't blink an eye when you suggest seating them at the communal table, but most tend to be hesitant," admits Sarah Penn, co-owner of Pair in Ravenna, where an antique table she salvaged and refinished is set for eight each night. "People ask to see it first and, depending on the waiting time, about half say they prefer their own table. Regulars don't hesitate to take a seat."

At Vios, a family-friendly Greek café on Capitol Hill, proprietor Thomas Soukakos keeps four large tables available for communal dining. "In Greece it's the way people eat, sitting at big, long tables. Eating is a communal activity, an opportunity to join people and feel almost like home."

Those few who hesitate, then participate, often make a point of thanking him for the experience later.

Soukakos understands their reluctance. "People are busy, they run around all day, they don't want to make conversation with strangers at dinner. They are surprised when they have a good time. I see them softening up as they sit there. It's a good feeling for me."

Unlike a dinner party, where conversation is expected, there's no obligation to talk to the person next to you at a communal table.

But getting to know your neighbors is part of the fun. Good hosts can facilitate that effort. "I might make a joke, like 'Now you be nice to these folks!' when I seat them," says Pair's Penn. "When I sit at a communal table myself, I tend to say hi or nod a greeting to others first. I indicate that I'm open to conversation but take cues from other people at the table."

Van Dyck recalls an Herbfarm dinner where she introduced a couple to the others at the table and as an ice-breaker mentioned they were on their way to a barbershop quartet conference in Oregon.

Turns out two other men at the table had sung in barbershop quartets as well. Between courses, they stepped outside to practice and serenaded the dining room at meal's end.

"Communal tables offer a socialized dining experience that's not for everyone," says Erik Lindstrom, co-owner of Veil, where a tall, 18-seat table runs along the back of the dining room and a low version in the lounge seats 14.

He finds the older generation tougher to sell on the idea. "My parents hate it," he admits. "They prefer their intimate space."

Personally he finds the interactive experience fun. "You never know who you're going to meet," he says, recalling that years ago, while living in New York, he met a couple during a communal meal at the restaurant Asia de Cuba. They offered to fix him up with their niece, whom he dated for a time.

Customers at Sitka & Spruce can hardly avoid dining communally:

About half of the seats in this hip, dressed-down eatery are at the 10-seat communal table in the center of the room.

Informality is what chef/owner Matt Dillon was after. "I wanted people to feel more like they were having dinner at my house than at my restaurant."

"Communal tables appeal to chefs and restaurateurs because it's what we want to do — we want to feed lots of people," says Tamara Murphy, chef and co-owner of Brasa.

But on an everyday basis the idea tends to work best in small restaurants, like Sitka & Spruce, where it's central to the concept.

The model works for them economically, too, because it allows more seating flexibility.

Brasa has a communal table in the bar as well as a long serpentine table in her dining room that Murphy says is used mostly for special-event family-style dinners.

"We talk all the time about how food can bring people together, but still there's resistance," she observes. "We've got a lot of walls up in our culture, but restaurants have a powerful voice. Not just in what we eat, but in how we eat."

Providence Cicero: providencecicero@aol.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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