Conversations cooking at communal tables

Mary Altman and John Pinson, though each traveling alone on business, savored some conversation with their barbecue last week as they sat together at one of 4 Rivers Smokehouse's large picnic tables in Winter Park, Fla.

The two discovered they both live in Jacksonville, Fla., so they chatted about their lives there.

"When you're by yourself, it's nice to meet somebody and, coincidentally, to meet somebody from your own hometown," said Pinson, a salesman in his 70s.

Diners such as Pinson are surrendering some of their personal space as more restaurants install communal tables. The extra-long tables, which generally seat from six to 16 people each, are often occupied by multiple groups of diners who don't know one another.

Though such tables are supposed to foster a sense of togetherness, restaurants also have a financial incentive to use them because they seat more people quickly.

"This is going to be a trend that will slowly become part of the restaurant-dining-seating options," said Darren Tristano, executive vice president at the food-industry-research company Technomic. "Over time, more restaurants will jump in because they can squeeze more space out of it."

For some people, communal dining feels too much like sitting with a bunch of strange students in the school cafeteria. But it is gaining acceptance as eating out in America becomes more casual, New York restaurant consultant Clark Wolf said.

"The notion of formal dining at your own table, with all that goes with it, has receded more and more," he said. "We just don't value it anymore the same way we did."

But casual restaurants aren't the only ones doing this. At a high-end Orlando restaurant called simply The Table, customers pay $120 apiece to sit for hours around a single, 22-seat table with strangers as they consume a five-course meal.

"Usually by the end of the first course, people are talking, and it's great," said Tyler Brassil, who co-owns The Table with his wife. "It's a community thing."

At the more laid-back and less-expensive chain Marlow's Tavern, communal seating is ideal for big groups, co-owner Alan Palmieri said. "It is a comfortable table, and not tables pushed together."

Marlow's in Orlando has a mix of seating that includes booths, smaller tables and large ones seating as many as 10 people.

The 4 Rivers chain, meanwhile, has dining rooms dominated by picnic tables, along with some booths.

"It fits really into our entire model of wanting people to be together," founder John Rivers said. "Anyone can sit with anybody here."

During lunch recently at the Winter Park 4 Rivers, several co-workers from a nearby company were seated at the same table as Tim Behling of Lake Mary, Fla., and his lunch companion, Robert Stanley of Clearwater, Fla.

That particular day, the 37-year-old Behling was too engrossed in his conversation with Stanley to chat with the others. But he and his wife sometimes start conversations with communal seatmates when they're eating out, he said. They usually start out chatting about "whatever food's in front of us."

For solo diners, communal tables can help them feel less awkward about sitting alone without forcing them to sit at the bar. McCoy's Bar & Grill in the Hyatt Regency at Orlando International Airport added two long tables recently to appeal to travelers who might be alone.

For Altman, a marketer who frequently dines alone while on business trips, communal dining is a comfortable arrangement. But when she brought her more introverted husband to 4 Rivers, she said, "he was not quite as comfortable as I was."

Zagat Survey has listed communal tables as the No. 1 most-annoying restaurant trend. Jason Kessler, who writes a column, The Nitpicker, for Bon Appetit magazine's website, has also given them a harsh review.

Kessler is 30 — one of those "millennials" who supposedly embrace togetherness.

But "when I go out to dinner, I've chosen who I'm going with for specific reasons," he said. "I like the privacy of dining at my own table. I don't want to have to be bumping into people or having people lean over and ask me what I'm eating."

Others, such as Laura Kaminsky of Longwood, Fla., are more ambivalent.

Kaminsky has eaten at communal tables, mostly while on vacation. In general, she prefers traditional restaurant seating.

"I think that for me, part of going out to dinner is relaxing and not having to work hard," said Kaminsky, 51, a marketing manager. "Sometimes it's a little bit more effort to have a conversation with a stranger, whereas you can relax at your own table."

Still, she said, "if you embrace it, it's an opportunity to meet people. Kind of an adventure."

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