Breaking Bread With Strangers: Communal Tables Catch on

  • Kate Jackson and Michael Pilhofer sat at a communal table at Yum! Kitchen and Bakery in St. Louis Park, Minn. (Anthony Souffle/Minneapolis Star Tribune/TNS)

Star Tribune
Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Minneapolis – Minnesotans appear to be thawing out.

In restaurants, anyway, where diners are slowly but surely embracing the communal dining table.

Dropping their chilly, arm’s-length practices, complete strangers are now willingly sitting next to one another — and testing the boundaries of their well-guarded personal space — as they enjoy a meal.

With solo diners, couples and groups all gathering around mammoth tables and counters at restaurants across the metro area, Twin Citians seem to be catching up with the way the rest of the world dines.

“In California, it’s the norm,” said architect David Shea of Shea Inc. in Minneapolis, which designs restaurants all over the country. “Up and down the East Coast, too. In New York, it’s a given that we’ll include a social table. It’s all about socializing, about talking about the food you’re eating and the drinks you’re drinking.”

This acceptance is part of a larger trend, where dining out is becoming more and more casual.

“As quick service becomes more popular, I think it’s a natural for people to come in, grab a seat next to someone they don’t know, and eat,” said Patti Soskin, owner of Yum! Kitchen and Bakery in St. Louis Park and Minnetonka, and the proud owner of 12-seat communal tables at both. “It gets to be like Cheers, where everybody knows everybody, and you turn to the person next to you and say, ‘What are you eating?’ or ‘That looks really good — tell me about it.’ ”

Let’s just say that it has taken years for standoffish Minnesotans to become comfortable with the close social proximity that communal tables dictate. To characterize early iterations as belly flops is an understatement.

A near ancient example — we’re talking the mid-1990s here — was a 12-seater that Shea installed at Tejas in Edina.

“There would be two people seated at one end, and two at the other, and no one would sit in between,” he said. “We finally broke it apart, made multiple tables and set them a few inches apart from one another, and that seemed to work just fine.”

Now enjoying a well-earned retirement, Lucia Watson recalls her ill-fated decision to install a communal table in the bakery/cafe she opened next door to her eponymous Uptown restaurant in 2005. She’d recently encountered a shared table experience at a popular restaurant in Santa Fe, N.M., and wanted to import the idea north.

“I put it in the front window, the most desirable place in the room,” she said. “And no one would sit there.”

Thinking that a short explanation might help, Watson placed small signs on the table that tapped into the Minnesota mindset. They read, “Communal table (really scary!).”

Humor aside, the helpful signage enticed few into taking a seat.

“People would take one look at it and say, ‘Yep, not sitting there,’ ” Watson said. “The place would be packed, and there would be one person at the communal table, and people could come up to me and say, ‘There’s nowhere to sit.’“

Which is why Watson’s informal sociology experiment petered out after a few months.

“Finally, we decided to stop beating ourselves up over it,” she said.

But later that year, an encouraging crack formed in the ice. Soskin installed a Carrara marble-topped communal table in her St. Louis Park restaurant. Unlike Watson’s venture, it immediately caught on.

“When we first opened, we only had 37 seats,” she said. “People sat there because there was nowhere else to sit. But right off the bat, people started going there, no matter how empty the restaurant was.”

Several forces appear to have raised the communal table comfort levels. One is the burgeoning taproom phenomenon. Many follow the Munich beer hall model, with guests congregating at long tables.

Another brand of communal table starter kit is the kitchen counter, where diners who might not necessarily know one another are placed together at the restaurant equivalent of front-row seats.

In Minneapolis, the kitchen counter has taken hold at Corner Table, the Kenwood, Spoon and Stable, Tilia, Borough and Tenant.

“People like watching the cooks at work,” said co-owner Nancy St. Pierre. “There’s a kind of behind-the-scenes feeling to it, and a little bit of theater. Extroverts like the communal style of eating, but the pasta bar, where so much of the focus is looking straight ahead and watching all that hubbub, is more the style of introverts like me.”

One place where communal dining is all the rage — but the restaurant’s highly interactive format is the opposite of counter service — is seven-year-old Travail Kitchen and Amusements in Robbinsdale, which specializes in 20-plus-course tasting menu extravaganzas.

“We think it feels good for people to enjoy something together, and share their reactions with one another,” said co-owner Mike Brown.

A communal table at Walker Art Center’s Esker Grove restaurant serves dual purposes: It creates a division between the bar and the dining room, and operates as an overflow seating area. It’s been a big hit for museumgoers who surge into the restaurant after a performance, screening or exhibition, said general manager Kim Tong.

“We’ll fill it up, completely, and that’s when you see the conversations going back and forth, even though they might not know one another,” she said. “That’s pretty cool.”