communal seating

As the communal table trend continues and diners sit elbow-to-elbow with complete strangers at restaurants all over the nation, there is a new need for communal table etiquette guidelines.

Communal tables evoke a traditional, egalitarian way of eating and set a casual ambiance that is ideal for solo diners and social types. Communal tables satisfy a deep-seated human need for community – and they also raise a restaurant’s profits by expanding the number of guests that it can serve.

Although there are many opponents to eating at communal tables, including Zagat who included communal dining in a list of “10 Most Annoying Restaurant Trends,” many people relish the opportunity to talk to strangers and listen to new stories over their spaghetti.

If you’re the sort of person who loves to stay at bed and breakfasts on vacation for the social stimulation they provide, then communal dining is for you. If you despise B&Bs for the forced socialization, then you probably want to skip the communal table trend altogether.

Communal dining involves interaction with strangers, which can be awkward and uncomfortable for some. Follow these guidelines and you’ll be happily rubbing elbows and exchanging delightful stories in no time.

  • Know before you go if your restaurant of choice has communal seating or private tables. Communal dining is best for singles, groups of friends and older couples who have heard each other’s stories a thousand times. Communal dining is not so great if you are trying to impress a new love interest on a romantic date.

  • Acknowledge your fellow diners when you sit down with a smile, nod or quick greeting, but don’t feel like you need to make conversation all night. In theory, communal tables become swinging social occasions with fascinating people and incredible conversation, but in reality, diners who come together often just talk amongst themselves. If you are feeling quiet, try to sit at the end of the table and use your body language to communicate this to other diners by turning slightly away. If you are feeling chatty, make sure to read the body language of others and shut up already if they continue to avert their bodies or faces. Don’t assume everyone at a communal table wants to chat with you all night.

  • Be patient with the server. Communal dining can be a big pain for servers, who must deliver meals to the table at different times, instead of all at once.

  • Put your phone away. While this should be standard dining etiquette no matter what kind of table you are at, a large number of restaurant guests still check their phones throughout the meal, certain that the world will end if they don’t. If you are on your phone at a restaurant table, rest assured that everyone around you is thinking: “What an ass!”

  • Skip the skirt. Many communal tables offer only bench seating, which can be tricky to navigate if you are wearing a skirt and are sitting in the middle seats.

  • If you have a choice of bench seating or chairs with backs, let elderly members of your group or those with back problems choose their seating first. Backless bench seating is hell on those with back problems.

  • Watch your elbows. This is not your mother’s table and no one wants to be jammed in the ribs as they are trying to eat.

  • When dealing with “family style” service where you help yourself out of large shared bowls, always pass food to the right (or to the left in the UK/EU). Don’t take more than you can eat, and don’t start chowing down until everyone has been served.

  • Leave the kids at home. The majority of adult diners do not want to share a bench with a 3 year-old.

  • If you are looking for more social interaction with fellow diners, eat at a later time when libations have likely been flowing and other patrons will be loosened up. For less social interaction, eat with the early birds.

  • If you must leave the table to go to the bathroom or anywhere else, place your napkin on your seat so that the server won’t think you are done with your meal. When you are done with your meal, place your napkin on your plate.

image: Albert K Law