Three things have been irking me this week: people who jog in the snow (or even worse, with their babies), people who whistle in public (surely a sign of a latent mental problem or that they’re hiding something), and communal seating in restaurants. I’ll let you chew on the first two on your own time, but the third topic deserves some discussion.
I’ve been scouring the West Loop of Chicago lately, trying to find the perfect place to take my betrothed for his birthday dinner. It’s a special occasion, so I’d like something a little more shi-shi than we’d normally frequent. I’ve never been to Blackbird, or Otom, or Sepia; while their cuisine is enticing, one obstacle remains. Why, in the name of all that is holy, would I want to sit at a table 6 inches away from strangers when I’m probably going to drop over $200 on a meal? A few years ago, I could easily avoid a handful of restaurants in Chicago that force its patrons to engage in this experience. These days, dozens* of the city’s restaurants are taking away something that Americans typically value when eating out: privacy.
I know, I know…communal seating is “rustic!” It’s economically efficient for restaurants; it creates a bonding experience, it’s European! I don’t need to sit next to strangers in order to enjoy a rustic meal; a multitude of the new restaurants in Chicago are serving trendy “rustic” items like crispy veal sweetbreads, tripe and blood sausage, beer braised bacon, and pickle rolls with corned beef and horseradish mustard. (On a side note, what is with this trend? Gross.) If a restaurant needs to pack people in like sardines in order to break even, perhaps they should consider other ways to pinch pennies.
I’ve only once experienced the camaraderie that could potentially develop during a shared meal. During my final year of college, I was lucky enough to live in Europe and traveled quite often. I visited Paris one weekend with friends and we found ourselves at Nos Ancetre Les Gaulois, a lovely restaurant in the heart of the Ile-Saint-Louis.
Across Europe, in bistros and beer halls, tavernas, trattorias and tapas bars, people are accustomed to eating at large shared tables. Nos Ancetre was no exception: fueled by the unlimited jugs of red table wine, a language barrier and my reckless youth, I could ignore the couple chomping on their meat besides me. Maybe the next time I visit Europe I’ll be as carefree as my former 22 year old self. But for now, as my almost 30 year old self, I don’t want to experience the first date awkwardness of the couple next to me. I don’t want to be annoyed by the drunk woman talking about how Twilight changed her life. I don’t want to overhear the right-wing couple lamenting about the election. I just want to eat my brains, blood sausage, and bacon in peace.
*Restaurants in Chicago with communal seating (either entirely or in part) include: Avec, DuChamp, Urban Belly, The Publican, Crisp, The Bristol, Eno, Great Lake, Sepia, Smoque BBQ, Townhouse Restaurant & Wine Bar, People Lounge, Twist a Tapas Cafe, Blackbird, Otom, Feed, Osteria Via Stato, Sweet Maple Cafe, Japonais Restaurant, Pasta Palazzo, Veerasway, Lou Mitchell’s Restaurant. Comment if you know of others!