Don’t Sit So Close to Me

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.

communalCommunal Dining Nightmare.

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.

parisNos Ancetre Les Gaulois, Paris.

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!

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9 responses to “Don’t Sit So Close to Me

  1. This was hilarious, Abbey. I completely agree with your sentiments on communal dining!

  2. Hey, Abbey:

    It’s about the food. If you really don’t want to do the communal thing, there are plenty of other options. What’s your gripe? Why is it okay to sit communally in Europe and not in the States?

    I’m sick of Americans wanting this or that she-she… frenchie….euro thing because in “Italy” or in “Spain” or in “Paris” it was so “charming”…. But my Lord– once their feet hit American soil those things that were so charming over seas are suddenly a nuisance here.

    Why would you go to a communal dining restaurant for a first date anyway?

    Let these restaurants do their thang. Each one that you named has amazing food with very dedicated chefs. What they don’t put into their space–they put into seasonal, creative menus. The food is the point…not the table. Every restaurant can’t be all things to all people.

    Pick a new gripe.

  3. @Nadia: I would never go to a communal dining restaurant for a first date-I think you’re confusing me with Helen of Menupages. You’re right, not every restaurant can be everything to everyone. For me personally, the communal seating aspect just truly affects the entire experience of my meal…so even if the food is phenomenal, sitting close to a stranger is just too risky. It makes me nervous and tense. You’re lucky that it doesn’t affect you in the same way-maybe claustrophobia and heightened nerves are an American thing. I presume you’re European….care to elaborate?

  4. Well said. I loathe this new trend towards communal dining. It looks pretty and maximizes seating capacity in restaurants though, so I think it’s going be a lasting trend. That doesn’t mean I have to like it.

  5. You’re hilarious. What’s wrong with whistling? I can’t whistle, but if I could…

    Anyway, if you go to Sepia, sit in the front area. It’s not communal and although cozy Justin and I found it pleasant.

  6. I felt the exact same way the first time I visited Blackbird. They had to pull the table out for me to get seated because there was not enough room in between tables. It was a bit of a nuisance when I had to go to the bathroom and there was no maitre d to pull the table for me. My butt ended up in my neighbor’s soup. Considering how much an entree costs in some upscale restaurants, you’d think they’d factor in just a few more square feet for the comfort of their patrons.

  7. Hi, I’m an interior designer and am studying communal tables in Washington, DC for my thesis. Plenty of restaurants keep including them, even though lots of people feel passionately – and negatively – about them! Would love to hear if you’ve got any updated thoughts on this topic, since this thread is pretty old.

    • Hi Eileen-

      I still hate communal seating and am seeing it more and more. I will walk out of a restaurant if I see it. Your thesis sounds very interesting! Let me know if you’d like to chat.

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