Table for 8 - or 12? Communal dining trend comes to Utah
When Maggie Gresseth goes out to dinner, it's usually because she wants to spend time chatting with a friend or family member. She has mixed feelings about sitting at a communal table where being social with strangers is inevitable.
"It's really not my thing," said the Salt Lake City resident. "I'm pretty specific about what I like to eat and who I like to eat with."
Long tables that seat eight, ten, 12 or more have been part of the community atmosphere of bars, barbecue joints and pizzerias for many years. But now communal tables are moving beyond casual eateries to upscale restaurants.
The trend, which started in dining centers such as New York and Los Angeles, has now made its way to Utah. In downtown Salt Lake City, The Copper Onion, Plum Alley and Pallet Bistro all boast communal tables. At Provo's Communal, a long table runs parallel to the kitchen and serves as the restaurant's namesake. And at J&G Grill in Park City, a massive wood table that seats up to 28 people is the first thing diners see when they enter the restaurant, located inside the St. Regis Deer Valley Resort.
When J&G Grill opened three years ago, people were intimidated by this custom piece of furniture, said general manager Scott Cochran. "You can't believe how many times I've heard 'I'll be the king and sit at one end and you be the queen and sit at the other.' "
Over time, diners have become comfortable with the idea. "When the food is flowing and the people are talking, there is an energy it can provide," he said.
Rocky Derrick and business partner Drew Eastman were hesitant to include communal tables at Pallet, their new Salt Lake City restaurant. They had experienced them at restaurants in other cities, but weren't sure Salt Lake City was ready to embrace the "love thy neighbor" dining concept. With some prodding from their interior designer, they agreed because ultimately they liked the idealistic theory behind it.
"It brings people together and creates an opportunity to get to know each other," Derrick said. Still, "some people love them and some people hate them."
It all depends on the reason for your visit. "If it's a rare night out with my husband, I'd wait for a private table or go somewhere else," said Paula Williams, of Salt Lake City. But in a more casual situation, she's more adventurous. "Sometimes I like seeing what everyone else is ordering and if it looks good asking them 'what is that,'" she said.
At The Copper Onion, one of downtown's busiest restaurants, sometimes "people are kind of forced into it," said Ryan Lowder, chef/owner. "It's the communal table or an hour wait." Communal dining does "take away that bit of privacy" most people are used to, "but more often than not, they end up liking it, even if they were reluctant at first."
Lowder, who worked in New York City for many years, said Utahns seem to have a more difficult time with the concept, simply because they've been accustomed to living where there is plenty of space.
"In New York everything is smaller: where you live, where you work, even the sidewalks are more crowded," he said.
Offering a communal table creates a more urban atmosphere for a restaurant, while it requires that diners break through their insecurities.
"If you're sitting at a two top, you're less inclined to ask 'what is that?'" Lowder said. "But when you are right next to someone, you can't help but strike up a good conversation."
Scott Duehlmeier said his first experience with communal tables was as a child at a Japanese steakhouse when his family of four shared a table with another group. "That creeped me out,"he said. "I'm celebrating my birthday and I'm wondering 'Who are these people?'"
As an adult, he finds sharing a table a bit more appealing. "It's a lot of fun to strike up a conversation with people, some of them are super interesting," he said.
When communal dining becomes a problem, however, is when people break basic rules of etiquette.
"If you want to have a private conversation, keep it private," he said. "Please don't involve all of us."
Where to find a communal table
Communal • 102 North University Ave., Provo; 801-373-8000.
Copper Onion • 111 E. 300 South, Salt Lake City; 801-355-3282.
J&G Grill • 2300 Deer Valley Dr., (inside the St. Regis Deer Valley), Park City; 435-940-5760.
Pallet Bistro • 237 S. 400 West, Salt Lake City; 801-935-4431
Plum Alley • 111 E. 300 South, Salt Lake City; 801-355-0543
Don't sit so close to me!
Here are a few rules to follow to make communal dining enjoyable for everyone.
Have an open mind • If the hostess asks to seat you at a communal table, don't wrinkle your nose. Say yes. You never know who you might meet.
Be neighborly • If the diners next to you seem inclined to chat, don't turn a cold shoulder. Ask them what's good on the menu.
Avoid private conversations • No one wants to listen to an argument, family gossip or personal troubles. Have those conversations at home.
Special occasions • Avoid the communal table if you want to have an intimate dinner with a spouse or date.
Make reservations • If you're really opposed to eating at a communal table, make reservations to ensure you're seated at a table you will like.
WEB EXTRA • In a sltrib.com poll on Tuesday morning, slightly more than 30 percent of voters said the idea of making new friends at a communal table sounded like fun. About 27 percent of voters said they'd go elsewhere rather than sit with strangers. Vote in the poll at http://bit.ly/KjOHJo or comment on facebook.com/nowsaltlake.