Saturday, April 25, 2009

Communalism Taking Over America!

This week, the topic of communal table seating came up a few times with friends in conversations, probably because so many new places like the Bristol, Urban Belly, and the Publican have embraced it. Despite the urban restaurateur's obvious enthusiasm for it (i.e. love for a high mouths per square-foot ratio), the consensus among my incredibly unscientific poll is that at its best, it's tolerable. At its worst, it gives plenty of people a reason not to try a good restaurant.

At Pierrot last week, I was surprised when the waitress squeezed me between two men. They were both young-ish, attractive-ish, and, I'm pretty sure, European-ish. If I were single this would all be very, very good. But mostly I felt like I had just been assigned a middle seat on a plane. All three of the others near me were alone, avoiding eye contact like malaria, and had staked out their table real estate with personal detritus like sunglasses, iPods, books, and mobile devices arranged in a fan formation around their place setting. Those who had the latter were picking them up and clinging to them like life rafts, checking and re-checking for messages in a way that said, "I'm not desperate. People are absolutely dying to get a hold of me."

Time Out Chicago did a pretty good article on communal etiquette last fall. What it doesn't acknowledge is that it's pretty natural to feel awkward in the communal situation when you're dining solo. Introverts and extroverts aside, human food-sharing is a primal behavior that we've been hardwired to use for bonding to others at every stage of life - from breastfeeding to dating to power-lunching. We use food to connect with other humans to get our needs met.

And so there you are, sitting between two total strangers, reeeally hoping they don't want to bond while you have your way peaceably with a tuna salad. The graceful thing to do is, as Time Out suggests, at least acknowledge the humans around you. Time Out suggests making introductions - as in, they want me to voluntarily exchange names with the entire table. I have never once seen this done. I think a simple hello should suffice. Then, if you're not feeling up for a brisk round of networking, reading is always a good strategy to politely say, "Do not disturb." Just make sure your newspaper doesn't turn into a weapon as you turn pages. Or you could make like Oprah and pony up for a Kindle. As Amazon's CEO Jeff Bezos was super-quick to point out on Jon Stewart, it's like, totally perfect for reading with one hand.


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