The shared table is as old as the restaurant.
Before private tables filled eating places in mid-1700s Paris, the table was communal.
|Image courtesy of Fink Architecture, Calafia, Palo Alto CA|
In The Table Comes First: Family, France and the Meaning of Food, Adam Gopnik explains, ‘[t]his was a big public table where you took what was being served…As you ate, you were expected to talk and joke and kid around with the other people at the table, including the host. …This could be fun, but if the guy next to you at the table d'hôte was drunk and beery you were stuck…’
The rage in the United States, you’ll find pages on the internet when you search ‘shared tables’ in San Francisco alone. But the shared table has had their share of critics too.
The shared table lucky dip can be awkward, or if you draw the short straw, excruciating.
Romantics and the reserved might best go elsewhere.
This Girl has eaten at a few. Misoguigawa, a French Japanese fusion restaurant and Yoshikawa, a tempura restaurant, both fine dining in Kyoto; and loads of Japanese sushi bars, seat diners around an L-shaped table. A Japanese restaurant in Las Vegas I dined at was of the same vein.
|Image courtesy of Yoshikawa, Kyoto, Japan|
In these restaurants, the table is less about sharing a meal than watching a performance. In the best seats in the house, the epicurean audience relishes the theatre unfolding before our senses.
At its establishments in Sydney and Melbourne, Longrain features long tables and large circular tables in the Chinese restaurant style to be shared by many. I’ve breakfasted with strangers at Hobart’s Shoebox, Elizabeth Street Food and Wine, Smolt and Ginger Brown, and had lunch around the L-shaped Sidebar counter. But these are shared tables born from necessity, where you sit when there’s no other option. They are practical and commercial, increasing seating capacity and discouraging you from dwelling.
|Image courtesy of Longrain, Sydney|
In these places, your fellow food travellers might acknowledge you if you’re lucky, but after the guarded nod or mumbled greeting, the Get Smart cone of silence descends. Of course you can hear everything, but you pretend not to.
I’m not very good at this. I want to find out what they’re eating, what they liked and where they’re from. I like witty banter and repartee. I’m what most communal table objectors dislike about the experience.
I’m a shared table advocate. It’s not for every dinner out but when it works, it is divine.
Case in point, I recently reveled in a meal at Garagistes, arguably Hobart’s finest and most innovative restaurant. It might seem like an oxymoron, fining dining and the communal, but it was one of the best evenings I’ve had out in Hobart, and well, anywhere really.
It put my mind to wondering how to make the most out of the shared table experience.
A special reason for dining out is a special reason to enjoy yourself. This Garagistes evening was my birthday dinner care of the Lovely Deputy. For the Sydney couple of 30 years next to us, it was a swag of Baroque tickets and a travel guide to Hobart that they weren’t afraid to use. Seated to our other side, it was a couple from Adelaide with loved ones all the way from Tokyo.
|Image courtesy of Habitus Living, Garagistes|
Anticipating an excellent meal
Garagistes has a big reputation and big reputations come with high expectations. All the members of our table had chosen Garagistes for a gorgeous meal and were not disappointed. But it’s more than being happy with your meal, we were in awe of the creativity and expertise that had produced the sights and tastes before us. That’s reason to share the wonderment.
Making the most of the shared table means knowing when to start, pause and end a conversation. You don’t have to greet your neighbours as you arrive and you don’t need to throw yourself into conversation as soon as you sit down.
When our neighbours who were seated after us, caught up, we chatted about the courses we were eating simultaneously. By dessert we were engaged in the witty banter and repartee, and some obligatory name dropping.
It’s easy to chat when seated among social blowflies.
Being willing to get to know someone new
A shared table works when there’s a shared willingness to get to know the people around you. Having an interest in others and a desire to make a connection. This is best done when the meal asks you to sit and be in the moment awhile. But it’s also the ethic you take with you too.
Self-confidence and modicum of social skills
So your neighbours have dined with Governors and one is the Director of a major cultural institution in Tokyo, do you feel intimated? NO! Lovely and I had the Hobart advantage, and we shared foodie tips and other local tit bits. We make small talk with acquaintances all the time so we can pull the social skills when we need to. Show a little interest in someone and the conversation will blossom.
These are some of the things that worked for us.
Does the shared table work for you?
Here's our blog posts on other venues with shared tables:
More information on shared tables here
Buy the Table Comes First here