The other day I went to a popular restaurant in my neighborhood, which is a thing I like to do sometimes because supporting local businesses is important and also I am hopeless in the kitchen and one time a fire truck had to be called when I was making fried eggs (which, up to that point, I’d considered myself swell at). I was feeling pretty great for a reason I can’t remember, so when the hostess announced that she could seat my friend and me “right now!” I saw it as the universe offering a sly wink and saying “You know what, buddy? You deserve this.”
“I do deserve this,” I thought, as I proudly marched to the back of the dining room and up a flight of stairs to a new and exciting level of the restaurant that I’d never been to before. This victory seemed like a very reasonable, nice thing and though I don’t believe that I deserve the finest things in life like big houses and huge cars and to win the lottery, I’m okay with believing that I have somehow earned the right to sit at a table and order too many appetizers without having to put my name on a list.
It was only when I noticed that we were being followed by the man who had entered the restaurant behind us — a man who, from the phone call I casually/deliberately overheard, was waiting for a Tinder date he was only 60 percent sure would arrive — that I started to worry. “Should I say something?” I thought, having a tiny existential crisis (which is another thing I do but is less fun than supporting local businesses and something my therapist says I should work real hard to stop). Should I say, “The guy’s not with us” — even though that would be rude to point out and the dude was already in an emotionally precarious situation?
Then we came to the table and I realized that the world is an unkind place that will promise you things but then rudely strip them away from you: The man was walking with us because we were all being led to the same tall communal table, where we would be expected to perch on stools, break bread with stranger(s?), remark how wonderful it is to be living in a city where community is just so important, and then keep our conversations to a polite hush so as not to disturb anyone’s date/gentle weeping when that date doesn’t show.
I felt betrayed. And wronged. And every other word people use at the end of Lifetime movies when they’ve been unmasked as the killer and have to justify exactly why it is that they (Daryl Hannah) set up a fake social media account to stalk and harass their daughter (Kirsten Prout) so that she’d have too much anxiety to go to college and would stay at home forever (or die). I felt all of those things. And as I looked around helplessly, trying to find a way out of our communal situation without hurting this dude’s feelings — I’m responsible for someone else’s feelings now? I just wanted to have dinner! — I had an important thought that I would like to share with you now:
Listen: Communal tables have got to go. They must. They’re cool on Game of Thrones (although very dangerous) and a delight in theory (so many interesting people to meet in our big, brave, beautiful world), but when you get right down to it, no one is leaving their unexpected dinner with strangers with anything more than a take-out box and a bad attitude.
You (a restaurateur who loves communal tables although you show no other outward signs of being a psychopath, which is good) say: But you’re supposed to have barrier-breaking conversations!
We say (well, really “I say,” but I have a feeling I’m not alone here): No, we’re not. If I wanted to have a barrier-breaking conversation I’d do it like normal people, by writing an angry 500 word comment on a distant relative’s Facebook account and then emailing all my friends screenshots with the caption “Omg, I just had to say something!!!”
The only conversation that’s gonna be happening at a communal table is that a stranger is going to comment on how good your food looks and, oh, they should have ordered that, and you’ll have to reply with a forced, “Yes…everything’s just so…good here. I love the atmosphere,” in hopes that they’ll recognize that the atmosphere is actually very bad and hostile and go back to their own poorly chosen meal.
Once, I was seated next to a woman who was dining alone and wearing literal cans around her neck which she had fashioned into something approximating a necklace. Because this restaurant had cards on the table meant to provoke conversation and because this woman was not good with social cues, she plucked up a card, ignored the fact that I was doing everything I could not to make eye contact, and said “What’s the one thing you regret most in life?”
First of all: Lighten the fuck up, whoever writes cards to spark polite dinner conversation. Second of all: I’m not going to talk to a stranger about how I should have dumped that weak-chinned dude who told me he was staunchly pro-life before he had the chance to cheat on me and also how I really wish I’d followed my dreams before realizing I might be too old. That’s none of your business.
I didn’t want to answer the questions, so I was like “Wow, that’s some necklace,” and she said “Yes, thanks, I made it out of cans” like that hadn’t been evident and then told me that she made art because her career in naturopathic sports medicine was fulfilling in some ways, but not others.
“I heal athletic injuries,” she said, “with reiki.”
“Oh, that’s like a massage, right?” I asked.
“Oh no,” she responded. “I gently facilitate healing by brushing clients with a feather.”
Fortunately, one of the servers decided that what this dinner needed was less food and more dancing, so she broke into a grapevine in the middle of the restaurant and everyone hooted and hollered and I never had to respond.
All of this could have been avoided (save for the dancing) if my party had just been seated at their own table. We might have had a barrier-breaking conversation about our regrets, I don’t know, but at least it would have been one that was consensual and not thrust upon us by someone whose only connection was proximity? There are better ways to build community!
You Say: Breaking bread with strangers is a time-honored tradition that pays respect to the ways of old.
We say: Wrong! We live in 2017 now. And in 2017 we like to be on our phones and talk only to people we want to and not our moms, so unless you’re serving some medieval shit and this is a themed dining experience with horses and everyone eating with their hands and cheering for the knight they want to win the historically accurate jousting competition (which is decided by applause and not actual skill, so it’s a scam anyway), let’s just not.
No, wait: Let’t talk about that bread-breaking. Because many of us grew up learning that you don’t start eating until others do, it feels like you either have to wait for the entire table to be served (oh my god, the server comes to your table and it is not your food and you are so mad) or must apologize to everyone longingly staring at your food and saying “gosh, I hope mine comes soon” before digging in.
“Oh, you don’t have to do that,” you protest, but we do, because you have set it up for us to treat all of our involuntary dining companions as treasured friends with your “conversation cards” and instructions to “relax and get to know each other.”
And then you start eating and there’s a stranger’s elbow in your space and you’re like, ugh, and your back is bad but every communal table has to be tall and the chairs have to be stools otherwise someone goes to jail, and it just becomes this thing where you’re supposed to be having a good time but you’re really just sitting there wondering how you got to be your age with nothing to show for it and trying not to cry. (Shhh, this is universal.)
I say we leave the time-honored traditions on the jousting field.
You say: It’s a fun surprise! Shakes up your daily routine!
We Say: Is that what we need from dining? Seating surprises?
Let me put it this way: If you ordered a Coke and the server didn’t apologetically say “Is Pepsi okay?” but just brought you a Pepsi without giving you right of refusal, you would be irked. And I would be with you. We live in a society (for at least a few more days) and in a society we all have to follow rules.
Here’s the rule: It must be clear that communal seating is happening before someone accepts the host’s invitation to follow them to a table. Put it on a sign in cute fonts, advertise it on the website, but let people know that it’s all communal seating as soon as they say hello so as not to waste anyone’s time.
You say: You’re grumpy. This is casual and fun.
We say: There is nothing casual and fun about having to hear other people’s conversations and also trying not to listen and comment and hoping that you’re not saying anything that could be overheard and then used as the basis of a post on Medium about how actually everyone is very rude and bad, but also no one is ruder and badder than this person the poster sat next to at dinner (you) who they’re not going to name but like, if this post goes viral, it’s out of their hands.
“Okay,” you might be saying, “but what makes this so different than sitting at tables that are separated by only three inches of space?” I’ll tell you what’s different: It’s the theater of privacy. It’s the polite fiction that your world ends where your table does, and that means that you can be louder and freer and get more drunk and not worry about having people cut into your conversations because “I just couldn’t help overhearing.”
I mean, you could have, but you didn’t. And if we were sitting at separate tables you would have been too constrained by societal taboos to casually butt into a conversation about me finding a weird growth that might not be a mole to offer your own unsolicited advice on how to tell if it’s cancer. (It wasn’t, BTW.)
Also: Imagine if the guy I mentioned like 5,000 words ago, when we were all young and my editor wasn’t pinging me to say “This should really have taken you no more than an hour,” had been stood up and had to eat there by himself. Suddenly, my friend and I would have had to take on the role of his caretakers, listening to him talk about how this always happens or how this never happens and feigning that we don’t mind when he says “but I’m disturbing your dinner. Go ahead. Eat. I’m just going to reflect.”
There’s a happy end to that story, though: I have no idea whether the guy’s date showed up because my friend and I looked at each other, both shook our heads at the situation, and walked right on out of there. And I urge you to do the same. Will you look like a selfish egotistical monster who’s refusing to connect in a time when it’s needed most? Maybe. But also: who cares? You have one life. Don’t waste it on cafeteria-style dining unless you’re on a cruise ship. Or at a hospital. Or like at school, I guess? But certainly not when you’re paying hella money for a nice night out.