A couple of weeks ago, I found myself at the famed Blue Hill at Stone Barns in upstate New York. I was seated at a long, wooden communal table with 30-plus people in the food and wine industry, only some of whom I knew. The table was festooned with gorgeous floral arrangements--anemones, deep plum artichokes, and succulents--one of which was plunked right in front of me. At first I was delighted. Then the DIY tacos arrived: a plate piled with smoked shrimp, pickled mussels, and an untold number of condiments, all totally blocked by that beautiful arrangement. I couldn't assemble my taco without reaching rudely in front of my neighbors and getting out of my seat. My dream was becoming a communal table nightmare.
This shared dining arrangement has found its way into restaurants all over the country, from Son of a Gun in Los Angeles to Amis in Philadelphia. Some restaurants make it the only seating option; others center a communal table among other two- and four-tops. Either way, if you eat at cool new restaurants (like we tend to), you will one day find yourself sitting next to strangers at a huge table. And it can be downright stressful. But there is a way to do it right. Here's how:
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1. Won't you be my neighbor?
Communal tables can be awkward at first--most people aren't sure if they should acknowledge the diners seated next to or across from them. The answer is yes, you definitely should (don't be a jerk). A nice gesture breaks the ice a little bit and makes the whole experience a lot more comfortable. And that occasional shoulder bump? Don't worry about it, it's all part of the communal vibe.
2. Live by the Airplane Rule
Yes, it's polite to acknowledge the person sitting next to you--but don't assume he wants to chat through dinner. In fact, he definitely doesn't. Most people go to restaurants with specific people they'd like to experience the meal with, and an unexpected dining partner is usually an unwelcome addition to the group. It's like sitting next to somebody on an airplane: if they keep uh-huh-ing you, they probably want you to shut up.
3. Careful what you say
At any communal table, there's a risk of conversations being overheard. You don't want the people next to you hearing about your terrible credit score or your friend's weird rash that she picked up in Tijuana. If you want to talk about something sensitive, go somewhere with nice, cozy two-tops.
4. Mark your territory
One of the cardinal sins of communal eating: using another diner's silverware, or worse, sipping from a stranger's water glass. Gross. When you sit down, pull everything a little closer to you so you'll be inclined to go for your own fork or napkin when you're deep in conversation--and deep into your second bottle of wine.
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5. Too much on your plate
Don't let your plates or your food spill over into someone else's dining space. That ain't cool. If you're ordering a lot of food, ask for the dishes to come in waves rather than all at once. And if you find someone else's dinner creeping into yours, it's totally fair game to take a nibble.
6. Avoid that centerpiece
After a few minutes of shifting uncomfortably in my seat at Blue Hill (and watching all those beautiful taco fixings disappear), I asked my neighbor to assemble my taco for me, directing her to, yes, add a dash of the watermelon hot sauce--no mussels, though, thanks. And forget about seconds. So when your dining experience is wholly communal--seating arrangement, shared plates, bottles of wine rather than glasses placed in front of you--do everything in your power to snag a seat unencumbered by decorations. Of course, at a place like Blue Hill, where the flowers might be artichokes, you can just eat the inconvenient arrangement.
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