Communal Dining: the New Normal

Eating with strangers is making a comeback.

Communal seating at SkinnyFats on Warm Springs Road.

Communal seating at SkinnyFats on Warm Springs Road. | Photo by Jon Estrada

As I sit at the new SkinnyFats on Warm Springs Road, waiting for my order from the “Healthy” menu to arrive, I can’t help noticing the quartet of strangers seated across the table from me. The two hipster chicks seem a little out of place with a slightly rougher looking couple. (The guy’s T-shirt reads: “Alcohol, tobacco and firearms should be a convenience store, not a government agency!”) And they’re really not making a lot of conversation. I soon stop sizing them up, and instead check out their food.

They’ve all clearly ordered from the “Happy” menu, making me question my order of grilled chicken and a Mr. Green cold-pressed juice. In the meantime, I overhear the conversation of my other tablemates, who are discussing the evening’s UFC event. Our group of five quickly grows into eight—prompting me to slide down a few spots to accommodate them. Sadly, I have nothing to add to either conversation, so I pull out my phone and answer some emails.

In many restaurants, sizing up your neighbors, eavesdropping on their conversations, ogling their food or ignoring tablemates in favor of your phone would be considered downright rude. It seems a bit more acceptable, however, when you’re sharing a table with strangers.

Communal dining is a concept that’s probably gone in and out of vogue since the beginning of restaurants. Over the past year, however, communal tables have exploded in popularity in Las Vegas. The night after my visit to SkinnyFats, my wife and I sat at a massive table in Downtown Summerlin’s Wolfgang Puck Bar & Grill made out of wood salvaged from an Arizona bowling alley. You’ll find similar tables at recently opened hot spots including Hearthstone Kitchen & Cellar, Yardbird Southern Table & Bar, Bazaar Meat and the new Border Grill.

Group tables often don’t accept reservations, but they do serve many purposes. They accommodate last-minute diners in restaurants that are otherwise booked. They offer single diners who want some social interaction a chance to meet new people. And they allow the size of your party to fluctuate over the course of the evening. In other words, you get all of the convenience of eating at the bar, but in a more comfortable and formal setting.

When Wolfgang Puck experimented with the concept at his MGM restaurant, that single table was tucked into the back of the dining area. Managing partner Tom Kaplan says it was a big gamble to bring two of them (the bowling alley table and a high-top that’s practically inside the open kitchen) to Downtown Summerlin.

“We kind of suspected it might be uncomfortable for people in the suburbs [to sit with strangers],” Kaplan says. “But by putting one in front of the fire, with one side facing the kitchen and the other facing the dining room, we made that whole table one that we don’t reserve. So if you come in without a reservation and don’t want to wait, we can sit you there. You may have to sit next to somebody you don’t know. But most of the time people are fine with it; it fills up pretty quickly.”

Border Grill’s Susan Feniger first incorporated communal tables at her L.A. spot Mud Hen Tavern to accommodate a niece and nephew who wanted the freedom to “start [dinner] with a group of four, but then friends come, and you grow into a group of like 12 people.” But she’s also found that communal tables appeal to single diners. “People will come in with their computer and sit there,” she says. “And then two other people join. And then they end up talking. It’s such a great way to socialize.”

So the next time you see my mohawk at a communal table, feel free to pull up a chair and join me. Or maybe even find someone who’s a more pleasant dinner companion!


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