Land Of The Free, Home Of The Personal Bubble
Americans, more than people from any other place (besides maybe Siberia) have a huge need for personal space. Mainers specifically have a very large personal “bubble” and it makes sense. Those of us who grew up in Maine (especially the more rural parts) are used to having more trees than people around us, and that’s how we like it. Living in Portland forces us to compromise a little bit of personal space for easy access to great stores, a plethora of museums, and most importantly incredible food. When it comes to dining in Portland, those of us with a large personal bubble are feeling our space requirements tested yet again by an emerging restaurant trend, communal seating.
Find A Seat IF YOU DARE
Communal seating pairs the unmatched comfort of wooden picnic table benches with the added perk of awkwardly bumping elbows with someone you don’t know. A handful of Portland restaurants have adopted communal tables as an attempt to maximize the seating capacity of a small or awkwardly configured space. On a busy night, for example, you might be greeted by a hostess who, instead of showing you to your table, will point in the general direction of a communal table and say “find a seat if you can”. At this time you are expected to amble over to the table, examine it until you see an empty spot, then interrupt someone’s meal to ask them if it’s ok to sit there… and also if they will move over just a bit. Remember the gut-wrenching anxiety of school lunch in the cafeteria? It’s like that, but you’re paying a lot more.
Dining, Brady Bunch Style
The idea of communal seating seems like a great idea in theory, but so does communism. The truth of the situation is, no matter how many people are open to the idea of sharing their space, dining experience & personal conversation with strangers, there will always be someone who isn’t so cool with it. To put it in perspective, sitting at a communal table isn’t much different from sitting at the bar, (adding the potential for accidentally playing footsie with the stranger sitting across from you). With that said, people who like to keep their personal space bubble un-popped aren’t big fans of sitting at the bar for this very reason. Applying this logic, it makes sense that most restaurants have both bar seating and individual tables.
Party of 5…Plus That Guy
It’s not unheard of that a group of 8 friends go out to celebrate an occasion, the communal table is available, and everyone gets to sit together. This seems like a win-win situation until an elderly couple arrives and the hostess indicates that a few more seats are still available at the communal table. This elderly couple could easily be a mom with a small child, or a few nuns. Either way, welcoming some unexpected guests to the table means feeling obligated to sit closer together, keep conversations PG, maybe even politely answer obligatory questions from the new tablemates. No big deal for many, nightmare for some (me).
No matter how you spin it, communal seating isn’t for everyone, and will quickly deter some customers. This is why I strongly urge Portland restaurant owners to opt for filling their space with more small tables that can be easily moved or pushed together to accommodate larger groups. If the goal of your restaurant is in fact to encourage people to meet other people, make happy hour mixer-style by designating a section for standing, while setting apart a separate area for those of us who don’t go to restaurants to network, and would prefer to only bump elbows with the folks we arrived with.