Shared space 

Communal dining in Atlanta and the issue of personal space

EATING WITH STRANGERS: The communal tables at Antico Pizza

James Camp

EATING WITH STRANGERS: The communal tables at Antico Pizza

Back in the '70s, there was a wildly popular, tiny Italian restaurant on Peachtree called Gianni's. Owners Maria D'Orsi and her husband, Gianni, brought many Atlantans their first taste of cooking from Naples.

The restaurant was so popular that waits for one of the six or so tables could last a few hours. Maria always tried to speed things up by insisting that strangers share tables. I'm introverted, to say the least, so Maria might as well have asked me to eat ground glass.

That was my first experience of what, on a grander scale, came to be called the "communal table." Later, I encountered long communal tables where strangers not only shared space but food. Some examples of this were the original LaPrade's on Lake Burton and the Smith House in Dahlonega. The classic Southern food was great. Listening to the person next to me rant about welfare queens was not.

The usual description of this kind of dining is "family-style" since food is passed around for sharing. One variation of that now is the chef's table, where, by reservation, the chef serves diners unique off-the-menu dishes. So-called underground supper clubs and ethnic culinary tours bring strangers together at common tables, too.

But now the more usual communal table is simply a long table (or tables barely separated) where diners negotiate their distance from others and order separately. In some informal restaurants — HD1, the Crawfish Shack, Parish Market, and Flip, for example — this is the main seating. Presumably, it's about efficient use of space.

If you want to see communal seating taken to a banquet-hall extreme, visit Antico Pizza on a busy night. The wood table up front long ago gave way to cafeteria-like tables in a huge space in the back where the ovens are located. It you can't find a spot at the tables, too bad. You'll be eating off a stack of boxes.

While communal tables have appeared in numerous upper-end restaurants, they don't seem to have really caught on. Miller Union is an example. When the restaurant opened, it included three communal tables where strangers might be seated. Now, according to a restaurant employee, there is only one such table and it's almost exclusively used by reservation for large parties. The new Spence has a communal table, but it's mainly used in the same way as Miller Union.

The only truly communal tables that don't make me uncomfortable are those at Starbucks. But there I have refuge from conversation I don't want by way of my laptop. In other words, I get to control my "social distance," as the weird science of proxemics refers to the literal and psychological space typically maintained between people in different circumstances.

I've long observed that sitting knee-to-knee with strangers in Paris bistros and Sevilla tapas bars seems usual there and — our experiment with communal tables notwithstanding — exceedingly challenging to most Americans. According to research, it's because Western Europe and even more so South America have significantly narrower definitions of social distance.

It has often seemed to me that communal tables also reflect a romanticized ideal, the belief that people automatically bond over exceptionally good food. There's some truth to that, certainly, but I've also found the experience sometimes tedious in that everyone's on their best behavior. Conversation often feels stilted and mostly limited to food — at least before the wine is half-consumed.

Despite my experience at LaPrade's, Southerners have a long-standing code of manners that regulates conversation. I remember years ago, when I was editing a newspaper in rural Georgia, going to a homecoming "dinner on the grounds" of a Baptist church. Conversation turned to the mayor, who was the principal landlord in a black neighborhood of shacks without plumbing. I made reference to his racism and I might as well have nailed Jesus to the cross on the premises. "Mr. Cliff, we don't talk about things like that in public," the paper's 80-year-old gossip columnist later told me.

Communal tables are not usually about diversity, especially now. Piles of research note that during bad economic times, social distance becomes particularly exclusionary, with hierarchies entrenching themselves. That likely means communal tables, especially those with special menus in upper-end venues, will become even more dominated by the privileged class. However, even they are dining out and spending less.

But that's also why comparatively inexpensive restaurants like the Crawfish Shack and Parish Market do fine with communal tables, as do many ethnic restaurants along Buford Highway. They aren't courting the big dollar and the ethnic spots are often aimed at family dining. You mingle with a much more diverse crowd at the Crawfish Shack than at Miller Union.

One of the few silver linings of the Great Recession is a measurable increase in the number of American families who are dining together at home — even when teenagers beg to eat alone in their rooms. The value of this is well-known. Time will tell if spontaneous dining with strangers ever takes off in Atlanta.

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