I haven’t met anyone who isn’t just a little bit sceptical of the communal dining trend, except perhaps restaurateurs who have added a communal table in the hopes of using it for either large groups or stragglers. For most of us, our inclination when going out to eat is to dine and talk with the people we came with. Strangers can be, well… strange, and dining with people we don’t know – people who might have odd table manners, or smell funny, or natter on and on about some topic we have no interest in – can make an otherwise lovely evening turn out to be a bust.
Communal dining isn’t a new idea, though, it’s as old as the discovery of fire when prehistoric man gathered round a single heat source to cook food. Even without the restaurant trend, it exists today in the form of dinner parties, bed and breakfasts,wedding banquets and office lunches. We eat together to celebrate an occasion, to get to know one another, to strengthen bonds. And often we find ourselves eating with people who start out as strangers but who are friends, or at least acquaintances, by the time dessert is cleared.
Despite being a curmudgeon and a bit of a misanthrope, I find myself at a communal table at least once a month, often more. Most of the time, the dinners I attend are comprised of other food writers; colleagues who have been invited to cover the event or a specific product. But I’ve also been to plenty of dinners that are purely social, because I am interested in the food, or the experience.
It was a dark and stormy night. As the rain poured down and the wind battered our umbrellas, we opened the newspaper box and pulled out an envelope bearing our name. After opening the letter and reading the instructions, we placed $220 in the envelope, walked a block or so west and headed down a darkened laneway, then a steep flight of stairs. We knocked and a small window in the door opened. “What’s the password?” a burly face asked. “We’re here to see Charlie,” I replied, a quiver of fear and anticipation in my voice. The door swung open. The man took our envelope of cash and directed us down a hallway where we entered a room revealing a scene like something out of an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel. The champagne was flowing, the band was playing, and everywhere we turned, gastronomic delights were spread across tables for the taking.
Okay… not quite. The evening was sunny and mild, the room was a brightly lit west-end gallery space, and (thankfully) no pretentious password was required to get in. Comparisons to a 1920s speakeasy aren’t far off when talking about how to get into an event in Toronto’s underground restaurant scene, but it’s actually much more subdued and cultivated – the emphasis being on great food and drink more than anything else.