Gather Round the Table

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.

In the late 90s, Greg and I ran a communal dining group for about a year. Known as “Gothic Diners” the monthly dinners were open to members of a local Goth community-based mailing list. We’d pick a restaurant and people would come out to dinner, usually dressed in their Goth finery. It was fun until people stiffed us on the bill a couple of times, and it did suffer from the one thing that scares people about communal dining the most – the weirdo factor. Between the whiny guy and his (creepy) mirror image girlfriend, and the US heiress who manipulated the conversation bragging about how much money her family had, the dinners did start to get a little tedious. But when there was a good mix of people genuinely interested in the food, and in making the event a success, we usually had a great time.

Good planning is invariably the key. In the case of , a bi-monthly dining event hosted by Karen Viva-Haynes of Viva Tastings in her industrial kitchen (located in the basement of her house), the plan is more organic. Viva-Haynes plans a menu, and guests must know her or someone involved in her business to get an invite, but  the booze is BYOB and the evening feels more like a casual kitchen party. Viva-Haynes and her staff prepare the various courses while talking to the guests, and it feels, just as it actually is, like a dinner party in someone’s home.

On the opposite end of the spectrum is Charlie’s Burgers, an anti-restaurant that changes chefs and locations each month, requires guests to fill out a questionnaire before being accepted, and is orchestrated down to the last detail so that guests have a complete dining experience to rave about to their friends and other envious foodies.

Somewhere in between these are events like the Harvest Wednesdays series at the Gladstone Hotel where Chef Marc Breton creates a seasonal meal based on the weekly allotment from a local CSA. Many of the dinners are regular “restaurant reservation for 2″ type deals but at least one or two each season are big harvest feasts where dishes are served family-style and people are seated communally, since the point of a harvest feast is meant to be a community-oriented event.

The most interesting communal meal I’ve taken part in recently was the Eat the Street event where kids from Parkdale Public School visited local restaurants to review them as part of a performance art series. If you think it’s unnerving to sit down with a table of strangers to eat dinner, imagine everyone else at the meal being under 13.

Ultimately, the communal dining experience may not be for everyone. It’s about the shared experience and meeting new people more than it’s really about the food, and it requires diners who are willing to approach the experience with an open mind and a lot of respect for the people they’ll be dining with. But for those who love trying new food and meeting new people, it can be a really wonderful time.

Having attended dozens of communal meals in my experience as both a food writer and a dining group organizer, I can think of only a few that left me unhappy. Usually I come home very pleased with the meal, the people I’ve met and the experience in general.

If you decide to check out some of the communal dining events in Toronto, here’s a few tips…

  • Follow the instructions laid out by the organizer in terms of payments, cancellations, etc. Don’t try to question or argue their organizational methods. Getting 20 or so strangers together for dinner is the ultimate “herding cats” experience and likely the rules they have put in place are there for a reason.
  • Show up on time, or call if you’re going to be late or have to cancel. Otherwise there might be 20 starving (and unhappy) people sitting around waiting for you.
  • If they have a “no refunds” policy for cancellations and you have to cancel, suck it up. It’s not their fault you had a personal emergency.
  • If you have food allergies or dislikes, know what’s being served beforehand – don’t go if you can’t/won’t eat what will be on the plate. This is not the type of situation where you can ask for substitutions.
  • No perfume!!! At all. Ever. Seriously. Don’t make me say this again.
  • Talk to people on either side of you equally. Don’t manipilate the conversation. Don’t talk politics or religion.
  • If you’re paying for the meal after you’ve eaten, don’t stiff the group on the bill. If you’re dining at a “pay what you can” event, don’t stiff the chef.
  • If you’re taking photos of the meal/event, ask the other diners for permission to take their photo before doing so. Ask permission before posting their pictures to the internet. (Again, I really mean this!)
  • Be open-minded about the whole thing. At worst, it’s 3 hours of your life you’ll never get back – or-  it could be the best experience you’ve ever had. Attitude is everything.