Dinner With Strangers

Chefs in Chicago and beyond invite you to feast on community.
It’s the very heart of a feast: a long, strong wooden table, heaped with food and shared by friends and strangers alike. It conjures royal buffets, celebratory banquets — and one fantastically famous final supper.

Long a favorite with heads of state and heads of families, the communal table is increasingly winning over chefs and restaurateurs, who have a vested interest in accommodating a crowd. But what about American diners, who often order their entrees with a side of privacy?

Chefs in Chicago and beyond invite you to feast on community.

“Communal dining is a very European or international style of dining,” says Darren Tristano of food industry research and consulting firm Technomic. “It’s not as customary in the United States, because consumers can have a knee-jerk reaction to being so close to other individuals.”

But despite the reluctance of some diners to rub elbows with strangers, Tristano says communal dining is on the rise, particularly at cafes and coffee shops ― and at fine-dining restaurants as well, where it’s often offered alongside more traditional tables.

“Seating tends to not be totally communal, but just one of the options,” he says.

Such is the case at a handful of renowned restaurants in Chicago, including Asian fusion restaurant Sunda, convivial wine bar avec and beer-focused eatery the Publican, all of which offer communal tables.

At the Publican, helmed by celebrated chef Paul Kahan and designed by James Beard Award-winner Thomas Schlesser, a big walnut table “designed to recall 16th-century European banquets” encourages diners to sup side by side with up to 100 guests.

“We wanted to take communal dining and push it,” says Donnie Madia, partner at One Off Hospitality Group, which owns both avec and the Publican. “We went back to medieval times when people ate communally, in a more free-form style.”

Chefs in Chicago and beyond invite you to feast on community.

The Publican also offers private tables, including enclosed booths, but it’s the grand table at the center of the room that gives the restaurant its convivial vibe. “The table fills as the night goes on,” Madia says, and diners peer over at each other’s plates to see who’s eating what.

Next door at avec, which Madia fondly describes as “a little cult restaurant,” the communal tables are a bit smaller, seating around eight diners, but the tables are close together and encourage interaction among groups.

Communal dining is catching on among single diners and business travelers, who may be weary of dining solo and eager to make new acquaintances over dinner. But according to Tristano, there’s another group that’s even more enthusiastic about communal dining: millennials.

“It’s popular with the younger generation, who is going out and grazing,” Tristano says. “The millennial consumer is more engaged in the social aspect of group dinners.”

Which makes perfect sense when you consider how much of a 20-something’s life takes place in the embrace of social media — if you have 400 “friends,” why not dine out with 40 of them?

But no matter what generation a diner hails from, says Madia, it’s not the seating that makes or breaks a restaurant. “It’s about great service, great food and great wine,” he says.

Americans might be particular about privacy, but give them a warm welcome and a delicious meal, and they’ll sit darn near anywhere.