Shared space and the Austin dining experience
"I hope you brought some nuclear codes or state secrets to share today," I grumbled as my friend joined me for lunch at the communal table at Elizabeth Street Cafe. "Because this is certainly the place for it." In the midst of that crowded luncheon, privacy was completely off the table because we were surrounded on both sides by fellow diners similarly striving to converse sotto voce so as not to disturb those around them.
Think of all the places where you wind up sitting next to strangers. Airplanes. Buses. The waiting room at the doctor's office. What do all of these spaces have in common? Dread. Anxiety. The feeling of just wanting to get things over with so you can move on with your life. On the flip side, dining out is a social act, involving the conscious decision to go out with other people for the purposes of enjoying a meal in each other's company, an escape from the daily pressures of life. When people dine out, they are in a bubble of their own making, and the boundaries of commensality – fellowship at table – don't extend beyond that bubble. So what happens when you take the discomfort of sitting among strangers and place it in the dining-out context?
Communal tables have long been part of the dining-out landscape, especially in casual contexts like barbecue joints and food trailers, and in high-density urban areas like New York, but only in the past few years have they become part of the ethos of trendy restaurants. More than just maximizing space and ensuring that as many seats as possible are paying rent, so to speak, communal dining is increasingly stitched into the fabric of the identities of Austin eateries. The question is, then: Is it possible for communal tables and space-loving diners to peacefully coexist?
Curious about others' attitudes toward communal dining, I sent out a query into the social media airspace. "Do you like to dine out?" I asked. "Do you have opinions about communal tables?" The overwhelming response from people, from Austin to Boston to Seattle to Flagstaff, was "Hate 'em!" "Generally when I go out to eat I want to have fun with the person I came with, not be forced into conversation with the person next to me," replied food blogger Megan Myers. "I find communal dining awkward," agreed Shelley Lucas. "Too much pressure to interact and I feel like an anti-social ass if I don't." Nelly Ramirez summed it up thusly: "You gotta be in the right mood. [I] sometimes find myself opting out of a restaurant if the mood ain't there." In short, in order to fully experience and enjoy communal dining at a restaurant, you've got to know what you're getting yourself into.
"Here, people feel unfettered. You'll often see people holding their hands over their food, blessing it," says Eduardo "Wayo" Longoria of Casa de Luz, the South Austin community center and macrobiotic restaurant. "You'll see mothers nursing. You'll see children playing unobtrusively. Here, children aren't expected to sit at a table, unmoving."
Once a meatpacking plant, Casa de Luz has served as an oasis for those seeking alternative therapies for catastrophic illnesses and other holistic approaches to health. Everything is communal in the dining room, from the seating at the large wooden tables to the menu, which features a lovingly curated and generously portioned plate of organic legumes, greens, and nuts on a daily basis. The idea behind this setup is to maximize the healing properties of food within a peaceful community setting just oozing good karma.
"Food has its own vibration, and if everybody's eating the same food, it helps to vibrate the same way," explains Longoria. "Eating is the most intimate relationship we have, bar none. We do it three times a day, most of us, and the food becomes part of us. And that's a sacred act. So I think of our food as a holy host." For Longoria, and Casa de Luz by extension, communal dining is imperative to people's health and very survival. "We don't have anything in this life if not for the input of many, many different people," he says.
Culturally, we are a people accustomed to having elbow room, from our oversized homes with matching lawns to our sprawling movie seats that we colonize through the strategic use of armrests and enormous cups of soda. Europe, with its postage-stamp sized countries and even smaller hotel rooms, presents a conundrum to Americans unfamiliar with having to share less than six square inches of personal space in any given public area.
Before Amy Ramirez was a restaurant owner, she was a flight attendant, a career that frequently took her to Europe, where she observed people eating at communal tables, drinking wine and meeting people. "To me, that's what the dining experience should be," she explains. So, when she envisioned what Blue Dahlia, her Eastside French bistro that now also boasts a Westlake location, would look like, one thing went without question.
"When we opened this place, I wanted to have that French farmhouse feel with the long tables where people could sit next to each other and talk and promote a sense of community," says Ramirez. "And it has been such a trip to watch Americans freak out at having to sit next to somebody and then watch the whole progression from being weirded out to asking to pass the pepper to forming real relationships."
Similarly, when restaurateur Larry McGuire was developing Elizabeth Street Cafe, the impeccably appointed Vietnamese bistro that features a cozy reading-nook style communal table complete with comfy pillows, versatility and a feeling of community were paramount. "We took over Bouldin Creek Coffeehouse, which is kind of a neighborhood institution," he explains. "People knew how to use the space already, it was kind of the hangout for the 'hood, and we wanted to keep that energy. We get a bunch of national newspapers and keep them by the communal table in order to keep that coffee-shop feel." What's more, he continues, the communal table is a natural fit for the concept because "Vietnamese food is meant to be shared and enjoyed at a slower pace."
Where the communal-table ethos of Blue Dahlia and Elizabeth Street Cafe wed a feeling of community with urbane internationality, both Barley Swine and Contigo rely on harnessing current trends – namely small plates and an emphasis on seasonal foods and artisanal meats – in order to get butts in communal seats.
Barley Swine opened in December 2010 on the strength of chef-owner Bryce Gilmore's success with his now-hibernating Odd Duck food trailer. The microscopic restaurant, nestled in a once run-down shopping strip on South Lamar, opened with a mere 34 seats, all communal; Gilmore recently added eight more to help mitigate long wait times.
A few dozen communal seats is a ballsy move, but it was a decision that informs the entire dining experience at Barley Swine. "We did it out of necessity because it's such a small space," says Gilmore, who also argues that the seating arrangement adds to the atmosphere and encourages sharing of the small plates and large-format bottled beers and bottles of wine. "People in Austin are friendly and fun to hang out with, so why wouldn't they get along? When you get together and eat, it shouldn't always be just about filling up. It's a social thing, to be around people you enjoy and have fun."
At Barley Swine you might just wind up sharing your grilled pig face with the likes of Anthony Bourdain or Padma Lakshmi, yet there are many ardent foodies who hate the idea of being shoehorned in the middle of a six- or eight-top in a small, loud room. "I just want a quiet meal sometimes," said one respondent to my highly unscientific poll. Another aptly stated, "If I wanted a party, I'd throw one."
Meanwhile at Contigo, it is the laid-back, backyard-party atmosphere that makes it the most successful communal dining experience in town. The reasonable price point (co-owner Ben Edgerton made it a point to keep all of the cocktail prices under $10; the food is similarly affordable, with the most expensive entrees hovering around the $15 mark) paired with the wide-open ranch-style atmosphere lends itself perfectly to just hanging out with friends both old and new. Maybe people just need to be able to see the sky when they're sharing space with strangers.
"We wanted to be a community space, to serve the people in our community," says Edgerton. "Our main goal from the outset has been to create a space where people can share experiences with their friends and loved ones and come away with something from that." Contigo has certainly succeeded in that regard; in just a year of operation, it has become the go-to watering hole for a diverse range of nearby residents, from Cherrywood hipsters to Mueller families to Windsor Park gentrifiers.
For Edgerton, to fully enjoy communal dining is to take the restaurant on its terms and trust in the experience. "We committed to the outdoor thing, and we can't be more than that. The long tables [are] what we do. You came here because you know who we are and you wanted to experience our thing.
"The reason we don't sit home and eat hard-boiled eggs and we come out and enjoy really good food is the experience of sharing it with other people and enjoying it as a community. If all you're focused on is how the food tastes in your mouth, you have completely missed what we're trying to do here."
Whether diners are seeking healing or intimacy or a few hours spent in good company, it is possible to do it with strangers – or, depending how you look at it, friends you haven't met yet – at your elbow. It's as easy as smiling and saying hello ... but only if you want to.
Casa de Luz: 1701 Toomey Rd., www.casadeluz.org
Blue Dahlia: 1115 E. 11th, www.bluedahliabistro.com
Elizabeth Street Cafe: 1501 S. First, www.elizabethstreetcafe.com
Barley Swine: 2024 S. Lamar, www.barleyswine.com
Contigo: 2027 Anchor Ln., www.contigotexas.com