As much as diners like to gripe about communal seating, the arrangement apparently has staying power. First noted as a trend in 2006, new restaurants such as Belle Clementine - the subject of this week's review - are still putting strangers at the same table.
Although restaurateurs have theorized the concept is especially ill-suited to Seattle, where people aren't always warm and welcoming toward their friends, it's garnered hostile reactions from New York to Los Angeles. The complaints usually center on obnoxious table mates, the very issue I confronted during my first meal at David Sanford's restaurant.
As I wrote in my review, I appreciate restaurants with group seating can't screen their guests for compatibility. But I wondered just how I ended up between a party of outspoken Republicans and a party that apparently took a pre-dinner vow of silence. So I called Matt Dillon, the local progenitor of communal dining, to ask how he approaches seat assignments.
"It's kind of like Tetris, I guess," Dillon says. "We try to be really careful about party size."
At The Corson Building, there are three 10-person tables that have to be divvied up in such a way that guests can sit with the other members of their party. "It's pretty random," says Dillon, adding that restaurant staffers never research guests' backgrounds before making seating charts.
"We never get any requests," he says. "We did have a single guy once who wanted to be near women."
Nor does Dillon get any requests for seat changes once the meal has started, although he wishes diners would alert him when they're unhappy with their assignments.
"Oh God, I so wish," he says. "I tell people who end up calling later that if they'd just said something right then, I could have done something."
Dillon says he and his cooks are usually oblivious to the interpersonal dynamics that might be playing out in the dining room. It's impossible to tell from the kitchen that a guest is silently seething because a table mate won't stop cursing or chewing with his mouth open.
To avert ugly situations, Dillon outlines the evening's rules at its outset, urging guests to be aware of their neighbors. "Once I've said that, I feel totally OK (approaching guests)," Dillon says. "The biggest thing from a proprietor's standpoint is owning what you're doing."
But the responsibility for sorting out disagreements doesn't belong to the restaurant owner alone, Dillon says. If I was bothered by my table mate's admiration of Ronald Reagan, Dillon thinks I should have told him so (something I would have been far more likely to do if I wasn't dining anonymously: It's best not to start an argument when you're looking to remain incognito.)
"My observation is people are sort of passive-aggressive," Dillon says. "Why not say 'c'mon, can you cut it out? You're totally ruining my experience here.' Our control only goes so far, so it has to be up to customers to police themselves."
Sharing an eating surface seems to work at the bar, but diners bring different expectations to a dining room table, Dillon says. He likens the self-centered mindset of many communal diners to the mindset of aggravated drivers.
"I heard this guy on NPR saying how people will call WSDOT and tell them 'I'm really frustrated; I'm sitting in traffic'." he says. "They say 'you're not sitting in traffic, you are the traffic.' People forget their place and responsibilities. They're part of what a restaurant is."