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Is Communal Dining On The Wane?

By Anthony Todd in Food on Jun 11, 2013 3:10PM

The dining room at Elizabeth, before the changes. Via Facebook.

Communal dining is one of the more divisive topics among dining nerds. It builds community or it's incredibly annoying. It helps you meet new people or it's an invasion of privacy. It's a chance to learn or it's an opportunity for random people to breathe onto your soup. What's the real story?

Elizabeth, one of the most high-profile communal dining restaurants, just announced that they are giving up communal seating. From the beginning, Elizabeth has seated guests at long tables and served their multi-course, beautiful meals in phases, waiting until an entire group of guests has arrived to begin the show. This ruffled some feathers, and finally Chef Iliana Regan has given up on the idea.

In a conversation on Twitter with Tribune Reporter Mark Caro, Regan had the following to say.

In their newsletter, Regan wrote of the choice to eliminate communal seating, "We are fine tuning Elizabeth to create a more diginified dining experience." Is this a good thing?

We mostly enjoyed our communal dining experience at Elizabeth, but Chicago Magazine critic Jeff Ruby had an entirely different experience, as he was seated with people he didn't like and bombarded with bad conversation. "On the whole, however, communal dining isn't one of our favorite trends.

Part of what you are paying for when you purchase a meal at a restaurant is space. The common joke of New York diners to explain the high prices of their food is that you're actually renting a 3-foot by 5-foot square of New York real estate, and the same is true to some extent in Chicago. Privacy is key, especially for a romantic meal, and the potential for long, intimate conversations is one of the most wonderful things about the liminal nether-world of fine dining. On the other hand, maybe we're just anti-social. Some people seem to love the randomness of communal seating, the potential to meet new friends and exchange stories.

One of the often-overlooked aspects of the choice to go communal or not is the community that your restaurant tends to attract. At the dear, departed City Provisions, communal seating inevitably led to great conversation, fun and new friends. Why? We all had in common the fact that we loved City Provisions, cared about local food and, usually, lived in the neighborhood—more than enough to keep a conversation going for a few hours. When a restaurant like Elizabeth draws people from all over the city, that critical mass of common consciousness may be more difficult to achieve. Random strangers may find something to talk about or, more often, may end up trying to awkwardly have private conversations while seated at the same table with others, something that we simply aren't socially programmed to do.

There also is a price component to the quality of communal dining. Perhaps those individuals who are able (or inclined) to spend hundreds of dollars on a complex and high-quality meal are exactly those individuals who don't want to deal with the unwashed masses. Just try to envision Alinea announcing it was going communal and you'll get the picture. At a slightly more down-market spot like Avec, no one is outraged by the fact that they are seated cheek-to-jowl with other diners, but at Elizabeth prices? Some people want the illusion of privacy created by that 6-inch gap between tables.

We had several unfortunate experiences recommending Elizabeth to friends, especially those who were over fifty. They universally loved the food, but always found the environment unappealing. They just couldn't reconcile the idea of fine dining with the idea of tables that made them feel like they were in a cafeteria.

In any event, the communal fine-dining experiment that was Elizabeth is over. The restaurant will continue to be amazing, we're sure, and the switch to private tables will likely appease some pickier diners. Will we see another communal fine dining restaurant anytime soon? We doubt it.