Minnesotans appear to be thawing out.
In restaurants, anyway, where diners are slowly but surely embracing the communal dining table.
Dropping their chilly, arm’s-length practices, complete strangers are now willingly sitting next to one another — and testing the boundaries of their well-guarded personal space — as they enjoy a meal.
With solo diners, couples and groups all gathering around mammoth tables and counters at restaurants across the metro area, Twin Citians seem to be catching up with the way the rest of the world dines.
“In California, it’s the norm,” said architect David Shea of Shea Inc. in Minneapolis, which designs restaurants all over the country. “Up and down the East Coast, too. In New York, it’s a given that we’ll include a social table. It’s all about socializing, about talking about the food you’re eating and the drinks you’re drinking. I’ve been pushing socialization as a part of dining for as long I’ve been at this, and that’s 40 years.”
This newfound acceptance is part of a larger trend, where dining out is becoming more and more casual.
“As quick service becomes more popular, I think it’s a natural for people to come in, grab a seat next to someone they don’t know, and eat,” said Patti Soskin, owner of Yum! Kitchen and Bakery in St. Louis Park and Minnetonka, and the proud owner of 12-seat communal tables at both locations. “It gets to be like ‘Cheers,’ where everybody knows everybody, and you turn to the person next to you and say, ‘What are you eating?’ or ‘That looks really good — tell me about it.’?”
Let’s just say that it has taken years for standoffish Minnesotans to become comfortable with the close social proximity that communal tables dictate. To characterize early iterations as belly flops is an understatement.
A near ancient example — we’re talking the mid-1990s here — was a 12-seater that Shea installed at Tejas in Edina.
“There would be two people seated at one end, and two at the other, and no one would sit in between,” he said. “We finally broke it apart, made multiple tables and set them a few inches apart from one another, and that seemed to work just fine.”
Now enjoying a well-earned retirement, Lucia Watson recalls her ill-fated decision to install a communal table in the bakery/cafe she opened next door to her eponymous Uptown restaurant in 2005. She’d recently encountered a shared table experience at a popular restaurant in Santa Fe, N.M., and wanted to import the idea north.
“I put it in the front window, the most desirable place in the room,” she said. “And no one would sit there.”
Thinking that a short explanation might help, Watson placed small signs on the table that tapped into the Minnesota mind-set. They read, “Communal table (really scary!).”
Humor aside, the helpful signage enticed few into taking a seat.
“People would take one look at it and say, ‘Yep, not sitting there,’” Watson said. “The place would be packed, and there would be one person at the communal table, and people could come up to me and say, ‘There’s nowhere to sit.’”
Which is why Watson’s informal sociology experiment petered out after a few months.
“Finally, we decided to stop beating ourselves up over it,” she said. “The staff was humoring me, but honestly, they were probably saying to each other, ‘When are we going to get rid of that thing?’”
But later that year, an encouraging crack formed in the ice. Soskin installed a Carrara marble-topped communal table in her St. Louis Park restaurant. Unlike Watson’s venture, it immediately caught on.
“When we first opened, we only had 37 seats,” she said. “People sat there because there was nowhere else to sit. But right off the bat, people started going there, no matter how empty the restaurant was.”
Now there are regulars who will sit nowhere else.
“There’s a couple from Roseville, they’re in their 80s,” Soskin said. “They drive here once a week and sit in the center of the table, and talk to everybody.”
KITCHEN COUNTER ANTECEDENTS
Several forces appear to have raised the communal table comfort levels among skeptical Minnesotans.
One is the burgeoning taproom phenomenon. Many follow the Munich beer hall model, with guests congregating at long tables.
The apotheosis is the gigantic beer hall at Surly Brewing Co. in southeast Minneapolis. With thousands of beer lovers swarming the place on a weekly basis, Surly has probably accomplished more than any other venue in acclimating locals on the whole shared-table thing.
“It’s based on a European beer hall, and it just seemed the right way to do it, to get people to come together,” said owner Omar Ansari. “Besides, beer helps to get the conversation going.”
Another brand of communal table starter kit is the kitchen counter, where diners who might not necessarily know one another are placed together at the restaurant equivalent of front-row seats.
In Minneapolis, the kitchen counter has taken hold at Corner Table, the Kenwood, Spoon and Stable, Tilia, Borough and Tenant. Its most popular iteration is probably the 20-seat pasta bar at Bar La Grassa in the city’s North Loop.
“People like watching the cooks at work,” said co-owner Nancy St. Pierre. “There’s a kind of behind-the-scenes feeling to it, and a little bit of theater. Extroverts like the communal style of eating, but the pasta bar, where so much of the focus is looking straight ahead and watching all that hubbub, is more the style of introverts like me.”
One place where communal dining is all the rage — but the restaurant’s highly interactive format is the opposite of counter service — is seven-year-old Travail Kitchen and Amusements in Robbinsdale, which specializes in 20-plus-course tasting menu extravaganzas.
“We built the restaurant around the way that we like to eat,” said co-chef and co-owner Mike Brown. “We think it feels good for people to enjoy something together, and share their reactions with one another. We like that energy, that connection.”
A communal table at Walker Art Center’s Esker Grove restaurant serves dual purposes: It creates a division between the bar and the dining room, and operates as an overflow seating area.
General manager Kim Tong said the table isn’t a draw for day-to-day clientele (“it’s the least desirable table,” she said), but it’s a big hit for museumgoers who surge into the restaurant after a performance, screening or exhibition.
“We’ll fill it up, completely, and that’s when you see the conversations going back and forth, even though they might not know one another,” she said. “That’s pretty cool.”
TWO TOP EXPERIENCES?
Locally, the pinnacle communal dining experiences can be found at Young Joni and the Lynhall.
The former, in northeast Minneapolis, has a traditional dining area but also includes extensive counters plus a front-and-center community table that chef/co-owner Ann Kim reserves for walk-ins.
“The whole thing was very calculated, very intentional,” she said. “Originally, everything was going to be communal, but then I thought, ‘Whoa, that might be a little too much.’?”
That the restaurant is arguably the region’s toughest reservation is an obvious endorsement of its communal aspects.
“People are meeting, and sharing pizzas, and it’s exactly what I envisioned,” Kim said. “But did I think it was going to happen? I was nervous. This is Minnesota, after all. But I think it’s up to restaurants like ours to push that boundary and say that not only is it OK, but it can actually be fun to eat this way.”
Lynhall owner Annie Spaeth insisted on making shared tables the predominant format in her south Minneapolis restaurant after spending five years living in London.
“I didn’t know anyone,” she said. “So I would walk into these beautiful neighborhood gastropubs, sit down at a long table, and I knew that I was welcome to strike up a conversation with a total stranger.”
Now, she looks across her crowded eight-month-old restaurant and sees hipsters talking to grandparents, and a sea of daytime laptops replaced by families — or families of friends — huddled around roast chicken dinners.
“It’s very much what I intended,” said Spaeth. “Our communal tables are a wonderful place for all sorts of generations to gather together. It gives me the utmost faith in the human spirit and human connectivity.”
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Credit: Jess Rapfogel/AP