A recent “innovation” in casual dining is the “community table.” This is a designated table, usually a long table capable of accommodating 8 to 10 diners, placed in an accessible portion of a restaurant. The avowed purpose of the community table is to provide a space for unaccompanied diners to sit and the idea may have arisen from the need for an eating establishment to make efficient use of space while maintaining a welcoming presence for all potential customers.
While the initial purpose may have been efficiency and increase of profits, the community table has become much more and actually performs a necessary function in today’s digital world. It is a social idea; in fact, one could say that a community table is “in-person social media” as it brings strangers together in real time to make contact with each other. The community table may benefit restaurants by saving space and customers, but its greater benefit is in its community impact. In a world where it is sometimes too easy to become isolated, the community table allows one to enter a place alone and still experience human contact and engage in conversation. That conversation may be intense or superficial, but its importance lies in its availability and its potential. Community table diners may chat briefly and exit, never to have contact again, or they may develop long-term relationships; they may find themselves meeting at that table on a semi-regular basis; or they may learn something in a supposedly-casual conversation that stays with them forever.
It is that potential that is exciting. It is that contact that is essentially human.
The community table is perhaps an indicator of modern isolation, but it is also an indicator of the continuing need of humans to have contact with other humans. As a social tool, it is both a safety line and a relief valve – if a person feels isolated from the world because of work hours or family issues, the community table provides a place to make contact with others.
The proof that such contact is important for humans is evident from the proliferation of social media. It is popular to decry social media as portending the decay of personal relationships and the advent of the solitary life. Although there are, undoubtedly, some who use social media as a substitute for personal contact, the evidence suggests that most users of social media are more connected, on a daily basis, to more people than they were before social media became popular. It is now possible for friends and family, who are widely separated by distance, to have daily chats and share photos of loved ones readily. It is possible to meet and discuss issues with more people than one could expect to meet in the usual course of life. This ability actually allows, rather than restricts, closer interaction and dialogue. It is, in fact, possible that the ability to be in touch with many people on a daily basis has become a daily requirement – a need that is filled by the community table.
The importance of the community table in today’s society rests on the ancient tradition of “breaking bread” – of meeting together to share food. The importance of sharing food is a constant element of most events where people gather. When humans share food, they also share personal space. They trade stories and allow themselves to be vulnerable to each other. The intimacy of sharing food is tacit proof that people need to share themselves with others. By sharing food, we also share common bonds of humanity and acknowledge our “same-ness” with each other. It is not by chance that religious communities often host “potluck” dinners and that pre-lecture receptions feature foods that can be eaten while mingling and talking – it is the same impulse that underlies all holiday dinners and family gatherings. When we share food, we share ourselves.
Expand your world: next time you stop by a casual restaurant for a cup of your favorite drink and a quick bite, consider sitting at the community table. Make personal contact with someone you don’t know; then, revisit our blog and share your experience here.