How a concept as old as civilisation is fast becoming the go-to antidote for one of the modern-day malady now called “loneliness epidemic'.
By Madhulika Dash
For as long as one can remember, the distinction of table setting was clear: restaurants were all about different table settings and included a special segment called the Private Dining Area or Reserve or PDR; while cafeterias and canteens were notorious about the common table or community table with a first come first seat basis.
It was rare that the setting style intertwined.
Yet, post pandemic, there seems to be a blurring of the lines. While cafeterias are routing towards smaller tables, restaurants and cafes are turning towards a community table – yes, one of the long tables that cannot be reserved. So what is causing this change of tide?
While a few will call it the rise of the casual eating culture where not only platters are shared but tables as well, others would call it the cafe effect that came from the likes of Starbucks, and designers would see it as space economics. When you put a single longish table, it makes the space look cosier while creating the perception of being more seating than actual, says seasoned interior designer Sandeep Singh.
The One Long Table
As for the seasoned hoteliers, says Chef Vikas Seth, “it is the need of the hour, especially with the rising trend of get togethers and chefs' table that brings a community of strangers to dine at a table, together.” Of course, says Chef Seth, “the community table is an interesting way to make single diners feel welcome and part of the hustle and bustle rather than parking them somewhere in a corner, which sadly, has been the case with conventional design.”
In fact, the willingness of single diners sharing the table with strangers has been the reason for restaurants to cash in on this emerging trend both new and old. Cafe Coffee Day that once promoted small seating too has switched to community tables as well.
Which makes us wonder, what is it about community tables that is seeing its resurrection?
A Tale As Old As Civilisation
The single long table that is synonymous with cafeteria, canteen or to prison today was in fact the way we learnt how to dine together. Community tables first came into practice as tribal rituals. Back in the day, it was a frequent practice that the food would be cooked in one place and the entire tribe would assemble to eat it together with the appointed head of the tribe.
Even as we graduated from the nomadic lifestyle to that of the settlers, the community table remained a way tribes stayed connected and nourished. In fact, in many villages across India, the practice of hosting a community table is common place not only during festivals but also when there is a paucity of resources, especially food and to garner association. Gambhar, the Parsee festival table, is one such excellent example of how the community gained acceptance in the country.
Community table's ability to turn absolute strangers into friends was one of the reasons that leaders from Chengis Khan to Alexander and in the later date revolutionaries like Subhash Chandra Bose used it to bring people under one cause. The pages of history, in fact, are replete with examples of how this unifying concept worked to create amazing alliances through the eras.
Whether it was to establish an Indo-Roman rule post the defeat of Porus, getting the Rajputs to side with Akbar or for that matter bringing India together through its sarbojanin pujas and festivals.
Interestingly, it wasn't just the royals and powers-to-be who found the community tables as an effective way to connect, these were how society at large built itself thanks to the eateries that used it as a convenient way to feed people. From the Roman thermopolium to the sarais, where food was served on the whim of the owners to the eateries in towns next to the port or those in the rest houses around the port areas of Kalinga in the East and Muziris in the South, community tables were a way to dine.
In fact, community tables were often the place where traders completed the deal, first in the evening over drinks, and then in the morning with a cup of beer and some grub. It is said that if each party could remember the agreed terms from the night before, and recall it word by word, the deal was fixed.
For rulers, the community table at these eateries also served as the space to understand the public sentiment and also to spy. The ritual of Chinese Yum Cha is said to have started in these community tables. For most travellers however, these tables were the most efficient information center that could supply information more than those who ruled the land there. No wonder that almost every travelogue that is written since the beginning of the century has a chapter on a popular eatery space and the table.
As for restaurateurs of the time, having a few large tables ensured brisk business as people would come, sit, eat or drink, and then leave. No occupying the table and little need to constantly clean. This perhaps explains why the early restaurant, of which many are considered iconic, still continue to prefer the community table seating.
Aside from the ease, what is it about a community table that is so endearing?
A Base to Ace
While the idea of sharing a table may today seem like a compromise in most spaces, except for a cafe like Starbucks, the ancient trend does score in a few departments that is making it a popular pick. Top of the reason is the ability to be a part of something while remaining unattached. This long-held perception, in which a person has to sit down, eat and leave, is where the community table is scoring.
There is little or no onus for him/her to start a conversation or take that to its natural end. One could happily sit and complete a task with a mere head nod as a way of acknowledging the presence of another person. This too is need-based. That freedom of sitting in a company without the need to break the ice or have a conversation is perhaps the key to its resurrection. More so, after the recent pandemic that has resulted in the acknowledgement of a condition called “loneliness epidemic.” A condition where an individual is acutely aware of his “lonely” status, yet finds it hard to socialise the traditional way.
Mukabang & Social Burnout
It was this worrisome trend that in 2010 led to the creation of Mukabang in South Korea. Standing for “broadcast eating”, the idea behind videotaping people eating was to allow the social media-connected world, a way out of feeling alone.
Four years into the system, the concept did a volte-face as it transformed into an event of earning through galloping insane amounts of food. The only silver lining into the idea that had gone wrong was the finding of how people connected to situations that involved food. It helped explain why screen dining while watching a movie or Gordon Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares had become so rampant. Psychologists explained the phenomena as “the no brainer, stress free way to be a part of something bigger without the physical effort to do so.”
Likewise the case with social media, which allows you to be a part of something while being anonymous or take on a tailored to the situation persona whenever needed.
Such has been the social burnout that most people live, breathe and even perceive that the online platforms help design for them. This by choice aloofness has today led to this chronic inability to interact and communicate leaving many feel lonely, even when they are a part of a fiesta.
The Table That Ignites and Unites
So how does a community table resolve it? Even though community tables have been a part of our eating out rituals for a very long time, its virtue was first realised with the opening of a few concept places in Mumbai starting with Le Pain Quotidien, a gourmet bakery shop, in 2010.
Unlike other fine dining spaces in its periphery, Le Pain Quotidien decided to welcome its guests with a long central table for people to come together and enjoy its offering. Then came a series of eateries that changed the idea of community table including Social and The Table.
The idea was to host not only the single diner, but allow people to share more than just a table. It made an impact.
What started as just an experiential soon became one of the ruses for keeping the place packed, at least in the case of coffee shops like Starbucks and casual eateries Social. Guests were encouraged to take the longish table that would often be built to suit the modern day diner's need complete with a charging point and an easy service, and a few more frills added every now and then.
For a country that was witnessing a rise in entrepreneurs and independent professionals, the timing couldn't be more apt. The community table became the offline version of LinkedIn – a real time space where you could see people from different walks of life yet choose whom to interact with or not.
Gradually, that sense of easy participation became a ruse for people choosing the table as strangers became acquaintances and then friends. Today, six out of every ten people choosing to sit at a coffee shop would tell you of the ease of socialising as the reason that they prefer to work from a particular space.
Choosing to Be Social, Offline
This ability to choose as per convenience is but one facet of what makes the community table so fascinating an addition to the modern dinner-scape. The table, which many psychologists believe work on the same principle as the dinner table at home, is a perfect way to gradually shift people from living offline. And the way it does so is by slowly graduating a person to interact offline, which happens once you reach a level called “silent comfort” with the other person. A phase when the nod of the head is often replaced with verbal monologues to one line conversation or more.
The fact that many of these conversations began on (work) unrelated ground makes it more effective as it works towards forging a bond then a network. Add to the dose of familiarity that sets in makes the table, one that would result in more social interaction.
This sense of familiarity and easiness of interaction often works at creating this mental shift from the sinking feeling of being alone or dejected to one that looks forward to the next meeting. One of the reasons that concepts like Supper Club or Masterclasses are so successful. It gives a happy chance of interacting with people with a common theme, sitting on a long, community table.