Samuel Muston: Shared tables make fellow diners too close for comfort

 

Raw awkwardness garnished with a touch of hastily summoned nonchalance. That is how I would describe the look running across the faces of the people in front of us in the queue as the maître d' of a busy no-reservations restaurant asks the question: "Would you mind sitting on a shared table?" An enquiry that is quickly followed up with: "It will probably speed up the wait by quite a bit."

It is, for many people, the nightmare question. Of course, no one wants to be seen as a killjoy grump who can't stand to be in the presence of his fellow man, but, equally, who wants their conversation heard by the surrounding gang of eight strangers? And besides, there is always the lingering worry that if one doesn't "co-operate" with the staff in such establishments, and take the table you're given, you'll be waiting a very long time for dinner indeed.

And so, inevitably, one accepts, and one twists through all the paroxysms of discomfort that English people in close proximity to each other are heirs to. It is no coincidence that we are not traditionally a nation of flat-dwellers – it is all a little too close for comfort.

The things is, there is no dyed-in-the-wool reason it should be so. Germans are perfectly happy heading to the nearest kneipe and chowing-down with total strangers; New Yorkers, especially Brooklynites, seem to have got the knack of it, too. But we Brits? Not a chance.

There have been valiant attempts to convert us, of course, with some attempts more successful than others. Wagamama is always packed, in spite of its (bum-numbing) long benches and tables, but perhaps that is due to the fact you have to share there. And the same goes for the other creation of restaurateur Alan Yau, Busaba Eathai, where the tables are all vast squares. No choice, no problem. The shared table at London's The Modern Pantry, however, which sits amid two-and-four-seater tables, can be a lonely place. The fact is, if we find ourselves cheek-to-cheek with a stranger over our red snapper ceviche, we tend to eat at top speed and leave even faster.

The only two-hour or three-hour restaurants I know, the joints where people lean forward in their chairs to chat as they tackle their second bottle of wine, are the places with small well-spaced small tables. Such places have to have decent food and booze, of course, but it is also about something more than that.

For many, especially those of us who work long hours in cities, restaurants have become part of our personal space: the piano nobile we dreamt we'd have after one too many Evelyn Waugh novels. They have become extensions of the home: places of break-ups and amusement, high emotion and low behaviour. Places to catch up with your old friends and have a gossip with your mother. So, just as we don't want Frank from across the street sitting with us in the lounge as we have an argument over who does the washing-up, we don't want him sharing a bread basket with us either.

I'm not proud of it, but as we made our way to our own little, two-seat table, I smiled with sweet relief.

Arts and Entertainment
Ramsay Bolton in Game of Thrones
tvSeries 5, Episode 3 review
News
peoplePair enliven the Emirates bore-draw
Arts and Entertainment
tv
News
Britain's opposition Labour Party leader Ed Miliband (R) and Boris Johnson, mayor of London, talk on the Andrew Marr show in London April 26
General electionAndrew Marr forced to intervene as Boris and Miliband clash on TV
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Food & Drink

    Guru Careers: MI Developer

    £35 - 45k: Guru Careers: An MI Developer is needed to join the leading provide...

    Recruitment Genius: Fitness Manager

    £20000 - £22500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This leisure organisation manag...

    Recruitment Genius: Visitor Experience Manager

    £25000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Delivering an inspiring, engagi...

    Recruitment Genius: Learning Team Administrator

    £17500 - £20500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They are looking for a great te...

    Day In a Page

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

    Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
    Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

    Aviation history is littered with grand failures

    But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

    Fortress Europe?

    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
    Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

    Never mind what you're wearing

    It's what you're reclining on that matters
    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence