Pull Up A Chair

July 30, 2010
Written by Eileen Hodges in
The Welcoming Table
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detail of a chair

I didn’t expect to dine with strangers. The restaurant where it happened has the best desserts in town as well as terrific southern food. The crab cakes are spicy, and I love this weird booth right in the center of the restaurant. There is a common column and then four tables around it with an upholstered bench, then four sets of chairs. No one at any of the tables can see each other, which was fine with me.

Although very uncommon in Kalamazoo, MI, R. Stanley’s is a restaurant that stands out because it’s completely owned, and operated by African-Americans. With cool jazz playing in the background, the restaurant boasts a fairly busy crowd. One night I went there with my girlfriend. Walking in I said, “Let’s sit in a booth in the middle if one is open.” We walked up to the host, his ‘Roo hat on, a sort of uniform here.

“We have something at the common table in the middle,” he said. I figured he was just talking about the booths. He wasn’t. The host took us to a huge stainless steel table that might sit 18 or more. The individual booths were gone. We sat on a long side of the common table; there were two college-age white guys across from us, an older black couple right next to my girlfriend, who sat on my right, and a 30ish couple, Greek or Italian perhaps, around to my left. I am German/Irish, and my friend is mostly Lithuanian, ethnicity, really doesn’t matter because they were strangers. My initial thought was wait just a minute; do I have to sit with people I don’t know in a public restaurant?

I sat down, unsure of the whole thing, I am used to sitting close to other people at eating places in New York, or little joints in India, but you don’t usually start up conversations with your neighboring tables. Here, it was clear this communal table was purposeful, “sit right down with these folks and have some really good food,” it seemed to say. And we did, the people sitting to the right of us were oohing at our fried mushrooms, and talking about how they were bigger than usual, so we happily shared. We discussed beer with the guys across the table. The woman to my left was much more talkative than her shy husband or boyfriend, and told us we should definitely try the cheesecake. We chatted and ate, my friend and I had time to talk, but I wondered if we could get to know these other people if we wanted to, so we shared stories of great food in town, grandkids, and spring break.

After that evening, I predict this is going to be a trend, or at least it should be. Can you imagine if every fast food joint, fancy restaurant and everything in between had a communal table? Singles, out of town business people, or vacationers, would have a place to grab something to eat, get directions, a bit of conversation, or new friendly connections. Everybody eats, and the love of good food crosses all cultures, races, and ethnicities. The communal table brings people of all statures together, and maybe it would be a nice way for the locals to come out and talk to new people. I might not have chosen to sit there if I had an option, but I am a new convert to communal dining. Can we have too many friends, great conversations, or nice meals shared? There are all kinds of those feelings of emptiness; a communal table might satisfy many of them.

The Welcoming Table