Yes, we’re biased. Communal tables are one of the sacred elements of our Time Out Markets around the world, from our five locations in the USA and Canada to our original Time Out Market in Lisbon and our most recent addition to the family in Dubai.
But this is also why we’re so confident that they will become one of 2022’s strongest dining trends. We know that communal tables work, and for the simplest of reasons: a communal table, whatever the size, format or material, inevitably introduces people to one another. Even – and this is the best part – when they don’t want to.
‘May I ask what you are having? Looks delicious.’ This is how thousands of conversations start every day in a modern food-hall environment. And this is partly why this format has become so popular over the past few years, especially in big cosmopolitan cities, like London and New York, or iconic tourism capitals, like Lisbon and Madrid. These are places packed with people who share the same tastes but not necessarily the same language.
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Breakfast joints were the first businesses to use this trick, ages ago. But the purpose back then was functional: how can you make the most of a tiny space that depends on a short peak moment? By seating them together, of course. It could have been the trigger for something else, on the social side of things, but sadly it never was. The problem being, I guess, that mornings (for most of us, at least) are not exactly the ideal moment to strike up a friendship with a stranger.
Then, more recently, came the chef-counters trend, which was a first attempt by traditional restaurants to become more sociable places. But even then these spaces were much more likely designed for customers to have a closer relationship with the food process and the chef than to socialise with their fellow guests.
New food halls, on the contrary, like Time Out Market and many others, managed to create that social element by replicating the look and feel of a big event – like the food area of a concert, perhaps, or even the famous, festive layout of Oktoberfest. These places are fully conceived and designed from scratch, for people to engage with others – not to feel comfortably removed from them.
So, food halls have turned an exception into a rule. And by doing so successfully they have proved that people love to share a table and don’t mind doing it on a daily basis rather than once in a blue moon.
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Now, the question must be: why would restaurants more generally miss the opportunity and avoid following the trend? There’s no reason. If anything, with technology giving us so many reasons for us to look down instead of up, we need something more than an app to speak with others, and in more than a 280-character sentence. That is precisely why many places are finally trying to replace clusters of small tables with one, two or three big ones, where individual guests or small groups can sit with their fellow humans.
Size matters, and smaller restaurants may find embracing this trend a challenge. But chefs and restaurateurs are speaking more and more about this and recognise that most of their guests don’t mind sitting with people they’ve never met and consider it a very pleasant experience.
So forget intimacy, quietness, booths and many other restaurant clichés. Closeness continues to be the keyword of this industry – only now it’s equally relevant to strangers as to family and friends. If restaurants do follow this trend, as seems plausible, you might end up making more friends in a year than in the entire last decade.
João Cepeda is the President and Creative Director of Time Out Market and is based in Lisbon, Portugal