At an Udupi restaurant during rush hour when there’s a long queue of people waiting to grab an upma or idli-wada-sambhar, one is likely to end up sharing a table with a stranger, albeit out of lack of choice. However, the concept of community dining is now finding favour among the city’s diners, who by the end of the meal, end up sharing more than just a table — they swap stories, exchange business cards and sometimes become friends.
Colaba’s The Table is named after the 20-foot long Burma teak community dining table placed near the bar. This part of the restaurant turns into the most happening spot as the night progresses. Co-owner Gauri Devidayal, who saw the wonders of community eating during her travels abroad, was certain she wanted to incorporate the idea at her fine-dining restaurant when she launched it three years ago.
But aren’t patrons looking for a more private experience for the price they pay? “Not really,” says Devidayal. They used to let out the community table for two services during the same night in the restaurant’s early days. “But our guests loved the idea of breaking bread with strangers so much that they wouldn’t leave. Now, we don’t reserve the table twice on the same night,”she says.
The Table’s Colaba neighbour, Belgian boulangerie Le Pain Quotidien (LPQ) too, has been encouraging strangers to strike a conversation while dining together at its community table, a feature it has extended to its Bandra Kurla Complex and Powai branches, which are especially popular with foreigners.
A trend in the West, community dining is also convenient. For instance, with innumerable bars and pubs mushrooming in Lower Parel’s business district where young professionals gather after work, it makes it easier to accommodate more people. “These days, youngsters are well-travelled and open to the idea of sharing a table with strangers,” says Parag Joglekar, head of operations at Lower Parel’s The Barking Deer where the community table can seat 12 at a time. Another Lower Parel spot, Tilt All Day has two such seatings, which form the centrepiece of its 4,000 sq ft space.
One can also find community tables at popular cafe-cum-bars such as Big Bang Bar and Cafe in Bandra and Andheri, Cafe Zoe in Lower Parel and restaurants such as Pizza Express in Thane and Singkong in Khar. Bandra’s Salt Water Cafe does not have an allotted table to execute community dining but their concepts such as Swine Dining is meant to encourage people to sit around and enjoy a hearty meal of pork specialities.
A social media outfit called Treetins encourages diners, at the restaurants that they have tied up with, to share their table with strangers. Restaurants such as The Pantry in Kala Ghoda, Suzette in Nariman Point and Woodside Inn in Colaba have tiny flags placed upside down in a jar on each table, which can be inverted by the diner if he or she is open to breaking bread with an unknown person.
“With more people looking to expand their social circles and network, it allows for creation of spaces where conversations can happen. It’s similar to a bar but applies to dining,” says Ayaz Basrai of Bandra-based design firm The Busride Design Studio. He has designed the interiors for Tilt All Day, Cafe Zoe and Salt Water Cafe among others. He is currently working on Impresario Hospitality’s neighbourhood cafe-cum-workspace-cum-bar concept called Social in Bangalore and has installed a community table there. “We have made it to be the most comfortable spot in the restaurant with sofas around it,” says Busrai.