Several winters ago, Meagan Foster and her then-boyfriend were trying to turn a bad day around by venturing to the Tabard Inn for drinks and dinner. But when she tried to navigate the sliver of space between her table and the next, Foster says, she bumped everything — votive, water, silverware — off both of them, and promptly burst into tears.
The incident didn’t scar her for life; the District resident and her boyfriend were later married at the Dupont Circle spot. But whenever they go back, they make sure to avoid the banquettes, or what she called the “booth tables,” along one wall.
She’s not the only diner tired of playing ballet dancer or contortionist (in my case, sucking in my gut) for the privilege of a meal away from home. To access some of the more tightly packed tables around Washington, anyone who’s not a string bean is forced to enter seats sideways, sometimes on tiptoe, and invade a neighbor’s space in one of two ways: by butt or by crotch. Inadvertent fat shaming ensues.
Like airlines, restaurants seem to be trimming personal space in an attempt to pack in more customers, and this at a time when the average man and woman are 30 and 26 pounds heavier, respectively, than they were in 1960. (That’s 196 and 166 pounds.) Whoever came up with the Knee Defender, the gadget that prevents airline seats from reclining, might contemplate its equivalent for cramped restaurants, because diners would likely snap it up. A Zagat survey from two years ago found that “crowds” ranked just behind service, noise and prices as a chief complaint among restaurant-goers.
The average two-top table (or “deuce” in industry jargon) measures 24 by 30 inches, says Stephani Robson, a senior lecturer at the School of Hotel Administration at Cornell University who specializes in restaurant design psychology. There’s no industry standard (or fire code) for distance between tables, but Robson considers 16 inches a good minimum at banquettes, where space is usually tightest. “Your guests will thank you for it,” she says.
Armed with a tape measure on recent restaurant rounds, I discovered some tables (not all of them banquettes) set a mere foot apart at All-Purpose in Shaw, Estadio on 14th Street NW and Joselito Casa De Comidas on Capitol Hill. At the 14th Street branch of Busboys & Poets, the socially conscious eatery treats customers as if they were sardines. Ten inches separates some seats. At the Tabard Inn, where earlier this month a diner knocked a pepper grinder into my buttered bread as she squeezed into the banquette beside me, I found two tables with only eight inches between them.
That’s just about the length of a pencil.
The stakes are high. Aaron Allen, a global restaurant consultant, says a 40-seat restaurant that can fit in “just one more four-top has increased their capacity — and revenue capacity — by 10 percent.” Mike Friedman, a co-owner of All-Purpose, thinks his restaurant’s intimate seating promotes a “convivial nature” that’s in keeping with its Italian-American theme. While he could have squeezed more tables into the space, Friedman says he didn’t, because they would have disrupted server flow and taxed the small kitchen. But the restaurateur also says that removing even a single table would mean saying arrivederci to “hundreds of thousands of dollars” a year.
The sense of crowdedness has been exacerbated in recent years by chefs and diners themselves. Blame the former for blanketing tables with small plates, menus the size of posters and flights of food and drink. Patrons, meanwhile, are unloading on the table their laptops and smartphones (because you never know when you might need to snap some food porn). Rising interest in European concepts brings with them more-intimate seating.
Take the Spanish-themed Joselito, where owner Javier Candon says he wanted to evoke “Old World cafe” charm when he opened in January. Aiming to re-create the feel of Seville and Madrid, he bought small tables and set them so close that servers bumped into one another, silverware routinely fell to the floor and at least one chicken consommé created an oily slick when a diner bumped into a tray holding the broth. Candon ended up removing two tables.
“For those that are uncomfortable about the shrinking personal space we once enjoyed,” Allen says via email, “we’ll have to remind ourselves this is the new normal and pretend we’re Parisian.”
Age, sex and geography, says Robson, influence tolerance levels. Older women, she thinks, are more sensitive to being wedged into a dining room than their younger counterparts, due partly to diminished hearing. (Witness how some restaurants make a show of offering the inside seat to a woman by pulling a table out to let her slip into her seat — where she's entombed until she needs to get up.) In high-rent, high-density cities such as New York, locals are less bothered by restaurant confines than outsiders.
In a 2009 study in a New York restaurant, the recently closed Public in SoHo, Robson found that diners spent less time and less money at seats that were close together. Customers with 12 inches between tables stayed an average of 110 minutes and spent 73 cents a minute. Those with six inches between tables stayed an average of 102 minutes and spent 66 cents a minute. The study didn’t explore overall economic effect, but as Robson said, “In a restaurant with a lot of demand, the goal is to turn tables quickly. Putting them close together accomplishes that.”
Designers find themselves trying to serve two masters: restaurant owners eager to maximize floor space and diners who might enjoy some elbow room — or not, says architect Herb Heiserman, managing principal with Streetsense, whose restaurant clients include All-Purpose, the Columbia Room, the Dabney and other hot spots around Washington. “Not everybody looks for a private zone,” he says. Some diners see restaurants as an extension of their families, he adds, and don’t mind the closeness.
Design-wise, banquettes give restaurants the greatest amount of flexibility, allowing them to easily push tables together or pull them apart to accommodate different party sizes. For patrons seeking privacy, full booths are popular, given their physical barriers to other diners. One way designers can make up for the lack of privacy is to use objects such as table lamps, props that establish boundaries, however small.
“Our number one goal with design is to create a fun environment,” says Jeffrey Lefcourt, founder and managing partner of the Smith in Penn Quarter, a New York import where the small tables and tight seating practically allow neighboring diners to taste one another’s food. Instead of looking at each table as if a price tag were attached, he prefers to view seating as a social enhancer. The formula seems to be working: Diners have sent his company photos of strangers who have become friends in his restaurants.
On the other end of the spectrum, pools of space are, for the most part, a luxury. Consider the stately Plume in the Jefferson Hotel, where tables are set an impressive four to five feet apart. “Diners want to relax and not hear the conversation of the next diner,” says restaurant manager Sean Mulligan. Such privacy comes at a cost: The check average at Plume is $150 — a person.
Speaking of conversation, private talk can easily go public in tight environs. Breakups, makeups — I feel like I’ve heard it all sitting in close proximity to fellow diners. “When do you testify?” I overheard a woman ask her companion at Tosca, the lobbyist favorite downtown. “I’m a womanizer. He’s worse than me!” one man recently shared with his table mates (and me) at the Partisan in Penn Quarter. Whether they want to or not, diners seated thigh-to-thigh become Gladys Kravitzes.
“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard things that I’m not supposed to hear,” says frequent restaurant-goer Matt Brooks, executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition. “Not state secrets,” he says, but not information fellow diners would share publicly about, say, campaign missteps or awful bosses.
Hardly unique to Washington, tight seating is a problem shared by walking cities with high rents: New York, San Francisco, Chicago in particular.
Chef Jimmy Bannos Jr. of the Purple Pig in Chicago has a Rising Star medallion from the James Beard Foundation, “but if he swung it in his dining room,” says Phil Vettel, restaurant critic for the Chicago Tribune, “he’d kill someone.”
How cramped is cramped? On a review visit, Vettel found himself at a bar-height communal table, shoulder-to-shoulder with strangers, with so little elbow room he couldn’t raise the napkin on his lap to wipe his fingers. “Wow, these napkins are really soft,” he reported to readers. On second contact, he told me, he discovered why: “I was using the cashmere scarf of the woman seated to my right.”
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