Writer Chris Parr discusses the importance of the correct table when dining out.
Restaurant tables rarely figure in reviews. They are …… just part of the furniture. But, like the floor, ceiling, walls, and other necessities of the place, they play a vital role in the dining experience. I have a bit of a thing about restaurant tables. Too small, poorly placed, or otherwise “wrong” and they detract from my experience; they put a little, and sometimes a large, blot on the eating landscape.
The restaurant table is the canvas upon which the chef’s efforts and skills are to be displayed. The “table”, as a whole, comprises many elements: linen, or not; cutlery, or chopstickery; glassware; condiments; plates and dishes. Collectively, this ensemble helps to set the tone of the restaurant – together with decoration, music, staff, etc.
The table is where you sit – obviously – and so it’s the place that becomes the focus of the whole eating experience. Therefore, if the table is wrong, the experience is wrong or, at least, not quite right, which is… wrong.
Too small, is my overwhelming and too often used complaint. The size of the tables is a complex thing. Let’s be honest, it is grounded in profitability. The restaurant must sell enough covers to break even (minimum) and to make a profit (optimum).
Therefore, there must be enough tables and seats in the room to accommodate the numbers. This begs the question: is the room big enough to do that, comfortably? Too often, the answer appears to be “no”. The room will accommodate the required number of covers, but only if tables for two are set for four; and, too often, only if tables for one are set for two.
(There’s a more hard-nosed possibility too: the room is big enough for properly sized tables, but the owners cram in more covers to make more money. I’ll just leave that thought there.)
The problem with small tables is that they cause stress everywhere. As a diner, I tend to worry about where to put my glass, my fork, the bread. Where are the serving dishes going to go; the wine bottle; the water carafe? Will things be knocked over?
If I’m irritated as, and when, I sit down, I’m already having a lesser experience than the one I’d hoped for. The food and service better be extra good to make up for it! And there’s the second stress point: the staff will be stressed. The chef needs to perform but probably doesn’t know about my thing with the tables. However, the waiting staff will (should) have their own “thing” about the tables. They have to deal with me and the table. They have to find a place for wine, water, serving dishes, bread basket, glasses, etc. Stress. Not what anyone wants when eating out.
Another beef I have with restaurant tables is that, typically, they are square, or rectangular. For between one and six people, this can work. For more than six, potential nightmares await. Consider a table for seven people – three couples, and Barry, who recently broke up with Casandra. If the table is rectangular - let’s be real, it’s two ‘4’ tables pushed together - there’s the potential for someone to be facing the void. The three couples sit opposite each other, and one gets the fourth chair opposite the line of three. So, not only do they have an empty chair to look at but must crank himself around to speak to other diners.
Tables for eight mean that the two ends are too far apart to communicate correctly; and, by the time you get to 10 or 12, you might as well have separate tables and be done with it.
The answer, of course, is round tables. They work for all numbers. They are egalitarian, except in China where the “most honoured guest” must sit opposite the door – a throw-back to more dangerous and violent times when seeing your attackers early was an advantage. (Still is, I suppose.)
A large, round table is a thing of beauty and elegance. There should be more.
Seating, at the table, is also important. Tables for two need a mention. It’s a tested fact that sitting opposite each other is more confrontational than sitting next to each other. Conversations are more extended, side-by-side; people are friendlier. So, it behoves restaurants to set their tables for two accordingly.
In a table-related tangent, I’ll now digress to napkins, cutlery and glasses. There’s a restaurant in Caravigno, Puglia - Già Sotto l’Arco – where they claim to have spent a year searching for just the right linen for their napkins and tablecloths. I believe them totally. This is one of the most beautiful dining rooms I’ve ever been into. It’s a work of art all by itself. And that speaks volumes about everything else that happens there. The service is excellent, the food memorable and, if you get “the millionaire’s table” on the little balcony overlooking the town square, there’s a new dimension in the loveliness on a warm summer evening.
Anyway, the point is that napkins help!
It’s the same with glasses and cutlery. If they serve wine in shoddy glasses or ask you to eat their food with scrappy, light-weight cutlery, then they don’t care about you or your experience; or, they are not as good as they say they are, across the board, even in the kitchen. Worrying.
I think it’s the chef’s duty to demand that their food is presented properly, fittingly. They should go out and sit in the restaurant; allow themselves to experience what the diners experience. Is it what they, the chef, want? Does it present their culinary efforts fittingly? They should keep in mind: the food is part of the experience of dining, but it’s not everything.
Chatting Food Contributor: Chris Parr
International commercial lawyer, business advisor, mentor and mediator with a passion for good food and drink from across the world. I love to cook, but use recipes as starting points. I love farmers’ markets and artisanal products, especially cheese, fruit and vegetables. I’ve lived in Europe and spent time in Japan, India, Hong Kong, Korea and the USA.