Dining Like Sardines


Among the many talents required of a good restaurant host—rare qualities
like troubleshooting, maintaining grace under fire, and unfailing
alertness—the ability to move furniture swiftly and elegantly has recently
become an unexpected qualification. In Manhattan, and in Brooklyn’s most
Manhattan-like neighborhoods, it is increasingly hard to think of casual
restaurants that do not have a row of two-person tables lined up, nearly
touching, along one wall. In many cases, there is so little space between
them that the host has to pull the table out in order to seat guests.

Whether they’re paranoid mobsters, or just want to be able to catch the
waiter’s eye, most diners would rather face the room rather than the wall.
This preference is so widely established that chivalry dictates gentlemen
should offer the inside seat to their lady friends. But at this point, we’re
wondering if it’s worth it. It is almost inevitable that you’ll be forced to
turn sideways to squeeze into the banquette or chair, risking dragging a
butt cheek through someone’s Bolognese. And while performing this awkward
maneuver, rest assured that everyone around will stop to stare, regardless
of how commonplace the scene has become. The host would pull that table out
further, but there always seems to be another one right behind. When you
finally fall into that coveted seat, you better be resigned to staying put
until the check is paid—like in the movies, a bathroom visit is for
emergencies only.

There is a whole new etiquette for dining in such close proximity to
strangers. In a bistro in France or a trattoria in Italy, this coziness
might seem festive and relaxed, but in New York, where personal space is
cherished, it doesn’t always work out. The key to a happy relationship with
the Bolognese guy is a two-part strategy. In the beginning, try hard to
pretend he is not there, while also making sure not to elbow him when
cutting your steak, and minding that your bag is not spilling over onto his
side of the banquette. At some point, this charade is too absurd to play
out, and a relationship begins. The second step comes in at this
point—reading your neighbor to determine whether the meal will be hostile,
distracting, or, in rare cases, friendly.

Hostile situations emerge when you are seated next to people who resent you
for it, as if you had requested to crash their dinner. All you can do is
give them one of those “what?” looks teenagers give their moms, and avoid
eye contact from that point on. If your neighbors are apt at ignoring you,
it may be unnecessary to actually interact with them, but that doesn’t mean
they won’t affect you. If you enjoy eavesdropping, this might not be so bad.
Recently at Bao
, I sat between two first dates and felt it was my duty to speculate
on which guy was more likely to get laid. Later, my date and I compared
theories about how they had met. We didn’t talk much to each other during
the meal, but we still shared an experience.

As we all know, the restaurant business is tough, and real estate—for the
restaurant and the customer—comes at a price. Casual places that appeal to
people in their twenties and thirties, and offer sophisticated food but not
fine dining, are going to keep cramming in as many tables as they can. At
the incredibly claustrophobic Frank, the
East Village Italian that long ago perfected the appeal of a “communal”
atmosphere, a friend of mine was eating when his neighbor got stuck trying
to get out from a seat against the wall. My friend watched him struggle for
a moment before offering to hold the man’s baby so he could make room to
exit. The man readily passed the infant over, and my friend passed her back
when the man had freed himself. Perhaps tenement eating can bring us
closer—just make sure your coat stays on your side of that imaginary