Dining & Nightlife

Meet Thy Neighbor

October 9, 2018 Written by Heather King

Published in Dining & Nightlife

Dining out is something most people plan and look forward to with anticipation. Whether a celebratory event with family or wine-soaked get together with friends, eating at a restaurant is something almost everyone can relate to and enjoy. But how the final experience shapes up is often as much about the environment as it is about what we order off the menu.

When communal dining debuted in fine dining establishments in downtown Salt Lake in 2012, it seemed more of an edgy trend than a necessity. Fast forward a half decade and how does communal dining sit with Salt Lake residents and visitors now? Are more restaurants sizing up the idea to save space and pack more diners in when possible or have guests rebelled against forced mingling with strangers?
Attitudes toward communal dining seems to be all in the eye of the beholder. Oftentimes, the price point of the restaurant and the time of day can both weigh heavily on the apparent success of the concept, given its longtime prevalence at college pizza joints and barbecue restaurants for decades.

Counter service coziness

When diners stand in line to order food at a counter and then seat themselves—a la fast-casual dining—it’s common to sit next to strangers at a bar or communal table designed to maximize space and ease seating delays. At Siegfried’s Delicatessen (20 W. 200 South) and Beer Bar (161 E. 200 South), the concept couldn’t seem more natural. Sit down with a beer and a sausage and meet some new friends over a lunchtime repast or post-work supper.

Originally opened in 1971 and still Salt Lake’s only authentic German deli, Siegfried’s dishes up wiener schnitzel, bratwurst, corned beef Rubens and more for lunch and dinner. Order cafeteria style and sit at the bar along the window front or at tables located throughout the store. Here you’ll find some of the most diverse diners in the city—from local business people to Europeans shopping for specialty meats and items and everyone in between. 

Utah native Amy Rasmussen says Siegfried’s is the perfect communal dining destination. “The price point and lunch counter definitely make it okay,” she says.
Down the street, Beer Bar also plays off a German-inspired beer garden feel with dozens of beers from around the world on tap and a chef-driven menu of sausages and fries. The interior is almost exclusively dedicated to picnic table communal-style seating to bring people from all walks of life together.

Tim Haran, the founder of utahbeernews.com, a website that strives to share stories important to Utah’s craft beer community, finds the Beer Bar’s communal format enjoyably tees up casual conversation with friends—or strangers. “The fact that Beer Bar has long rows of picnic tables where different groups can sit next to and across from each other makes it easy to strike up conversations over a pint or two,” Haran says. “It’s fun because, for me, the conversation usually starts and centers on beer but then it expands into a variety of different topics such as living in Utah, nearby restaurants, politics and sports. The communal seating definitely helps people gain perspectives they might not get otherwise.”
But as the price point of potential restaurant options rise to the level of fine dining, restaurants like The Copper Onion, Pallet and even White Horse have implemented communal dining for other reasons—and the popularity of the locations may become the determining factor in the seating arrangement.
Screen Shot 2018 10 09 at 3.37.38 PM

Share or wait


White Horse Spirits & Kitchen (325 Main St) is a bar and brasserie serving high-end cocktails and sharable dishes. As evening sets, downtown business people and convention goers alike flock there for truffle salted potato chips and buffalo roasted cauliflower—often finding themselves sharing communal tables that front the kitchen in standing-room-only conditions.

Similarly, in the heart of downtown, diners are still lining up to experience The Copper Onion (111 E Broadway), which opened in 2010—and one of the fastest ways to do so is to sit down to a meal with strangers. Chef and owner Ryan Lowder brought the communal dining concept from New York to create an environment more urban in nature in which guests could experience his award-winning and locally sourced American cuisine. Diners regularly find themselves asked to make the choice between a long wait for a private table at brunch, lunch or dinner or immediate seating at the shared table. When that’s the case, a shift in attitude can overcome the lack of intimate space.

“It reminds me of cruise ship dining,” says Sybille Schmidt, a German native who has lived and dined around the world and now calls Utah home. “We always enjoy sitting and meeting other people, light conversations and sometimes it turns into friendships. You never know who you’ll sit with, who you’ll meet or what stories they have to share. It’s for sure not everybody’s thing though.”
Screen Shot 2018 10 09 at 3.36.50 PM

Angie Gallegos, who moved to Utah from Michigan to attend BYU in the early 1980s, laughs, “Communal dining reminds me of church and how the pastor makes us turn and greet the people next to you. I don’t enjoy it unless they are more interesting than my current tablemates.” She does, however, enjoy sitting down at a communal table while on vacation. “It’s fun to visit with locals and get advice for other places,” she says, and finds it an intriguing way to get insights about the community.
West-side eatery, Pallet (237 S. 400 West), is one of the best places to commune with the locals. Open for dinner only, Pallet serves creative new American cuisine that’s as intriguing as the 100-year-old building its housed in. Installed at the center of the restaurant are two long, communal tables made from reclaimed wood. The tables were included at the suggestion of the restaurant’s interior designer in the hope that they would urge neighborly interaction and shared experiences with others—but also offers options for larger parties—in addition to patio dining and individual tables surrounding the periphery of the tightly spaced restaurant. With a focal point of the mirrored bar and dynamic design elements, guests at the communal tables are often brought together first by the awe inspired by their visual surroundings.

As Salt Lake continues to grow and attract more residents and visitors each year, time and space at Utah’s best restaurants will remain at a premium. In turn, downtown restaurants will continue to get creative with the most effective way to satiate as many customers as possible while providing an atmosphere that complements the cuisine.

When faced with a communal dining option, Karin Palle, a business consultant and former restaurant owner in Salt Lake City, suggests that guests keep an open mind about the experience. “You need to go into it with a ‘wonder who I’ll sit next to today’ attitude. As an athlete who traveled when I was younger, we never knew who we would sit with and what we would learn. You definitely don’t go to a communal dining experience for an intimate dinner or special occasion. But if you are going to have a lighthearted conversation with friends, I embrace new opportunities to meet people.”