Indoor meeting places: Restaurants with common dining tables

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We’re delighted to have a guest blog from Richard Lucas, our roving ambassador and Advisory Board member who has been a TEDx organisers for many years. Richard is very interested in creating informal spaces for interaction, and helped introduce us to Jenny Bimpson and the Chatty Cafe Scheme. Jenny was our guest in call #7, and you can see the recording here. In this post Richard explores the concept of common dining tables in restaurants.  

What’s the idea?

The idea is to have a table in restaurants/eateries that are designated as being the table at which one sits if you want to eat with other people you don’t necessarily know.

It would be good thing –  in line with mission of Village in the City –  as such tables would have the potential to build community,  and increase social interactions. Eating together is a fundamental activity, a sign of friendship, trust and hospitality in every culture I know of. Eating alone is a wasted opportunity.

This idea of common dining tables in restaurants is inspired by the Chatty Café Scheme set up by Alexandra Hoskyn, as described in her TEDxKazimierzWomen talk and on their website.  At a chatty café a table is designated the “Chatter and Natter table”. If you sit at this table you are signalling that you are happy to talk to strangers. Signing up on the website means that a café can be found by people who want to use it.

This simple idea has spread far and wide, and the reason is obvious. Normally people feel a bit awkward and have a fear of rejection if they approach a stranger for conversation. The table removes that friction people feel in approaching strangers, by giving “prior consent” in both directions.  Thanks to the way that Alex and Jenny run it and support the cafes  – it really works.

What about Common dining tables?  The idea of having a common dining table in a restaurant is very similar, and is not new. A London club “The Garrick” has one, In Nebraska in the USA, there are tables in some restaurants and if you hunt you can find them, but…. There are challenges.

What is different?

A meal needs a start and stop time to much greater extent than a café does.  A restaurant owner doesn’t want a large table with only some people eating. A meal doesn’t need a host but benefits from one, to welcome people as they arrive to, to maintain the right culture  and standards, keep things moving a long, make sure that things work smoothly.

My concept is to test the concept by talking to the most suitable eateries in your locality.  If they are open to the idea (and they should be, as they should make money) suggest that there is a regular community meal, with a simple signup process. Make it clear that to your local VITC group this can be a regular item in the calendar if it is popular enough. The first Monday of the month for example, and then if it is popular extend to other days.

There would be guidelines for hosts, making sure that the dinner is welcoming for people who don’t know anyone, having a seating plan to make sure that people sit with people they don’t know, having name badges. Depending on the locality and the management this could become more regular.

An obvious challenge is not to exclude people whose finances are not up to bringing their family along, but maybe there could be some kind of buffet/reception deal which brings the cost down? Or in summer organise picnics as an alternative to meals.  This idea cannot address every problem.

What next? 

If this works then I would create a website, and, like with the Chatty Cafe scheme, a modest charge to provide support and hosting so that the restaurant owner didn’t have to worry about making it all work smoothly and those showing up know what to expect. There would be plenty of details to iron out (should there be a set menu against individual choices, how to handle “no shows”, keeping things simple to organise, a code of conduct. How to get the balance right between serving locals and tourists.

If anyone reading things wants to do a pilot, I’m more than happy to have a chat about helping with a test event to see how it goes.  Contact me at richardlucas #at* richardlucas.com, through VITC, and find me on Linkedin and Facebook.

 

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