Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Community Tables

A few years ago, I had a free afternoon in Boston.  I took the subway to Cambridge to wander the Harvard campus.  Hungry from my walk, I found a burger place across Massachusetts Avenue from the campus.  Although I didn’t recognize the name at the time, I’ve since learned that Mr. Bartley’s has been an institution to generations of Harvard students.  (For the fellow graduates of my alma mater, Mr. Bartley’s is to Harvard what Top Dog is to Cal.)

I ordered one of their signature burgers and looked for a place to sit.  The smaller tables were all occupied.  There were open chairs at the central community table, but I wasn’t sure that I would be comfortable at a community table that was half-filled with Harvard students.  My concern wasn’t about the relative standing of Harvard and Cal, the two schools compare well, but more about being a fifty-something tourist sharing a space with a group of twenty-something college students.  So I found a place at a counter and ate my burger in solitude,

Over my life, I’ve made a lot of decisions, some of which didn’t turn out as well as I had hoped and some of which I truly regret.  But few seem as completely clueless as passing on the chance to sit at a community table across the street from the Harvard campus.

There was a chance that I might have found common ground with someone at the community table.  Admittedly, it’s more likely that I would have eaten my lunch in silence, but by choosing a spot at a counter, I assured a silent lunch.  I traded a small chance of a memorable lunch for zero chance.  And that was a remarkably dumb decision.  Community tables offer a chance of serendipitous connections and should be embraced.

 I don’t recall community tables in the restaurants of my youth.  They seem to be a recent re-entry into the restaurant scene.  But they’re a welcome addition.  From an urbanist perspective, they’re a fine addition to city life.  By allowing more flexibility in the accommodation of different sized dining groups, they allow space to be used more efficiently, always a key element of an urban setting.  Also, they open the door to possible fortuitous meetings among people who otherwise wouldn’t have met, the possibility that I mistakenly eschewed.

I’m beginning to see enough community tables in the North Bay that I won’t attempt to list all of them here.  I’d be slighting a restaurant that I should be praising.  But I’ll offer a few examples.

Ray’s, about which I wrote in my last post, has a couple of elegant natural wood slab community tables (pictured above).

The La Dolce Vita wine bar in Petaluma’s Theatre Square has a community table that I’ve occasionally shared with others.

The Aqus Café in Petaluma, where Urban Chat meets, doesn’t have a specific community table, but have a multitude of small, easily movable tables that are often configured into a community table.

When you find yourself in a restaurant with a community table, recognize that you’re dining at a place with an urbanist flavor.  And if circumstances permit, don’t be afraid to sit at the community table and to say hello to a stranger.

For those who may be wondering, the burger at Mr. Bartley’s was fine.  I hope to return someday.  And to sit at the community table.

In my next post, I’ll offer another quarterly summary of urban oddities and quirks.  I try to write on this topic at the three-month anniversaries of April Fool’s Day, but I’m about two weeks late this quarter.  I became so wrapped up in block parties that time slipped away.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (


  1. Ah, community tables! Hows else would someone like me ever meet other people when I am by myself in public? Hearty recommendation: the community tables at Durgin Park in Boston. That's the only kind of seating they have, and they require you to sit across from a companion if you come with one. Durgin Park is right near Fanueil Hall and the their tables are probably the same ones from over 200 years ago, still producing lively exchanges and good eats.

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    2. Barry, thanks for the comment. I have no immediate plans to visit Boston, but will try to remember your recommendation. Another reader noted that Phillippe's in Los Angeles, of which I've had many recommendations for their French dip sandwiches before Dodger games, has had the same community tables for over 100 years.