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The Case Against Community – Response #3

April 20, 2010

Get Me Outta Here!

When Community Goes (Terribly) Wrong

In a recent post, aristo-blogger Damien recounts an unpleasant evening spent at a communal dining table. In fine dining, the communal dining experience is nothing short of excruciating. While perfectly acceptable for breakfasts, snacks, and coffees, a fine dining setting is completely unsuitable for unwanted company.

I experienced a dreadful communal dining ordeal several years ago on the Upper East Side at the much-lauded Sfoglia.

It was Spring in New York City, fabulous weather, and we were heady from a day of shopping and absorbing all sorts of cultural goodness at the Frick and the Met.

The scene was ripe for a wonderful evening of food and drink, but alas we were in for one of the worst dining experiences of my life.

Sfoglia, at that time, was the darling of restaurant critic Frank Bruni, and as such, it was difficult to get a reservation. I had booked ours almost a month in advance as a treat for my then fiance, now husband. There were such great reviews of the service and the food – my expectations were high.

However, when we entered the small restaurant on the tips of the Upper East side at Lexington and 92nd St, there was a distinctly shabby feel to the heavy curtains and much worn sofa that was in dire need of replacement.

Worse, we were forced to share this cramped waiting space (not the bar, but a sort of restaurant limbo – a liminality of neither entryway nor reception area) with a loud and rather grumpy middle aged couple who were arguing about something or another. They were dressed in the sort of unobtrusive and decidedly unstylish way that reminds one of LL Bean or Brooks Brothers. The woman cast a disapproving glance at my Chloe dress.

Shrugging it off, we proceeded to the dining room. We were seated in a back room with very low ceilings, at a small table pressed against the wall. This may have passed for “cosy” except for the fact that the only other table in the entire room was a large banquet sized table.

Seated at this large table, was a party of around 12 30-something year old women having a birthday party. Drinks were flowing, they were laughing loudly and exchanging gifts, having a grand time.

This left us, relegated to our table pressed against the corner directly next to them in that small room, feeling distinctly like uninvited guests to a private event.

When the guest of honor stood to give a toast and tapped her glass for silence, we didn’t know whether to be silent to continue the conversation at our own table.

After the first course, and  the awkwardness and not being able to hear each other, we asked the waitress if there was not another, more suitable, table we could move to in the main dining room. She returned and said if we waited for a short while, we could move. We sighed a collective breath of relief and anxiously awaited our move away from the raucous birthday celebration to a real dining room experience.

When we got up to move, we were instructed to take our drinks with us, and I obligingly complied. Drink in hand, I walked into the main dining room only to find it fully occupied. My eyes scanned the room for a free table – none in sight. This was not looking good.

The waitress walked over to a 4-person table where two people were already seated and plunked an oversized fruit bowl down in the middle. “Here we are,” She stated, “You may sit here.” I was aghast. This table was clearly occupied. The fruit bowl was, allegedly, supposed to form some kind of barrier and give some semblance of privacy. But of course that was ridiculous: it was a fruit bowl, not a wall or a completely new fold out table.

The Offending Table in Sfolgia's Main Dining Room

As a took my seat, too shocked to speak, I looked over at my new dining compatriots, to judge their reaction to a clear infringement of dining space. To my horror, I found myself staring into the increasingly red face of the Brooks Brothers woman from the entryway. She was glaring at me, her eyes growing wider and her lips pressing tighter together by the second, with a look of revulsion that left me shuddering. Obviously this feeling for communal dining was mutual.

We ate our entrees in complete silence. I don’t even remember what I ate – and I always remember what I eat. I can tell you what I had for dinner at Bouley 8 years ago. After we paid the (non-discounted) bill, we stumbled out into the New York night, I looked at my husband, “I am so, so sorry.”  He whistled, and after that we walked for blocks without speaking, neither of us able to find the words to say any more about it.

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