Courtesy of Tim Hayward

(First published in "Financial Times": April 2 2011)

For as long as mankind has practised institutional dining, a defining characteristic has been the large shared table. In monasteries, college halls, barracks, factory and school canteens, we ate sitting at the communal board. Even in taverns and inns, one dined at the “table d’hôte” – the host’s table.

There were sensible reasons for this. Food was easier to transport from the kitchen, diners could pass dishes among themselves and the members of the order, faculty, class or mess benefited from eating together. Communal tables had a ritual quality celebrated in what we still call “banquet-style” dining.

It was only with the arrival of restaurants in the 18th century that things changed. Even in the years before respectable women could dine publicly, there were private rooms for assignations, booths in which business could be conducted or just separate tables that ensured no one needed to break bread with a member of another social order.

Alan Yau started the resurgence in 1992 when he reintroduced long shared tables at Wagamama. Refectory eating seemed appropriate in the literary atmosphere of the first Bloomsbury branch, with the sterile lines of the room echoing a certain monastic asceticism.

Since then many restaurants, gastropubs and coffee shops have opened with a big table as a design feature. In some, such as Ottolenghi, shared plates and shoulder rubbing seem intrinsic to the modern middle-eastern aesthetic. In others, Giraffe, for example, it’s all about convenience (and possibly an ability to hose down the place once the last child has left). In a few, it’s offered to those dining alone – a kind of holding pen for the hopeless, where the staff can put awkward individuals who might otherwise take up a whole, high-tipping two-top.

On one hand it says something special about a place to have a communal table – something about democracy and informality. On the other it flies in the face of our national characteristics of reserve and privacy. It’s a bold diner who doesn’t feel the faintest flicker of ‘rabbit-in-the-headlights’ panic when presented with the choice. Is this seat too creepily close to the girl reading the paper in the corner? The psychology and geopolitics of the tabletop can be exhausting before you’ve even sat down.

It seems unlikely that anyone would sit at the big table if a private one were available. It’s just so un-British to sit with strangers. There’s no denying that it suits the restaurateur though. Forcing people together means fewer wasted seats and less of the camping-out that punters might regard as a leisurely meal, but adds up to lost revenue.

For all that, there’s something comforting about sharing a table – it reminds us of the exquisite urban experience of being simultaneously alone and in a crowd. For better and for worse, it looks like the big table is back to stay.