Restaurants

Coronavirus prompts some restaurants to rethink communal tables

A handful of Boston restaurants are starting to reexamine their seating arrangements amid the global pandemic.

Pammy's
Pammy's in Cambridge. Barry Chin/Globe Staff

In 2014, communal dining seemed to reach a peak in the zeitgeist. Headlines declared the trend of dining with strangers “a ‘new’ kind of social dining,” “a developing experience,” and, whether you like it or not, a way to dine “alone together.”

But in the age of COVID-19, social dining is being reexamined.

On Tuesday, Jack’s Abby posted a message on its Instagram page that the brewery was suspending its community seating, which allows guests to sit wherever they want at communal tables in the taproom.

“Beginning immediately we are switching from our community seating model to a table seating model,” the post stated, among other extra precautions that include suspending tours and getting rid of silverware and menu caddies. “This will allow us to sanitize spaces more thoroughly between guests. The bar will remain open seating and staff will work to keep this area as sanitary as possible.”

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Dear Friend of Jack’s Abby, We wanted to write to you today to let you know that we are taking the situation with COVID-19 extremely seriously. The safety and health of our staff and our guests is always a top priority only highlighted in situations such as these. Our business is about community and connections which is why we are exercising an abundance of caution and taking extra steps to ensure we have the safest environment possible. Some steps we are taking: – Beginning immediately we are switching from our community seating model to a table seating model. This will allow us to sanitize spaces more thoroughly between guests. The bar will remain open seating and staff will work to keep this area as sanitary as possible. – Our tables will no longer have caddies, menus and silverware buckets. Staff will bring these to you when seated. – All menus, condiments etc. will be sanitized between guests as well. – High touch areas will be cleaned and sanitized on schedule throughout the day, in addition to deep cleaning on a nightly basis. – Tours are being suspended until further notice. – Our staff already does an extraordinary job cleaning the environment at the end of each day and we will continue to uphold the highest standards in our space. We hope these steps bring you some comfort and assurance of our effort to keep you happy and healthy. Similarly, we ask all of our patrons to be extra responsible as well. If you are even slightly ill or worried about being in contact with someone who is then please exercise the same caution and avoid coming to the brewery. We believe during these challenging times that relaxing with friends and a beer is an important social and mental activity, and we believe it’s incumbent upon us to continue to provide this to our friends in the safest way possible. Our staff is going above and beyond all recommendations to ensure the health and safety of everyone we engage with on a daily basis. We hope that you find comfort in our effort and respite in our space. Sincerely, Jack, Eric, Sam Hendler Co-Founders / Brothers

A post shared by Jack’s Abby (@jacksabbycraftlagers) on

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Sam Hendler, co-owner of Jack’s Abby, said the decision was made Monday afternoon during the brewery’s monthly managers meeting. 

“That’ll give us time to thoroughly clean and sanitize tables between parties,” Hendler told Boston.com, noting that managers will fill in as hosts. “Whereas at some of our higher volume times — obviously we make our best efforts to [sanitize], but sometimes a party will get up and literally three seconds later, another party will sit down and we’re reaching over shoulders and doing our best to clean.”

Demetri Tsolakis is a partner at Committee Ouzeri + Bar, a Greek restaurant in the Seaport with communal high tops in the dining room that have always been available to groups both large and small. Tsolakis shared that, at this time, the community tables will only be used for large parties.

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Both Bondir Cambridge and The Gallows Group (Banyan Bar + Refuge, Blackbird Doughnuts, Sally’s Sandwiches, The Gallows) released statements on Instagram detailing the restaurants’ efforts to keep customers and employees safe, which include creating more physical distance among guests. 

“To make the experience more comfortable and safer for our guests we have made more space in the dining room by removing a few tables to accommodate personal space,” reads one item from The Gallows Group, while Bondir stated it would be “eliminating two of our tables to give at least a meter of space between parties.”

https://www.instagram.com/p/B9kUGBCH55M/

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Not every restaurant featuring communal dining feels the need to make major adjustments. Table by Jen Royle, a pint-sized Italian restaurant in the North End, hosts family-style dinners every Wednesday through Sunday, with the idea that strangers will become friends by the end of the evening. Two large communal tables — one seating 18, another seating 14 — are the only tables in the compact restaurant, but owner Jen Royle isn’t concerned about COVID-19 affecting business.

“We actually haven’t had any issues, believe it or not,” Royle told Boston.com in an e-mail, adding that weekdays have been a little slow, but that is usual for March. “No increase in cancelations, no voicemails, or emails stating concerns. Nothing.”

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The only change: Starting Thursday, the Table staff will hand out sanitized towels to guests once they enter the restaurant. 

Table by Jen Royle

Table by Jen Royle

Pammy’s owner Pam Willis also hasn’t made any major changes to the communal table that sits in the middle of her Cambridge bôite. 

“Pammy’s is a small restaurant, so people sitting at the standard tables and booths are just as close to each other as they are at the communal table,” she said, adding that last Saturday the restaurant recorded its highest number of customers ever. “Everything has been normal except that everyone is getting up every two minutes to wash their hands.”

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On Monday, Massachusetts Restaurant Association president and CEO Bob Luz shared a statement that emphasized a restaurant’s role in creating and sustaining community. 

“Restaurants in Massachusetts, New England, and beyond, have always been places to come together in both celebration and in times when we may need comfort. It goes beyond saying, that restaurants provide much more than basic sustenance, they anchor our communities, employ our friends and family and have historically always been the first to act in times of crisis, be it domestic, or abroad. It is imperative to understand that while anxieties may be high, we should not fear that which is not based on fact.”

Luz also reiterated that all restaurants “are required to operate at the same high health standards required everyday by the state of Massachusetts, and given the current situation, those high standards are now being routinely exceeded.”

Willis echoed this sentiment. 

“The greatest thing about the restaurant industry is that it’s so hyper clean,” she said. “I hope that people remember that, and the amount of hand washing that goes on in back of house and with servers. That’s the way you’re trained in restaurants.”

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If communal dining is being reexamined in the time of COVID-19, it will have a substantial effect on how both diners and developers approach food halls. Time Out Market, which opened in the Fenway last summer and features rows of communal tables, shared a statement with Boston.com detailing its plan to keep patrons safe.

“The health and well-being of our guests, our employees, our concessionaires, and their teams are of the utmost importance — we are dedicated to creating an environment for everyone that is as safe as possible,” shared a spokesperson for the food hall. “Therefore, we have reduced the number of chairs around our communal seating for the time being inside Time Out Market Boston; this gives everyone more space and provides more distance amongst guests while enjoying our curation of the best of the city.”

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Meanwhile, two additional food halls are scheduled to open this spring. Hub Hall at the West End’s Hub on Causeway and High Street Place in downtown Boston, each featuring around 20 different vendors under one roof, have planned to open their doors in the not-so-distant future. (Both halls did not respond to Boston.com’s request for comment.)

Whether they will postpone their opening dates or change their seating arrangements remains to be seen.

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