Ruth Bass: Americans learn how to share space



Most parents at one time or another have accused a child of having "a boarding house" reach. Sometimes the kid just doesn't know any better than to put an arm across Auntie Mabel to get the salt. Other times, he or she can't get a word in edgewise and need overcomes manners.

It's an expression that dates back to the old-time boarding house where a long table filled the dining room and everyone ate there -- overnight guests of the establishment, more permanent residents and, probably, some walk-ins from the outside world. Food was served family style, all the plates of meat, vegetables and bread plunked onto the table so diners could serve themselves. Some knew each other, some were strangers -- instead of asking for the mashed potatoes or the sliced roast, they were likely to just stretch out an arm and take care of themselves. Places where an anxious diner can still practice a boarding house reach disappeared for a while. But now it's a trendy possibility.

Mrs. Wilkes Dining Room in Savannah, according to the Internet, has tables for 10 and family-style food service. Diners take a seat wherever there is one. It's always been that way at the venerable Carnegie Deli in New York City. And at Durgin Park in Boston, home of down-to-earth Yankee cooking forever, strangers may join you if you leave an empty seat. But it's waiter service at Durgin Park.


Along with a large number in California, these places preserve or reawaken the tradition of non-exclusive dining, just as many contemporary restaurants let people order dinner as well as drinks at the bar. Still, it gave me pause when the concierge of a hotel in South Carolina recommended the "community table" at Hank's Seafood Restaurant, no reservations needed. Doubtful but game, I hoisted myself onto a tall chair at Hank's community table, high and in the middle of a very busy restaurant.

But this was not family style. The service was elegantly Charleston, exactly the same as being at a table, and a reach was only needed if no one wanted to pass the salt. (Pepper was served -- fresh ground.) The two men next to me were so focused on their across-the-table talk that they ignored my arrival. I quickly turned to my book, a grand refuge when you're eating alone.

When they left, four boisterous souls deserted the bar and took their places next to me. One of them, a Canadian, pointed to the white-haired man on my left and asked if he were my husband. When I said he was not, he remarked that he was pleased to hear that because he was worried that I was married to someone so boring that I needed a book at dinner. And so we sort of met, which means no whole names were exchanged, but they gathered me in to their hilarity.

We had exquisite service from our waiter, not boarding house at all, and my book, ignored and unneeded, slipped off the table and onto the floor. Clark Wolf, a restaurant consultant on both U.S. coasts, says it took Americans awhile to take to community tables. He thinks we "don't share space well." But in the past 10 years, the idea has caught on, sometimes bringing Americans out of their shell so much that they make new friends or, reportedly, start a romance.

My new friends didn't offer business cards or cellphone numbers, and it was even hard to tell what connected them to each other. But they were happy and funny and having a good time. And the food was exceptional. We ate, drank, shared space and were merry.

Ruth Bass is a novelist and free-lance writer who lives in Richmond. Her website is


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