Who ordered squash?

Amy Raudenbush
Amy Raudenbush (Amy Raudenbush)
Posted: November 16, 2011

Dear Very Hip City Restaurateur:

I think it's time we had a little talk. It's about your banquette seating. You know the kind I'm talking about: That long cushiony couch along the wall in front of which you cram a half-dozen tables for two - tables with so little space between them that the butts of our neighboring diners will inevitably be inserted into our personal dining space at some point during the meal.

Yes, those banquettes, dear restaurateur.

I know, I know. You'll tell me that they're part of the cool, modern, see-and-be-seen restaurant vibe - the same one that has diners shouting at one another over a din, sharing plates "family-style" and putting up with the irritating "team spirit" approach of multiple servers that you find at, say, Stephen Starr's restaurants.

But, gentle restaurateur, about your banquettes. How do I say this? We hate them. Yes, we really, really do. We totally hate your banquettes. And if you seat us at one again, we are going to scream. (Not that we'll necessarily be heard over the noise of your buzzing, bustling open kitchen.)

For years, we thought it was just neurotic, self-conscious old us, and we suffered in silence. We show up at a crowded restaurant with a dining companion, and the hostess leads us to our table. We follow her past all the regular, free-standing tables, the ones with plenty of personal space and a tiny cone of privacy, and then she makes a beeline for the banquettes in the back, and our hearts sink.

Note, we came to your restaurant to dine alone, just the two of us, and we had intended to have a nice conversation about something - perhaps even something important, like love or sex or neighborhood gossip or a million-dollar business idea or whether Eagles coach Andy Reid should be fired.

Now, however, we have an audience of two couples on each side. Or else, we've become an audience to two couples on each side. In either case, we are now dining with four more people than we planned on. Inevitably, one of these people will just have to know what we're eating and within 10 minutes will be chiming in with dating advice or a business card.

Once, a man pointed at our appetizers and said, loudly, to his girlfriend, "Gross!" Then he got into an argument with her, and as he left the restaurant "to smoke," his butt knocked a full glass of red wine all over us. Another time, a drunk, overperfumed cougar put her arm around us and gave us a sloppy, pinot-grigio-smelling kiss.

Allow me to be clear: This is uncomfortable; it is not part of the deal.

This is not to say we don't like talking to people. We hang out at bars all the time and have casual conversations with random strangers as we drink beer and eat bar food. But this is different.

Suppose we came to, say, your new, contemporary Italian restaurant near Rittenhouse, and we ate your lousy gnocchi di zucca, which tasted like sweet pumpkin-pie balls and not gnocchi di zucca at all. And we drank a midpriced wine from your list to accompany our two courses, plus antipasto. And somehow the bill for two, without dessert or coffee, came to $267.

We think you would agree that this is very different from burgers and beer at a bar, and for the price, it might include a little personal space.

Who likes banquettes? Well, it seems that the restaurant designers that you hire love them.

Just last week, on the Atlantic's website, David Rockwell, CEO of the architecture and design firm Rockwell Group, posted a love letter to restaurant banquettes, along with his sketches of banquette design.

In the article, Rockwell recounts having dinner with Wolfgang Puck at this restaurant Cut in Los Angeles. They discussed the restaurant's design, a discussion that "inevitably revolved around one piece of furniture: banquettes."

"Put simply," Rockwell writes, "the overall atmosphere was created by individuals engaged in social interaction, and banquettes were the connective tissue that linked these people."

Now that sounds so high-minded, so utopian. It sounds almost like dining inside Facebook or Google+, with enlightened citizens - nay, "connectors," the ones author Malcolm Gladwell writes about - sharing essential cultural information that might change the world. For a moment, we are fooled.

But then we take one look at Rockwell's banquette sketch and we are brought back to reality. It shows a long couch along a wall, with five tables and adjoining chairs crammed together. The title of this design: the Railroad. It makes us cringe.

Still, we thought we might be missing the point. Perhaps we are simply growing too old and too unhip. So we emailed Jun Aizaki of créme design, a firm based in oh-so-hip Williamsburg, Brooklyn, N.Y., that has designed several of Jose Garces' Philadelphia restaurants, including Tinto, Distrito, Chifa, Village Whiskey and JG Domestic. We hoped Aizaki might make a compelling case for the long banquette that might change our minds.

"I think when done right, it has a classy feel," he said. "But, when not done right, it feels cheap." He added: "It is nicer when the stretch is not too long, though, more than four tables long."

Aizaki insisted that he liked banquettes better than a free-standing table and thought the close quarters were "cozy" instead of intrusive. "When the sound level is right, there is something always interesting in eavesdropping and listening to other people's conversations. But most of the time, the level of sound in general is so loud that everyone is shouting and you just hear noise," he said.

In any case, the client seems to like banquettes very much. "Restaurateurs like them because they are flexible and easy to arrange into different table accommodations, whether it's a party of two, four or six, and you don't waste precious seats."

Yes, restaurateurs, we know that in the end this is the real reason for the banquette. We understand you need to make money by squeezing a butt in every seat possible. We really do.

We'd just rather those butts didn't need to briefly rest on our table on the way to their seats.

Kisses,

Jason


Jason Wilson has twice won an award for Best Newspaper Food Column from the Association of Food Journalists. He is the author of "Boozehound" and editor of "The Smart Set," an online arts and culture journal at Drexel University. Follow him at twitter.com/boozecolumnist or go to jasonwilson.com.

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