Communal Tables or No Communal Tables

Salt of the Earth
Located in Pittsburgh's Garfield neighborhood, Salt of the Earth is part of the area's revitalization. Chef/owner Kevin Sousa and his modern American restaurant were recognized as the city's chef of the year and best new restaurant. Featuring communal tables, the eatery constantly changes its menu, with dishes like seared scallops and spaghetti in uni sauce ($24), says general manager Ehrrin Keenan.
Tuscan Kitchen
Open only two years, Tuscan Kitchen in Salem, New Hampshire, has grown into a favorite. The restaurant makes everything from scratch, including pasta, sauces, baked goods and even gelato. Among the favorites are the Signature Tuscan Steak alla Fiorentina, with a 28-ounce aged ribeye, extra virgin roasted potatoes and onions ($42), says owner Joe Faro. All seating is traditional.
Why do you have this seating style?
We want Salt of the Earth to have a community feel and really be nice and open. It is minimal but warm and industrial, like Pittsburgh is. Communal tables contribute to that. On the first floor, we have three large communal tables that each seat 12 diners; upstairs is more traditional seating and the only place we take reservations. Probably 60 percent of [guests] want to sit at the communal tables. It has a more dynamic environment.
We designed our restaurant to replicate a Tuscan farmhouse, so we want people to feel comfortable. I think traditional seating accomplishes that. We do have something of a communal table upstairs for the wine bar, but that is the only place it may work because it's more of an eclectic experience. The main dining area has a rustic look with tables that have distressed walnut tops, and that lends itself to a traditional setting.
How do customers like it?

There's a reason the communal tables are popular. From a design perspective, they're fantastic. They are made by a local artist, who used trees that fell in Riverview Park, so it's striking. Even if people are wary when they're sitting next to strangers, you look over a minute later and they're living it up. It is a sense of community. Our menu is on a big slate wall opposite the tables, so the experience is pretty interactive.

Truthfully, this is what our guests are really looking for. We tried to have communal tables by the bar on the first floor, but it really didn't go well. The complaint was they didn't want to eat with someone else—I don't know these people and I don't want to eat with them. We have seating for about 500, including the patio, and the only place anything like a communal table works is the wine bar, for drinks.

Are there any plans to change it?

No, it's definitely part of what we do. The restaurant is very comfortable, with stools made of the same white pine as the tables. Every once in a while, people come in who have heard about us, find out they will be sitting next to strangers and leave. But that is very rare. 

Experience has taught us that our [traditional seating] works. When you're having drinks, a communal table may work, but not when you want to have dinner. You want to be able to talk openly with your family or friends, and that is not easy to do in a communal table setting.