How to dine with strangers: 5 Long Island restaurants with communal tables
Among our world’s scorned peoples, there is one group that is arguably the target of more condemnation than any other, a group with a remarkable capacity for arousing suspicion and fear within all of us: Strangers.
You'll find them everywhere — avoiding eye contact with us on the street, taking forever when we’re behind them at the ATM, scarfing up all the Taylor Swift tickets — remaining perennial sources of misgivings. The very name identifies them as weird and unworthy of association, as beings who are strange. And even as they look like us and compete for similar tables at the food court, their agendas — benign? dangerous? — remain their own. Mere talking to strangers exposes us to the threat of harm, or so we are taught as children, and accepting candy from them is something we dare not do but one day a year.
Of course, there are times when avoiding strangers is prudent. Like, say, during a pandemic. But that bleak period also taught us something else about strangers, namely their value. No sooner had the hunkering down begun and the pizza boxes piled up than a host of studies appeared extolling the importance of “minimal social interaction” with people we don’t know, anything from is-this-seat-taken exchanges to smiling at baristas to chuckling over ridiculously long CVS receipts. Strangers, said researchers, aren’t just people who cut us off without signaling and annoy us by texting during the movie. They can potentially make us smarter, happier, more accepting and healthier, both physically and mentally. And achieving such benefits is as simple as — irony alert — talking to them.
But what about eating with them? It’s one thing to witness the tornado-style devastation they level on a plate of calamari from the relative safety of your own table, but another to be dinner-adjacent for two hours. Normally, you know certain things about a person before supping with them shoulder-to-shoulder — whether their left-handedness could impact your right-handedness, hail from a culture in which burping means something different from your own — and make decisions accordingly.
Dining at a restaurant’s communal table does not allow for such vetting. As such, it can be unpredictable and risky, but thrilling too, especially if you know where to go. These five establishments possess tables of terrificness, tables that beg for all manner of sharing, arguing persuasively for a post-Plexiglas partition world, one in which we destrangefy every stranger in our midst, or at least a few of them anyway.
Barrique Kitchen & Wine Bar
69 Deer Park Ave., Babylon; 631-321-1175, barriquekitchenandwinebar.com
Just off the entranceway of this 14-year-old New American restaurant and oenophilic idyll sits what is arguably the Island’s most attractive communal table, one fashioned from a large, handsomely distressed barn door from a farm in Spain. It seats up to 10 or more on attractive wooden stools, and is just the place to share a snack or more while trading insights into this or that varietal. Cavort in the glow of soft, amber light from overhead fixtures, or use it as cover to steal a slice of your neighbor’s thin-crust. Is there a barn somewhere inhabited by freezing animals wondering why they’re suffering just so that other animals can engage in minimal social interaction? Perhaps. But one thing’s for sure: their sacrifices have not been in vain.
WHAT TO EAT: Well-curated and variously-sized charcuterie boards, shrimp oreganata pizza, polenta fries, baguette with Gorgonzola dipping sauce, anything vaguely tapas-esque.
ICE BREAKERS: “What’s a barrique, anyway?”; wonder aloud whether the menu’s best cocktail, Rosemary’s Baby, is named for the movie or the aromatic; your pizza’s pesto: random squiggle or meditation circle?; the twinkle lights in the restaurant’s alleyway remind you of your last vacation in _____.
Herb & Olive
172 Plandome Rd., Manhasset; 516-439-5421
While communal is often synonymous with raucous, it need not be so. Since 2019, food lovers in search of top-notch Mediterranean provisions have been making pilgrimages to this attractive place, the front half of which comprises a market loaded with interesting imports. But beyond that, sandwiched between an arresting portrait of a 3,000-year-old olive tree and a wall of cubbies stashed with wine bottles, sit a pair of sleek bar tables with industrial-style stools to match. There, underneath large globe pendant lights, a dignified vibe prevails for picking at horiatiki salads, and conversations of the genteel sort are to be preferred. That’s not to say there can’t be spirited debates over whether the proper olive is stuffed with pimento, feta or sun-dried tomatoes. Just use your inside voice.
WHAT TO EAT: Falafel, salads, grilled wild salmon with spinach rice, the marinated pork dish known as kontosouvli.
ICE BREAKERS: Wax clueless about what ee-voo is till someone finally tells you; solicit alternative mascot ideas for the Native American one Manhasset High has now; “Who else is on the Mediterranean Diet?” ; something about Billy Joel still cruising the Miracle Mile.
Lost and Found
951 W. Beech St., Long Beach; 516-442-2606
When your entire dining room only seats 30, planting a large table for 10 right in the middle of it might seem a bit of an extravagance. But for nearly a decade, chef-owner Alexis Trolf has been coaxing extravagance out of rustic confinement with panache, all the while challenging himself and his devoted fan base to think about food differently, and more importantly, to eat differently. The handwritten, oft-changing menu is one reflection of his searching nature; another may be seen on no-reservation Monday evenings, when Trolf sets out all manner of small plates at the bar, offering a large selection of uber-creative efforts that patrons can pick from and then, you guessed it, decamp to the communal table for an informal meal. And with selections like vegetable caponata, Argentine sausage with potato confit and endive asparagus salad — well, let’s just say you’ll never want for conversation starters.
WHAT TO EAT: Lamb tartare, anything with marinated olives, bucatini with short rib matbucha, your server’s thoughtful wine pairing suggestions.
ICE BREAKERS: “Did anybody else have trouble finding this place?”; the wild boar’s head and taxidermy’s place in restaurant décor generally; gently poll tablemates about a proposed wind farm off the South Shore; know what “perierat, et inventus est” on the menu means.
Love Lane Kitchen
240 Love Ln., Mattituck; 631-298-8989, lovelanekitchen.com
“Grab a table, I’ll find you” is the standard greeting for all who enter this charming spot, whether waterproof boot-clad fishermen or bachelorettes en route to a winery tour, and there’s a fine one to grab with a communal setup here, two tables end-to-end arranged with a dozen or so high-back tavern chairs, dominating and bisecting the dining room. From morning till night, locals and pretend-locals alike gather for anything from BECs at breakfast time to fresh-caught fish, Crescent Farms duck and a rotating cast of bundt cakes as the day goes on, and of course to catch up on the latest North Fork gossip, the juiciest of which tends to be found in the mornings, by the way, around the serve-yourself coffee urns at the bar. (Java nirvana, thy name is East End Breakfast Blend.) A paragon of friendliness since 2007, this homey spot is where social anxiety goes to die.
WHAT TO EAT: Benedict burger, lobster roll, local sea bass, coconut Bundt cake, chocolate cake or whatever else is under glass on the bar.
ICE BREAKERS: Troll for leads on an illegal short-term rental; “anybody else call the helicopter noise complaint line lately?”; offer views on whether an indoor water park and/or golf simulator is really what the community needs; inquire as to whether the oldest scallop in Peconic estuary is really named Rodger and where he got that name.
That Meetball Place
54 W. Main St., Patchogue; 631-569-5888, thatmeetballplaceli.com
This popular hangout has much to recommend, but it’s the pair of long, long tables stretching from the bar area to infinity that turn communal dining into a Hogwarts’ Great Hall experience, and TMP itself into a place to meet over meat. The lively atmosphere and frequent large crowds don’t hurt either, nor does the menu, which wanders far deeper than most into shareable territory. To wit: burrata-stuffed meatballs and bacon Cheddar tots are one thing, but here you can pass around the adult beverages, too. Simply head to the cocktail list’s Great Guns section, featuring oversized Mason jars filled with colorful libations and accompanied by four straws as testament to their potency. Some will draw the line at sipping from the same fishbowl as three other strangers, others will experience cringey flashbacks of team-building exercises past, but all will agree there are worse ways to meet a friend.
WHAT TO EAT: Lobby pot skins, crispy chicken deviled eggs, supersized stuffies, meatballs (you know you’re curious), any Great Gun.
ICE BREAKERS: Any lame pun about having a “ball”; toast a townie’s ascendance to the Hollywood Walk of Fame (cheers, Billy Idol); sure it’s crowded, but at least it’s not bingo night, right?; “everyone has it backward, it’s Brooklyn that’s Patchogue west.”