Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Ban the Banquette

Yesterday I had lunch with two friends at a plush restaurant in the city (which rates one star in the current local restaurant guide, although we shouldn't hold that against it). The meal was pleasant enough but overall it wasn't a pleasurable experience.

This morning I read this article by David Rockwell, CEO of a New York architecture and design practise who knows a bit about designing restaurant spaces, extolling the virtues of banquette seating. Well I'm sorry Mr. Rockwell but I beg to differ.

I don't think you need to be an architect to understand that the seating plays a huge role in the atmosphere of any restaurant. The positioning of the tables and the seating at those tables influence how diners behave towards the members of their own group, seated at the same table, and towards the other diners in the room. Maintaining privacy and some sense of personal space in the public space; being able to make eye contact with the people you are dining with and being able to attract the attention of the waiter without having to stare at the people at the table next to you and simply sitting in a chair which is comfortable rather than merely stylish all impact on the dining experience. And that means on the enjoyment of the food – it doesn't matter how clever the food is if you don't feel comfortable.

So why my dissatisfaction with yesterday's lunch? Because the three of us were sitting at a horseshoe shaped banquette. My heart sank the moment the waiter pulled the table forward . We dutifully took our seats and then he pushed the table back and trapped us in place.

David Rockwell, 'Creating Public Intimacy: Designing Restaurant Booths and Banquettes', The Atlantic, 8 November 2011.
 You don't need a degree in physics (or architecture for that matter) to recognise that the person or persons in the middle of the U are entirely hemmed in. It is difficult enough to discreetly leave the dining table but in the horseshoe scenario not only does the entire table have to be moved but half the people seated at it have to get up to make way for the poor embarrassed soul who needs to go to the loo before dessert. Slithering out of your seat and crawling under the table is not an option but it would cause less commotion.

Another consequence of the fixed seating is that individual diners have no control over how close they sit to the table. Unless the table is exactly centred some people have to sit on the edge of the seat while others are hard up against the edge of the table. Of course there's no discreetly moving your chair back so that you can rummage on the floor for the lost napkin or to allow for the crossing of legs or just a bit of expansion room between courses.

And in my experience there seems to be a general problem with the depth of the banquette. There is always too much space between your back and the seat back. You have to sit right on the edge of the seat to get to the food and then wriggle back to lean up against the back rest or else collapse backwards into the void and eventually connect with the back rest at a rakish angle. There's also something I don't like about being marooned on a seat which is too big for me. On the one hand I want my own chair not my share of a communal space but there's also a strange feeling of isolation when you can see the expanse of unoccupied leather between you and your nearest neighbour. Your own chair gives you a bit of definition, a sense of security and place.

Yesterday the sense of alienation was increased because the three of us sat at a table big enough to accommodate four on the banquette which meant that the person opposite me was just that bit too far away for quiet conversation. Surely the staff in a restaurant worthy of one star should be able to work out that three people are only one more than two people not one less than four, that is they can squish up a bit into a smaller space rather than be left to wallow in too much.

Mr Rockwell argues that the horseshoe banquette 'creates an intimate, inward facing world, but also looks out onto the theatre of the dining room' which is all very well in theory but the theory also needs to address how people get into and out of that world and whether or not its a world they feel they want to be in. It seems to me that there isn't anything intrinsically intimate about the banquette. I would suggest that any well placed table and chairs can become its own little world within the greater whole provided those seated at it feel relaxed and comfortable.

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