Food News

Long Tables, No TVs: Bringing Community Back to Dallas Restaurants

Some Dallas bars and restaurants are encouraging guests to unplug and reconnect.
Some Dallas bars and restaurants are encouraging guests to unplug and reconnect. iStock
There’s a coffee shop in downtown Dallas that has a nice vibe and serves good coffee. It even has decent-enough tacos until 11 a.m. each day.

Various seating arrangements welcome people to eat there instead of rushing back to work or elsewhere. Little flower arrangements sit on each table, and the place doesn't have a TV. It’s the perfect spot to meet with a business acquaintance or an old friend.

When you look around, you might see some of that. But you also see a lot of headphones, screens inches from people's faces. The two-top tables fill up while one adventurous soul sits by himself at the one long communal table, where no one else will go. Because who’d want to sit next to a stranger?

Dallas restaurateurs may not have all the answers, but plenty want to encourage community beyond what many of us experience daily.

Sam Wynne appreciates the opportunity to enter a place and meet someone new. It’s something he and Jeff Fryman deeply considered when they started putting together BrainDead Brewing in Deep Ellum.

“That’s what bars are for, to strike up a conversation with someone who used to be a stranger,” Wynne says.

The main dining space of BrainDead has thin, long hightop tables, big enough for six people to sit around. When you enter the room, you find a long wooden table that looks like it can sit at least 20. On a given Saturday, that table has a few groups of three to six sharing the same space.

“This big, long table was important to us because we wanted to make groups of different sizes sit with each other as a way to mingle and get to know each other,” Wynne says. “When we do beer dinners, everybody’s splitting plates with other people and all of that.

“The whole goal of a neighborhood brewery is to be a meeting place and drive people together of all ages, so that is definitely a goal of ours, and it carries over into the patio seats, too.”

The place is blissfully free of distractions. There are no TVs. Sure, there’s a projector for showing larger events (such as the World Cup), but it’s largely idle.

“It was intentional with the idea of making people interact with each other,” Wynne says. “So if you came by yourself, you might not sit at the bar and watch some SportsCenter, but maybe strike up a conversation, whether it’s with a bartender or somebody else sitting next to you at the bar.”

click to enlarge You're likely to share a table with a stranger at BrainDead Brewing, and that's intentional. - MELISSA HENNINGS
You're likely to share a table with a stranger at BrainDead Brewing, and that's intentional.
Melissa Hennings
Joey Turner took at Brewed in Fort Worth also leans toward the no-TVs approach.

“We have one TV in the place,” Turner says. “We get pushback about that a lot. It’s covered by our Texas map, and we very rarely bring it out. But when we do, it's an event that brings people together.”

Brewed has a warm vibe that feels similar to a living room you might have grown up in.

“The whole place intentionally feels like the home: feminine pieces, masculine pieces, a lot of familiar pieces throughout, decor-wise,” he says.

The goal is to be about comfort in both food, atmosphere and conversations.

“Everything, from our longer tables to a lot of shared plates, were all intentional about bringing people together,” Turner says. “We also don't do Wi-Fi on the weekends. So that's just kind of a way for us to say we're shutting down Wi-Fi, put your phone aside and lean into conversations.”

Years ago, chef David Anthony Temple resurfaced with underground dinners, serving about 50 people at two-tops and four-tops in a local restaurant.

It was a fine experience. You could get a fantastic meal to share with your significant other or another couple.

Recently, though, he served plates of superior food in a different setting — just eight people around a long table.

This long table was in a conference space. But once guests settled into conversation, it felt more like a living room.

“The vibe is definitely different when it’s all one table,” Temple says. “For me as the chef, the entertainer putting on the event, it’s way more fun because people interact and have new friends. It’s really cool when it's accepted, but I have horror stories.”

Some guests can be irritated by someone who says something offensive, he says. Usually, they tell him they’d rather not go to another communal dinner.

Temple ran a restaurant in Deep Ellum years ago called Twenty-Seven. His food was good, and the dining room was set up with community tables.

“I had people who had traveled in Europe, and they loved it,” he says.

But most guests didn’t.

“We ended up breaking all the tables apart because everyone wanted to be by themselves. I honestly think it was because of the price point,” he says. “I think a lot of people go out to eat [in Dallas] and spend that one-on-one time with their partner, I guess.”

But the pop-up concept of his underground dinners is a more successful communal effort.

Pop-up dinners like this one at Frank Underground often offer a far more communal dining experience. - COURTESY MELISSA HENNINGS
Pop-up dinners like this one at Frank Underground often offer a far more communal dining experience.
courtesy Melissa Hennings
“I think because it's not a restaurant, you can do it better,” he says. “There's some dynamic — I don't know the psyche — but when you’re going out to eat with your partner or friends, then you’re seated at a table with other people, you communicate with them all instead of who you came with.”

Temple believes guests attending a pop-up dinner know they’ll be “thrown into the mix of things,” but he still sees more of that at a long table versus smaller tables.

“At that one table, they can get loud and have fun and get funky, everybody builds off their own vibe, you're in your own environment,” he says.

For one bookstore, coffee shop and bar in Oak Cliff, that sincere sense of community is something the owners constantly strive for.

Javier Garcia del Moral says when he and Paco Vique started thinking of what The Wild Detectives could be, fellowship with others was the golden key.

“The main goal has been to bring people together under the culture roof,” Garcia del Moral says. “What we're trying to do is put out things we think are important to increase or strengthen the social fabric. … For us in particular, in our own lives, culture, books, music, performances have been very important; it has been the substance that keeps us together.”

While the interior of this space has a bar, shared table spaces and more intimate spaces for comfortable conversations, events are important here.

Recently, The Wild Detectives had a full room of people ready to discuss the present and future of literary arts in Dallas. The space hosts authors for books discussions. Soon, it’ll welcome Backyard Story Night for guests to gather and share real, unrehearsed stories.

click to enlarge Wild Detectives in Oak Cliff features communal seating and turns off Wi-Fi on the weekends to encourage people to unplug. - KATHY TRAN
Wild Detectives in Oak Cliff features communal seating and turns off Wi-Fi on the weekends to encourage people to unplug.
Kathy Tran
“We just try to put those things out there, aiming to maybe create an environment that could foster this kind of exchange or interaction,” Garcia del Moral says. “So you have events where people can go and witness a performance or music show or book critic observation. So by itself, we create this kind of conversation.”

The environment, he says, can create a tone, but it’s not always predictable. People respond in different ways.

“That's why we have the drinks that we have, we carry the types of books that we have. All those things, I think, somehow skew the way people interact with each other,” Garcia del Moral says. “We're talking about human interaction, which is everything but exact science. You never know how people will react to what will be in front of them.

“So what we try to do with something like a book release, those are things that we believe somehow help us find connections in our life.”

It’s a concept that should be simple enough, and one that isn’t new — but one that seems increasingly difficult to find as our interactions with (and inside) dining spaces evolve.

“If you go back to what cafes and social places were in the previous century, those were the places people would go, share ideas, their thoughts based on experiences they had, the books they read, the things they had observed,” Garcia del Moral says. “The cafes, bars, restaurants were the places people exchanged those thoughts. Somehow that evolved.”
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Taylor Adams has written about the restaurant industry for the Dallas Observer since 2016. Now the Observer's food editor, she attended Southern Methodist University before covering local news at The Dallas Morning News.