Last summer, I finally trekked to the Finger Lakes to eat at FLX Table. It was the sole purpose of my trip: I had been trying for a year to get a reservation (which is hard to come by as it is) that matched up with my schedule.
It's difficult to get into FLX Table not just because of who is behind it—husband-and-wife team Christopher Bates and Isabel Bogadtke, well-known restaurateurs and winemakers in the region—but also because of its novel concept. The restaurant has just one big table that seats about 14 people, and a small open kitchen; guests sit together and are served the same three-course meal with hors d'oeuvres, just like they would if they were attending a big dinner party at a friend's home.
"We wanted to bring the social back to the meal," Bates told me. "We wanted to take people off their phones, and force them to converse with others." While I definitely Instagrammed my entire meal (sorry, Christopher), the pull toward socializing with your neighbors is inevitable. You're sitting elbow to elbow with a stranger, or sitting across from them. It's easy to go from "Can you pass the butter?" to "Where are you from?"
David Barzelay's Lazy Bear in San Francisco is the product of a series of dinner pop-ups he hosted at his apartment with his wife, when the financial meltdown of 2008 cut his law career short. Today it has a permanent home in the Mission District, but it's still rooted in the same dinner-party format. First, guests are led to a living room where they're encouraged to mingle, eat hors d'oeuvres and get served drinks from a communal punch bowl. Then they sit down at two long communal tables, which seat around 40 people total, to enjoy a tasting menu. "What I wanted out of the dining experience was something more social and interactive," says Barzelay.
Even if you're not sitting down with complete strangers, a dinner-party restaurant can deliver a completely different experience. Talula's Table in Kennett Square, Pa., has one table that sits 10 to 12 people, but it's only open to one reservation a night: You snag the whole table and are in charge of populating it. Aimee Olexy, the owner who also operates many traditional restaurants in Philadelphia, says a meal at Talula's is like Thanksgiving, "if you could pick your favorite people to have Thanksgiving with."
Olexy noticed that, compared to all her other restaurants, people talked about different things in this intimate but engaging setting, whether they hadn't seen each other in a long time or see each other every day. Topics of discussion are more out of the ordinary, she says, and the conversation often veers into storytelling—a personal experience, a family story. Guests will talk about their travel and culinary experiences, with both the people they're sitting with and with the staff. Olexy notes that this sometimes becomes an inspiration for a future menu item. "In a busy restaurant, you don't quite get that interaction between the staff and the guests," she says.
Barzelay also thought critically about what the dinner-party format could bring that's different from a traditional dining experience. Lazy Bear encourages interaction between guests, but Barzelay also wanted to bring down the wall between the kitchen and the dining room—figuratively and literally. When he eats out at a restaurant, he says, he always wants to pepper the chefs with questions, but there's rarely an opportunity to do that. The staff at Lazy Bear encourages diners to come up to the open kitchen and interact with the chefs, ask questions, give compliments and feedback. "A lot of guests really do want a lot more information about where the products come from, about how the food is produced, about why it's done the way that it's done," he says. "The why is much more important than the what."
And this translates very well to wine service. While Lazy Bear has about 1,200 selections on its wine list, most diners opt for the wine pairings. The servers and sommeliers at the restaurant relate anecdotes and stories about the producers, wines or vineyards of the bottles that they're serving to the guests. Additionally, because the program emphasizes old vintages of California wines, part of the conversation is the wine's place in the history of the state's winemaking.
At FLX Table, there is also a by-the-bottle wine list, but more often than not guests order one of the five drinks pairings (four wine, one beer), which have names like "Fun," "Baller" and the all-local "FLX baller." I opted for the latter, and was given a Fox Run Riesling Seneca Lake Hanging Delta Vineyard 2014 with cacio e pepe grits with eggplant, sesame and saffron, as well as an Element Cabernet Franc Finger Lakes 2010 with halibut in dashi broth with squash, green bean and potato. I also got a little jealous of my dinner companion, who got a Ratzenberger Riesling Spätlese Bacharacher Wolfshöhle 2004 in her "Fun" pairing.
All the wines are served via Coravin, and after they're poured the bottles are left on the table for guests to look at (and take photos on their phones—again, sorry). "You have people who will see what the person next to them is having, and they get excited about whether they've had it before, or they've been to the region the wine came from, so that will spark conversation," says general manager Michalis Kalampoukas. The aim of the pairings is to introduce guests to different wines and let them have fun with it. "In the best case, we see guests sharing wines with each other," says Bates.
Talula's Table is entirely BYOB, but the staff has fun with it in their own way. Once the food menu is developed for an evening, Olexy will sit down with the chef and create a list of wine recommendations that would pair well with each dish, which is provided to guests in advance. She'll start by describing general wine styles and flavors that'll go with the dish, but will give specific wine suggestions too. Sometimes she'll recommend local Pennsylvania wines, and guests will stop by the winery on their way to the restaurant and get their wine for the evening. "It's amazing because they're then eating and drinking a true locavore menu," says Olexy.
There's a lot you can do with a nontraditional concept like this, and chefs and restaurateurs who are attempting it are making it their own—just like you would when entertaining at home.