As countless news stories have already pointed out, the pandemic is changing the way that restaurants will continue to operate in the future, well after the danger from COVID-19 has passed. Many restaurants have switched to digital menus that guests access via QR code, for example, and lots of places that never had a reason to offer carry-out or delivery before 2020 are now funneling more of their business through those channels. Seating configurations inside dining rooms have been radically altered, too. Which means that—for the time being, at least—restaurants have spaced out their typical line of two-top tables with chairs on one side and a long, shared banquette on the other. Banquette seating, in its usual, somewhat more compact arrangement, elicits some strong opinions from diners, many of whom enjoy its coziness and others who would rather wait 45 minutes for a larger table to open up. We argue the case for and against this space-saving restaurant seating concept.
Surely I’m not alone in the dread I used to have in the pre-pandemic days of dining out: the moment when you see that the host is leading you over to the back wall of the restaurant, where parties are packed so close together along the banquette that diners must physically pick up and move their own tables to squeeze in and out of their seats. That silent pact you make with yourself that you will not get up to use the restroom during this meal under any circumstances, lest your ass knock over the water glass of the stranger who sits three inches from you on the same stretch of vinyl, an expanse that has already created a dilemma of whose purse gets to occupy the narrow strip of negative space between tables. Given the razor-thin margins of the restaurant business, the high cost of metropolitan real estate, and the need for high customer volume and turnover, I completely understand that banquette seating is a necessary evil—but it has always sucked, and I can’t be the only one out there who thinks so.
On my first post-vaccination trip to my favorite neighborhood restaurant, I noticed the banquette seating was more spaced out than ever before: every other table along the line had been removed and replaced with a tall potted plant. Meaning, for once in my life, banquette seating was a pleasant experience, one in which I felt free to leave the table to go powder my nose or reach into my purse without elbowing a stranger. I hope it never goes back to the way it was before.
I know the chances of my ever getting assassinated are slim to none, but I still like to be prepared. One of the most essential parts of protecting oneself from a stray bullet or dagger is never leaving oneself open to an unseen attacker (or so I have gathered from years and years of reading, TV-watching, and moviegoing). Sitting in the open, bent over a table with your back to the door is just announcing: “Hey, here I am, enemies, come and get me!” In the banquette, though, your back is to the wall. You’re protected. It’s true there’s no quick means of escape, but you can see what’s going on. You can plan ahead and duck under the table if you need to.
Actually, seeing without being seen is how I aspire to go through life (nothing causes me more anxiety than public speaking, even if it’s only to a class of 10 college students), and banquettes are the absolute best for that. I especially love the curved ones that line the walls at old-school bars and steakhouses, but any kind will do. As for having to squeeze between tables, well... an etiquette expert told me once that you want your ass to be facing your own table. And I have lived by that ever since. My ass hasn’t done any permanent damage yet, so I suppose I’ll stay in the back where it’s safe.