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I’ll Have What She’s Having

By Priya Krishna

At Niche Niche, the dining experience feels less like a restaurant and more like a dinner party.
Noah Fecks
At Niche Niche, the dining experience feels less like a restaurant and more like a dinner party.

At New York’s Niche Niche, an American restaurant that opened in SoHo in March, 40 dinner guests arrive all at once, at 6 p.m., and are escorted from the entryway to their preassigned seats in a dining room that looks more like a living room, with stuffed chairs and velvet pillows. Fifteen minutes later, the hostess bangs on a golden swan statuette with a wooden spoon; dinner is ready. There are no options: Out of the kitchen come massive platters of dishes like trout tartare, dry-aged strip steak and, for dessert, chocolate cake with whipped cream. The assembled strangers eat the same meal at the same pace, passing plates, making conversation.

This feels less like a restaurant than a dinner party — and that’s the point. Across the United States, restaurants like Niche Niche are subverting the traditional power dynamic between chefs and diners, refocusing the meal not on what’s eaten but how. At Brooklyn’s Gertie, an elevated version of a classic diner that opened in Williamsburg in February, there are only one or two servers; during daytime table-service, patrons must visit the open kitchen when they want to order a Waldorf salad or cauliflower melt, navigating their way among the interconnected tables, which they choose themselves. At Celeste, a Peruvian restaurant in Somerville, Mass., each of the eight small tables is crowded with colourful, oddly sized dishes of ceviche, from which diners serve each other.

While some of these elements — group seating, shared entrees, preset menus — seem familiar, what’s novel is these restaurants’ underlying ethos: The goal is to bring people of all backgrounds together in this splintered time, to make eating out a collective enterprise. Communal dining, of course, isn’t new. But these restaurants are both more urbane and more ambitious than their forebears — places where the food, wine and design are considered so carefully that the casual, family-style service and ambience feel, at first, like paradoxes. The format seems theatrical, or at least experiential: In these establishments, customers aren’t only paying for the food but for the upending of dining-out conventions. Restaurants are, to some extent, valued for their predictability and consistency — in this new model, the element of surprise is part of the attraction.

© 1987 The Peter Hujar Archive LLC, Courtesy of Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York, and Fraenkel Gallery, San FranciscoPeter Hujar’s “Dinner for Don Nice” (circa 1967).
Peter Hujar’s “Dinner for Don Nice” (circa 1967).

The restaurant as we know it was born in Paris. In the 17th century, elaborate feasting was reserved for the royal court: Louis XIV wielded food as a means of power, throwing lavish parties with mountains of strawberries, cherries and melons to provoke envy among his subjects, who ate at home or else at rough inns, where bread and meat were slammed unceremoniously on the bar.

The first modern restaurant was opened in 1766 by a businessman named Mathurin Roze de Chantoiseau and was inspired in part by 17th- and 18th-century salons, intellectual gatherings in Paris run primarily by women with an emphasis on “reaching across class,” says Faith Beasley, a French literature and culture professor at Dartmouth College. Places like Chantoiseau’s were quickly embraced as social spaces where people could meet, share ideas and celebrate: ad hoc suppers, open to all. In their early days, the food — sausage, turbot and peaches — was presented en masse to the table in a style known as service à la française, which tempered the spectacle and abundance of the court feasts with better-tasting, higher-quality dishes. But by the early 19th century, after the Napoleonic era, the banquet had become passé; restaurants abandoned it in a favour of the newly chic service à la russe — said to have been brought to France in 1810 by the Russian ambassador Alexander Kurakin. It was essentially a tasting menu, where each course was plated separately and served in a particular order, and it became the predominant approach at fine-dining establishments throughout the West.

These latest restaurants, then, update the old French system — and represent an evolution of the family-style meals that were popularised by chefs, notably Momofuku’s David Chang, more than a decade ago. At Niche Niche, where visitors pay $80 for a five-course meal and wine, the owner, Ariel Arce, hopes to create something “bigger than ourselves,” she says, “which is important in such an isolating space like New York.” Her restaurant’s aesthetic — plush upholstery, dim lighting, overlapping rugs — is meant to feel comforting. At the Israeli chef Eyal Shani’s HaSalon, a Tel Aviv spot with a second location in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen that started dinner service in April, the tavern-like space features mismatched chairs at about a dozen large tables, upon which patrons often dance to Israeli pop music after the meal concludes.

Celeste, which opened in 2018, takes this concept even further. Customers seem visibly nervous when they first walk into the crowded, cramped space, hook their coats on a tangle of metal wiring that doubles as an art installation and, as a party of four, are seated at a table that in theory should only fit two, where the lomo saltado beef barely fits alongside the chaufa, a kind of Peruvian fried rice. If the co-owners Maria Rondeau and JuanMa Calderon see a group that hasn’t ordered enough food, they’ll bring over samples of different dishes from other tables, just as they did when they previously ran Celeste as a series of dinner parties out of their Cambridge apartment. Throughout the night, the volume of the salsa music constantly increases, encouraging people to lean in. “Not so it’s obnoxious,” Rondeau says, “but it’s another way of creating intimacy.”

It’s also a way of forcing people to communicate. When the earliest restaurants emerged, they soon became part of France’s new identity — a symbol of democracy after a period of political upheaval. And perhaps that’s why this dinner-party format is resonating right now, at a moment when divisions define every social interaction, when we all struggle to determine how we might enact change. “It’s that feeling of being politically powerless,” Beasley says. “People want influence on the public sphere.”

Oil on canvas © 2019 Margaret Morrison, courtesy of Woodward Gallery, N.Y.C.Margaret Morrison's “Keramikos” (2017).
Margaret Morrison's “Keramikos” (2017).

The collaborative model isn’t just for the diner’s benefit, though. As labour costs at restaurants continue to grow — as of August, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, average hourly earnings were up 4 percent in the past year — it also makes economic sense. Seth Bregman, who, along with his wife Jenni, opened the midcentury-inspired Bardo Lounge in Oakland, Calif., in 2018, says that without the stress of having to precisely time orders, his kitchen, which serves New American food like country-fried quail, is more relaxed. At Gertie, the do-it-yourself system requires half the front-of-house staff as other restaurants this size. And at Tailor in Nashville, diners pay ahead for their prix fixe Indian feast, allowing the owner, Vivek Surti, to budget for ingredient costs.

When people arrive at Tailor — a minimalist, half-hidden spot connected to another restaurant — they’re greeted the way Surti’s grandmother did when she hosted parties: with snacks, such as potato ghatiya or sorghum popcorn, offered in little bowls. Surti presents each course standing in the centre of the dining room, retelling a story from his Tennessee childhood, like the time his parents adapted the Southern fish-fry tradition as their own, coating catfish in turmeric, cumin and garlic. Often, he sees elderly aunties chatting with college students at the close-crowded tables; it’s important to him that people of all ages, no matter their knowledge of Indian food, feel comfortable eating here. Serving a communal menu allows the chef to introduce guests to dishes they may never have chosen themselves, such as kadhi, a silky turmeric-yoghurt soup, or dal bhat, a Gujarati staple of lentils and rice. “This is how we explain what Indian home food is,” Surti says, noting that by the meal’s end, there’s a level of trust between host and guest.

Of course, the magic doesn’t always take hold. On a recent visit to Niche Niche, the room was animated, but as one woman signed her check at the front bar, she lamented to her dining companion that she didn’t make any new friends. Many evenings at Celeste, something goes wrong: The air-conditioning breaks down; the coat rack becomes overstuffed; the poorly functioning exhaust system leaves people’s shirts smelling of chaufa. But those surprises and accidents inspire an attitude “of embracing whatever comes our way,” Rondeau says. “We’re getting through it and resolving it together.”