Views from the bar
Rachel Hendry investigates why her customers are so obsessed with sitting in a booth
Saturday 30 July 2022
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“How reserved is that table?” asks a couple, pointing at the reserved sign that accompanies six menus laid out in a booth.
“Pretty reserved,” I respond in what I hope is the right balance of apologetic cheerfulness before helpfully adding: “That’s why there’s a reserved sign on it.”
I have, in the year and a half since starting, become very possessive over the three booths that line the back wall of my place of work. As a front of house manager it is my responsibility – among many, many others – to ensure tables are filled with the appropriate number of people. Groups of two on tables of two, for example, groups of four or more on booths and so on. It is a customer's responsibility in return – as I have learnt the hard way – to make this game of hospitality Tetris as difficult for me as humanly possible.
“That which irritates us in others, informs us of ourselves,” as my therapist used to tell me. I think of this when the one-hundredth customer in as many minutes tells me, in no uncertain terms, that they would really be much, much happier were they sat in one of the booths. To be completely candid, I fight the urge to flip every single table in the room every single time. Because as irritable as these countless interactions make me – a person already famed for their irritable nature – there must be a reason why, like moths to a flame, people are unable to dine completely satisfied unless seated in a booth.
Let’s start with what I envisage the mood board behind the first restaurant booth may have looked like. I’m seeing grainy images of the first Parisian restaurants, depictions of private seating for upper class church goers and hand painted images of boxes at the opera. These exclusive, refined ways of seating, paired with colonial aspirations of British living are, I imagine, what inspired the first known advertisement for booth seating in a 1796 Boston dining establishment.
That which irritates us in others, informs us of ourselves
Finally, private and superior seating wasn’t just for the upper class, because; as long as it was socially acceptable for you to eat out at all, if you could afford at least one item on the menu, you too could have a personal box of your own. And their popularity only grew from there. Not only did booths become a recurring feature in American diners, their secret, escapist designs were pushed to the extreme: curtains and screens became commonplace, hiding their inhabitants from view. Now booth seating was no longer a way of ensuring you were seen out in society, but the complete opposite, an assurance that no one could lay eyes on you.
Such seclusion is ripe for abuse though, and in 1910 an anti sex work group behind the US Mann Act sought to completely prohibit any public floor seating that had restrictive viewing. Public authorities tried to remove the use of screens and some even attempted to limit the height of the walls enclosing booths. Prohibition in the 1920s proved a useful distraction to the moral debate of the booth seating, but by then the cosy and intimate nature of sitting in a booth was so popular that it was well and truly here to stay.
My friend Elliot Comanescu works across hospitality, design and architecture, so I asked him about the sinful, sought after nature of the booth seating.
“I think you can draw lots out of this notion of public and private spaces. Booth seating creates a sense of privacy and intimacy simultaneously,” says Elliot. “The increased height of the back creates more privacy than your regular chair,” he adds, which is something I’d never considered before. A space within a space. Interesting.
Booth seating creates a sense of privacy and intimacy simultaneously
Obviously religious spaces and the opera have a lot to answer for in our society, but I do think the aspirational aesthetics of our television screens have a part to play too.
I want you to think of every scene in a TV show or a movie that takes place in a dining establishment; how many of those scenes involve a character sitting in a booth? I’d wager quite a lot. The cast of Seinfeld seem to bicker constantly from the comfort of a booth in Monk’s Cafe, the T-Birds and Pink Ladies sip milkshakes from theirs, Barbara Lewis serenades Kevin and Chiron while they are enclosed in a booth in Moonlight. Pulp Fiction, Queen and Slim, When Harry Met Sally all contain pivotal conversations that took place in a booth. I could happily go on.
I decide to pay closer attention on my next shift back at work. A combination of the longer tables, bench seating and the cushioned backs mean that the booths are not just socially elevated seating options but physically elevated too, you can’t help but be instantly drawn to them. Sitting in one I can feel the luxury envelop me and I feel the masculine urge to take up every inch of space available to me.
I see it, I like it, I want it, I got it (yeah) sings Ariana Grande in her hit Seven Rings. It’s a lyric that can be applied to most of our consumerist obsessions, but I think of it most when I watch a customer gravitate towards a booth, regardless of how many people they are with. It’s an accessible luxury that, coffee and diner breakfast aside, you don’t have to pay extra for (although the thought of a booth tax has crossed my mind).
For life is long, and life is hard, and we who are born unto this cruel earth are all deserving of a booth, are we not? It’s something I’ll try to take a deep breath and remember, next time someone asks me if that booth is taken. All I ask in return, is that you have some understanding for the poor front of house manager who can only accommodate so many.
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