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Friday, January 30, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 20.0° F  Fair
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Eating at the shared table
When your usual booth-for-two just doesn't cut it

I don't have the biggest social circle in Madison, but in the last year or so I've shared some fine meals with a crew of individuals. I've dined with retired Peace Corps volunteers and hip young beer professionals, soft-spoken Lutherans and saucy Italians. Today, I could tell you the names of very few of those folks, but the experiences we shared were wonderful and memorable.

These great and unlikely meals are thanks to a phenomenon that has truly exploded in Madison, one that is difficult to name. "Event meal" doesn't really do it, because they're not always flashy. "Experiential dining" usually connotes some sort of extra level of participation. The best and simplest way to describe them? Shared table meals.

Americans can dine in very contradictory ways from one meal to the next. Our ethnic backgrounds tend to value community and shared effort in cooking and eating. But once we settle in as "Americans," it doesn't take very long for us to start longing for the quietest, most private booth in the restaurant. "Cafeteria-style seating" is anathema to many. If the host seats another party next to us in a wide-open dining room, we bristle.

But the shared table meal is making a comeback. On the coasts, some restaurants feature a communal table. Prefer to dine alone? Tough! Don't like conversing with strangers? Deal with it!

If long tables with more seats than you have fingers make you break out in hives, I'm here to tell you that there's plenty to be gained from a shared table experience.

At certain places, shared tables are the only kind you can get. Take Fromagination, for example. Since late winter of 2009, the Square's premier cheese shop has been offering fondue lunches and dinners around their one table in the back of the shop. Rich and luxurious cheeses, savory meats, and a healthy slug of Kirsch - this is a meal from another continent and totally without parallel in Madison. Only at the cozy shared table of Fromagination can you take part.

Other times, shared tables open doors to restaurants you might not have frequent access to. Around the same time Fromagination kicked off its fondue meals, chef Tory Miller launched an ongoing series of Tuesday night "comfort food" shared table meals at his beloved restaurant, L'Etoile. $22 might seem like a lot for one plate of food, but this is a restaurant where one meal with wine can run you four times that much. Considering the bona fides of the chef and the quality of the ingredients, the price tag is a steal, and every single person at the table is likely sharing in that sensation of "I can't believe we're eating something this good!"

Tuesday supper themes have included "Breakfast for Dinner," "Ode to Julia Child," "Crawfish Boil," "German Night," "Carnitas," "Burgers and Malts," "Vegetarian Feast," "Cassoulet" and "A James Beard Home Style Dinner."

Check the L'Etoile website or call to find out about upcoming dinners and make your reservations early; these fill up fast.

A unique shared-table meal is the old-school church dinner or ethnic dinner at a fraternal order. Between houses of God and outposts of the old country, the adventurous eater can find some pretty amazing fare. Most of these meals are open to the public, and the church dinners are rarely overtly religious in nature.

They can be quirky, like a lutefisk and Swedish meatball repast from the Lutherans or the Sons of Norway, or more mainstream, like spaghetti and meatballs or pancake breakfasts. And this is Wisconsin, so there are well-loved Friday fish fries at more than one house of worship. St. Peter's at Ashton, just northwest of Middleton, is a perennial favorite.

These are not always easy dinners to spot. It's true that they're not announced via Twitter and Facebook like underground dining clubs; you don't need to be a well-connected hipster to find out about them. But unless you're driving by the location and catch a big vinyl banner, or belong to the parish, they can be difficult to learn of in advance. Keep an eye out for newspaper announcements, or check the bulletin board at the nearest market.

By using social networking sites, though, you can get shared table scoops directly from the horse's mouth - or the chef's palate, perhaps. I learned about Weary Traveler's recent Pork-Off event to benefit the REAP Food Group from chef Joey Dunscombe's Twitter page. The Underground Food Collective can be found on Twitter, Facebook and Flickr, the photo-sharing site, and its members frequently announce new dining events there. Likewise, Facebook fans and friends of Natt Spil were tipped off first to the New Belgium beer pairing dinner that was held there in January.

Other restaurants just announce upcoming special dinners on their websites. I will grant that many restaurant websites are, honestly, awful. Pop-outs, PDF menus that take forever to load and annoying music files are among the many sins that restaurant websites often commit. But some, like those for Brasserie V, Liliana's, Harvest and the Old Fashioned, are reasonably streamlined, regularly updated, and home to good information on upcoming food events. And no witty username required.

The restaurants and food concerns that put on these kinds of events are pretty smart, and they cook with passion. REAP Food Group, Quivey's Grove, Bradbury's "Glass House" dinners, even the Winter Farmers' Market - you know 'em, you love 'em.

So what's keeping you? Not sure how it all goes down? I can assure you, there's no secret handshake. (Well, maybe with the new Black Market Madison meals, put on by chefs from the Weary Traveler - but I bet it'll be easy to learn.) Buy an advance ticket if you need to, maybe wait in line, and then sit down and eat. There's no rule that says you need to make new friends, but I'm betting you won't be able to help yourself. Good food lengthens fuses; even the grouchiest among us will give a stranger a knowing eyebrow raise when met with a creamy fondue or sauerkraut and pork hocks at St. James Catholic Church.

The key is to trust that someone's in the kitchen making sure you're having a great meal, even if the people next to you are strangers. And one might be me, so be sociable!

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