How To Choose A Seat At A Restaurant

Via @AlexCornell

Via @AlexCornell

During the holiday season, many of us go out to eat more often than normal. While it’s gratifying to catch up with friends and colleagues over a meal, choosing where to sit at a table can be complicated and stressful – especially when there are more than just a few people.

I’ve studied the dynamics of many social situations but I haven’t read any research on how to choose a seat at a table. Of course, there is the notion the power seat is at the head of the table.  As a society, we unconsciously designate that seat as the one with the most authority. Choosing the power seat makes sense if you’re trying to gain advantage in a negotiation but it doesn’t provide much help for a social lunch.

There’s also the colloquialism of ‘never sit with your back to the door’.  This is advice I’ve usually seen attributed to maintaining the balanced energy of Feng Shui. However, in the lore of the American West, it’s also used to explain the untimely death of Wild Bill Hickok.  Either way, it’s good advice but still not much help.

So which seat should you choose?

Alex Cornell provides an interesting resolution for this quandary. He divides the problem into multiple table configurations and makes suggestions for each one, including the following:

6 Person Rectangle: How loud the restaurant is determines how important it is that you claim a middle seat. A quiet space allows for cross-table diagonal talking, and generally one conversation. A loud space however forces multiple conversations and less diagonal.

Alex’s advice is practical and useful. However, he appears a bit stuck for a good resolution when the dining party is spread across two tables.  Alex claims ‘regardless of how you time your approach, you will inevitably choose too soon.’  My recommendation would be to avoid booking two tables and split the group over separate days.

What’s your advice for choosing  a seat?

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6 Responses to How To Choose A Seat At A Restaurant

  1. Vijay December 22, 2013 at 11:26 pm #

    If I am organizing the meal, I try to avoid more than 5 or 6 for a caudal meal . My ideal number is 4 .

    Where you sit matters less than the quality of what you have to say . If you have something the group wants to hear – they will find a way to strain their necks and hear you 🙂

  2. Jerome Pineau (@JeromePineau) December 23, 2013 at 7:10 am #

    I was raised in NYC — you _always_ pick a seat facing the front entrance 🙂

  3. Joan December 23, 2013 at 12:52 pm #

    Yep, that’s how they caught Big Bad Ben Wade, had his back to the door. I always eat with my back to the wall just in case the Marshal’s coming. Seriously, doesn’t that just feel better? When entertaining larger groups, the table should never be more than 3 feet across for optimum conversations. Best place is always in the middle (in a chair, not sitting on the table) and you should be prepared to have brilliant conversations with those on both sides. Never split the group, better to move walls to get at the same table. Just like never passing the salt without the pepper – always keep the group together. Happy Holidays and feast well.

  4. Annie Hayward December 23, 2013 at 1:55 pm #

    That’s why I like the setup in Chinese restos – rounds. You can see everyone, and be able to talk to them. Maybe it’s what the civilization learned through 5k years of history 🙂 As for rectangular setups, avoid sitting in the middle. Inevitably, those @ the table will split into two groups, one focused on the conversation at each end. Those in the middle usually miss out.

  5. jaimefarinos December 26, 2013 at 12:16 pm #

    I have a different view about the round table. – indeed you can see everyone but I find it’s difficult to extend your conversation beyond the person sitting next to you. I prefer a setting of two square shaped tables vs one round table and eventually switch seats at some point during dessert to reach out to those that you didn’t connect with during the first part of the meal. 10 people sitting at two square shaped tables will interact more than 10 at a round table if you think about it…From pointing to recommendations on the menu, to serving each other wine…all seems easier and more intimate at a smaller setting.

    If I know that guests will be coming that others don’t know, I’ll try to face the entrance so that I can make sure we will make eye contact as they come in, in this case I will try to seat at the head of the table, not because of the power, but rather to ensure that everybody is connecting and well engaged in the conversation.

    On the other hand, in such cases where all guests know each other well, I really take the spot that is left and leave others to decide their favorite seat.

  6. Steve Asche January 9, 2014 at 12:02 pm #

    Here’s the dilemma – I always take the seat on the corner where everyone is to my left. While that seems like a less than strategic position, I’m deaf in my right ear and can’t hold a conversation with a person on my right. So which should you prioritize – sitting in a strategic position or compensating for a handicap?

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