Group Grub

There's a new trend being tested in the Valley, inspired by the bellwether restaurant scene of New York and Los Angeles. It's called communal dining, and it seeks to bring together people who are "passionate about food."

By the end of October, Michael DeMaria, chef-owner of Michael's at the Citadel and Michael's Kitchen Techniques, will debut a community culinary experience called Dining at the Studio. And when Elements, the Asian restaurant slated for Sanctuary (the former Ranch on Camelback Mountain), opens in early 2001, it will showcase a communal table as the centerpiece of its dining room.

Communal dining is the latest rage for restaurants hoping to woo diners with the promise of fine food, fun and new friends. Hot spots like Joe's Shanghai, Obeca Li, Balthazar and Mercer Kitchen in New York; Kanome an Asian Diner in New Mexico; and Simply Fondue in Texas are leading the way for what's been called The Best Trend for 2000 by New York Dining Guide.

The communal concept is much like teppanyaki, but usually features gourmet food. Large groups of diners, many of them single, bunch at long tables to eat and meet. Restaurants such as Asia de Cuba in New York and Los Angeles -- which recently was named "Tops for Fun" by Gourmet magazine -- feature a communal marble table set for 36, where solo diners meet to share colossal portions and whatever else may evolve.

DeMaria is introducing his concept on a limited basis, on Friday nights only, in his cooking studio adjacent to the restaurant's main dining room. He's also got a novel twist -- he'll prepare four- and seven-course tasting menus, live in front of his guests. A maximum of 17 guests can follow the chef's preparations through three seating times, and will be encouraged to share, sample and discuss the culinary arts.

Elements, says executive chef Chuck Wiley, will seat 12, and will offer the opportunity for diners without reservations to enjoy an upscale meal without an hour or so wait. The menu will emphasize appetizers, to encourage sharing and trying new foods.

The concept is certainly a departure from the "leave me alone" mood of the last decade. Trend followers will remember that during the '90s, the buzz word in dining entertainment was "cocooning." The future, we were told, consisted of people hibernating in their homes, ordering gourmet takeout and communing with their high-tech, in-home theaters. Most of these folks were said to be stressed out, double-income couples who craved the finer things in life, but were too busy -- and too pooped -- to dress up for a formal meal and a movie out.

For those Valley folks wanting to stay away from it all while still enjoying a good dinner, there are always the curtained-off, ultra-private booths at McCormick & Schmicks in Phoenix, and at the Melting Pot in Scottsdale.


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