It’s dinner time at Aphotic, the latest addition to San Francisco’s fine dining scene. The room is dim, with spotlights shining on the eight tables arranged in a circle alongside the wall. And even with the strategic lighting, the seafood-centric dishes have serious competition for capturing diners’ attention — and it’s from the patrons themselves. With not much but floral arrangements in the middle of the space, and with diners seated side by side facing the center of the room, nothing obscures the excellent, 360-degrees of people-watching. Is that couple on a very extravagant fifth date? What is the woman at 8 o’clock wearing? Why can’t these friends across the room stop laughing?
Lately, this scenario has been playing out in other hot San Francisco restaurants. At Anomaly, a pop-up-turned-restaurant in Pac Heights, a similarly dramatic dining room features a minimal floor plan, with just a serving station in the middle of the cube-like room. The 6 tables are spaced out and arranged against the dark walls, meaning every nuance and gesture fellow diners make is acutely visible. If it’s been a while since you’ve visited Merchant Roots, the intimate destination in the Fillmore, you might want to know that chef Ryan Shelton had broken the huge communal table that previously hosted the themed dinners up into five pieces and arranged them in an inward-looking circle, with all attendees practically facing other parties during the meal. And, if you’re planning to attend the next Californios dinner featuring a live performance by potter Erin Hupp, you’ll find yourself in a circular seating arrangement once again, in the courtyard, seeing and being very much seen.
Depending on how you feel about eating while on display, these seating arrangements can feel slightly awkward or extra fun. Either way, chefs and restaurateurs have their reasons.
Nisei, which opened in 2021, is perhaps the restaurant that kicked off the recent round dining boom. General manager Ian Cobb says the team feels the ability to see other guests enjoying their meals and celebrating special occasions creates a sense of community and energy that’s unique to the restaurant setting. “Also, by placing tables on the walls versus in the middle of the dining room, guests can enjoy a panoramic view of the space, allowing them to more easily take in the ambiance and energy of the space we’ve carefully curated,” Cobb says.
Indeed, there’s something about being subtly on display that heightens the senses and makes for a memorable experience. Between gossiping about the people in the room and enjoying a less formal side-by-side chatter with one’s companion, it also helps diners to focus. “Often a table in the middle of the room will feel uncomfortable to a guest because of all of the activity surrounding, like an island in a hurricane,” says Matthew Mako, the hospitality design consultant who worked on Anomaly. Instead, the aforementioned spacious dining rooms, like a high-end version of immersive dinner theater, feel exclusive. The floor plan also allows the servers to shine, as they have plenty of space to approach diners and interact with them.
Of course, a hollow center also puts a spotlight on the kitchen. At Anomaly, the goal was to give customers a clear view of the restaurant’s open kitchen, chef and owner Mike Lanham says. “To do this, we needed well-spaced seating with very few visual obstructions,” he says. The bonus? “The thrill and conviviality of the shared dining experience that one gets when being able to observe and be seen by fellow diners,” Lanham says.
At Merchant Roots, the new seating plan similarly allows Shelton and his staff to step right into the middle of the circle to present the dishes, adding to the pleasant theatrics of the meal. Back at Aphotic, working with the architecture inherited from Pallette, chef Peter Hemsley’s previous project in the same SoMa space, the goal was to create an “amphitheater-type of set-up, allowing a full spectrum of view from different angles,” Hemsley says. “You get to be perched like an eagle on a mountaintop, an observer of the whole restaurant.”
And, of course, to be part of the show.