Belle Clementine’s Big Table
The weird appeal of dining with strangers.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a party in search of a restaurant meal must be in want of its own table.
“I hate communal tables,” was the unanimous upshot of a highly scientific diner poll I conducted for this story. Which included myself. For me it’s a practical thing: There aren’t enough minutes in my life to be with the people I love, so spending precious free time drumming up conversation with strangers sounds like a lot of work for a dubious return.
David Sanford is a guy who couldn’t agree less. The Stanford grad and former Silicon Valley techie opened a restaurant in Ballard last winter, Belle Clementine, to be a place where the previously unacquainted—let’s not call them strangers—would sit around big tables passing around family-style platters of three courses and, well…forging community.
You could look at this as the pet project of a raging extrovert who’d happily go to a dinner party every night. Or the inevitable career move of a committed foodie who had stints with the Santa Cruz–based, traveling farm-to-table dinner series, Outstanding in the Field, and the Georgetown restaurant that James Beard Award–winning chef Matthew Dillon opened in 2008 as the first family-style restaurant in Seattle, the Corson Building.
Or you could look at Belle Clementine as one seriously earnest young man’s shot at improving the world.
Sanford grew up on Mercer Island, where he found himself increasingly distressed by the high school’s storied cliquishness. In 2001, his senior year, he helped organize a youth summit where facilitators worked to bridge divides. “I’ve always had friends in diverse circles,” he says. “I finally realized I wanted to start finding ways to bring these groups together.”
An amateur cook, Sanford found the table to be a uniquely powerful place to do that. As his world got bigger he encountered the gastronomic societies of Basque Spain; the Vietnamese guy cooking by the side of the road who invited young Sanford to share his snails.
“I have an operating thesis, not just for Belle Clementine but for my life,” Sanford says. “That is: to create experiences for people that help them realize that we’re all basically the same on a fundamental human level. It’s an ancient idea, and breaking bread together exposes it. We all need to eat.”
I know I did, arriving at belle Clementine with my husband and daughter one balmy weeknight. Only I was pretty sure I didn’t need to do it with the couple sniping at each other in the parking lot. Hoping they wouldn’t be our seatmates, we walked in to the airy, warehouselike room on Leary Way—a former auto shop—where vertical windows and three long tables filled the space between concrete floors and soaring fir ceilings. From every seat, diners could spy Sanford industriously mandolining squash in his bright kitchen.
We lurked at the entry awaiting instructions, slightly intimidated by the big party of 10 hooting with laughter at one of the tables. Finally we approached the second table—maybe it was seat-yourself?—and the host scurried over. “No, no, I have you over here,” he said upon learning our reservation name, and lead us to the one empty table. We watched as the parking lot fighters got a big welcome at the Fun Table.
Wow, okay, maybe I wasn’t thrilled to sit with strangers—but seated alone at the communal restaurant? Was it something we said? It recalled the first time I dined at the Corson Building, and my friend and I were seated at a 10-top whose eight other occupants were celebrating a birthday. We spent the whole ride home discussing the stunning food and who had a worse time enjoying it: the party with the uninvited guests, or the uninvited guests themselves.
We lurked at the entry, slightly intimidated by the big party of 10 hooting with laughter at one table.
Oh, the myriad ways one can feel awkward around a big table. But it wasn’t always this way. Through most of civilized history the eating-house norm was the table d’hôte, or “host’s table,” where diners would gather around a common board to eat whatever the cook had made. The restaurant as we know it today didn’t develop until postrevolutionary France, when a bunch of suddenly unemployed royal chefs needed new patrons and new ways to lure them. They dreamed up private tables and menu choices—bright new novelties in the early nineteenth century, which set the template that remains today.
So it’s been fascinating in recent years to watch chefs across Seattle and the country find so many new ways back to the table d’hôte. A half-decade ago saw the heyday of “underground” restaurants; unlicensed insider dinner parties in whispered locales, like Gabriel Claycamp’s Gypsy and Michael Hebberoy’s One Pot. There are the “family suppers,” or special dinners held on restaurants’ dark nights, as at Volunteer Park Cafe and Pantry at Delancey. There are “chef’s tables,” where groups sit around a kitchen table to watch the chef at work, as at Restaurant Bea or MistralKitchen’s Bijou room.
And then there are the restaurants with set menus and fixed prices—some with individual tables like Wallingford’s Art of the Table, some with set seatings like Wallingford’s vegetarian restaurant Sutra, some where big platters are brought for sharing, as at Corson. When owners of such outfits talk about the wholesome joys of shared dining, they typically ooze the same communitarian sincerity as Sanford. So it feels peevish to note the clear business advantages to such models—predictable ingredient costs, lean kitchen staffs, complete creative freedom, fewer wasted seats, and/or the overhead-maximizing transformation of dark nights into dinner parties.
“We’re sorry,” our host darted over to whisper, “but your tablemates just called; they’re delayed in traffic.” In a weird phantom limb moment we began missing our friends we hadn’t met yet. On the other hand…uh, might it mean more food for us? Because the starter platter had been promising: Washington sardines, meaty as small trout, stuffed with Castelvetrano olives and fried lemon and garlic, lolling on buttered crostini and scattered with nutty arugula blossoms. We especially appreciated the Ligurian touch of briny fish on buttered bread; butter Sanford was now telling the room had been churned on a farmstead in the Skagit Valley.
He was giving his nightly speech on what seasonal foods we’d be eating and which local sources they derived from, a speech both informative and straight out of Portlandia, as he seemed ever on the verge of revealing our sardines’ family name. (He has an operating thesis, after all.) He explained the drill for the evening: Three family-style courses for $40, gratuity and glass of wine (or juice) included, wine list available on the side.
By the time the salad arrived our phantom friends had blown in—a family, it appeared. (We assumed it was a family of six until the host politely dispatched two of them: A couple drifting in off the street who had probably heard the laughter from the Fun Table and mistaken Belle Clementine for an ordinary restaurant.) The heaping bowl of Little Gem greens, full of crunchy lettuce hearts and butter-tender radish slices and carrot ribbons, glistened with a peppery dill vinaigrette. As I tilted up the bountiful bowl for my neighbor to serve himself, and then he did the same for me, I felt a rush of something warm and mutual, something that got at the essence of being fed.
Our table partners were a worldly and engaging couple with two grown children; they were from Mercer Island, where I grew up, so we immediately plunged into hometown gossip. Turns out they’d known Sanford as a kid. When the platter of roasted coppa came around, juicy slabs of pork shoulder over a generous bed of crusted gnocchi with porcini, the mom confessed mortification over all the boxes of Kraft mac and cheese she’d probably fixed Sanford as a boy. It was a dish of soft pleasures, alight with the green crackle of snow peas. A side platter of thin-sliced summer squash topped with a peppery tangle of onions and fresh mint delivered the simple essence of the season. When my daughter sighed loudly over this one, our tablemates made sure it came around to her often.
It was the classic vacation experience: Reluctantly meeting the folks in the resort hot tub or at the bed and breakfast table whom you don’t expect will enhance your world—but who do, sweetly, and no thanks to your lousy attitude. Sanford relishes this part of his business, constructing seating charts for his 12-person tables with an eye toward simpatico guests, within the narrow field of information—name, food allergies, composition of party, celebrations—he’s given. Then he works each evening out like a puzzle. Many diners arrive as a group, like the Fun Table, but he does what it takes to avoid the dorks-at-the-birthday-party scenario. And he beams over successes, which he says he hears about frequently, as when a couple up from San Francisco bonded so strongly with their tablemates they made plans for a return Seattle visit.
By the time dessert hit the table, our new friends were pouring us splashes of the 2004 Barolo they had brought while we were collaboratively reforming U.S. health care policy. Dessert was deflating—local berries and stone fruits macerated in French dessert wine over lackluster sponge cake—but by this time culinary criticism felt as unnatural and unseemly as it would at a dinner party. The particular wonder of the table d’hôte dinner is how it’s at once all about the food, yet sentimentally outside the realm of judgment. No wonder communal dinners are the restaurant rage of the decade. What chef wouldn’t love that?
As we got up to leave, the Fun Table was still in high howl, and I wondered how it would have been if we had been seated next to the parking lot fighters. Would they have dragged us into their drama? Hogged the gnocchi? Ignored us completely? Possibly. The question is whether it would have diminished the powerful feeling that we had, for a couple of hours, transcended the bounds of tribe. “People talk about the Seattle Chill,” Sanford muses. “But at the end of the day, we’re all humans.”