TORONTO - Sitting shoulder-to-shoulder while passing food-filled platters around the table is a familiar scene at dinners and festive gatherings. But many are embracing this intimate dining experience outside of the home — and not just with friends and family.

On a recent weeknight at Toronto's Drake Hotel, 14 diners sat cosily chatting at a long wooden table, arms and hands extending and criss-crossing to exchange and share delectables served on gleaming oval dishes.

Smoked sausages, Swedish meatballs with gravy, hot smoked salmon, dill cucumber salad and juniper baked ham were among the hearty succession of menu items customized by chef Anthony Rose for the diners.

The event was organized by The Social Feed, which partners with independent restaurants and local hotspots to offer a unique take on the dinner party. Guests shell out in advance for a fixed-price menu and indulge in food and drink while seated at a communal table with others looking to share in a meal — and, it's hoped, a little social interaction.

Events are targeted at 22- to 34-year-olds who may be seeking an affordable alternative to their usual dining experience, said co-founder Reggie Milligan. As such, Milligan said he tries to curate restaurants he thinks are suited to the demographic, looking for venues with a great setting or atmosphere to hold a social dining event.

"Somebody that doesn't need to know a lot about the food culture in their city ... they can kind of jump in and the table roams from different spot to different spot within the city," he said.

Galen Allan moved to Toronto last September from Vancouver where The Social Feed originated and where he had a chance to attend the casual supper club events.

"What's very appealing about the concept is that I get to come eat great food at a pretty decent price," said Allan, 27, prior to partaking in the meal at the Drake. "But the social aspect of it would be just up there as well because I'm a very social person, love meeting new people."

For Milligan, who comes from a cooking background and worked at restaurants in Vancouver and Napa Valley, social dining had been a way of life long before The Social Feed.

He recalled during his time at school throwing dinner parties and get-togethers that would multiply in size over time.

"As they got bigger and more random, we saw that they were becoming more random and a lot of fun and a great way for people to connect and meet over the meal," he recalled.

"You'd get sort of 20 or 30 people sitting around drinking wine out of Mason cups and eating food, so it was kind of a cool thing to do as an alternative to going to the bar in university all the time."

"There wasn't always a theme but definitely always an interest in social dining," he added. "We just saw that in Vancouver there was an opportunity to throw those events because there isn't a lot of opportunity for people to get out and meet their neighbours and just be in that dinner party setting."

Now with the concept in place in Vancouver and Toronto, Milligan said the next logical step for expansion would be Montreal and, it's hoped, a major food market in the U.S.

Catherine Lash, founder and creative director of The Wedding Co., said communal tables are also currying favour among brides and grooms and rank among the emerging trends at wedding receptions.

The former wedding photographer said many couples are opting for unique venues that can support long tables with 50 people sitting on each side. To accommodate on the decor side, smaller-scale floral arrangements can be a stylish alternative to towering centrepieces and make it easier for individuals to speak more freely with each other, she noted.

The communal table is an "instant representation" of unity, Lash said in an interview at the recent Wedding Co. Show in Toronto.

"Even though the person at this end isn't going to maybe talk to the other person at the other end, it's that whole idea of walking into a space and realizing we're all breaking bread together at the same table."

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Online:
Drake Hotel: www.thedrakehotel.ca

The Social Feed: http://thesocialfeed.com

The Wedding Co.: www.theweddingco.com

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