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Would You Like Some Community with That Orange Juice?

I went to eat brunch yesterday at Monell's, a Nashville dining institution if there ever were one. Even though I've lived in Nashville for years, this was my first trip to this Southern-cooking Mecca.

What makes Monell's unique is first and foremost its food. Serving up a unique and delicious fried chicken, as well as other home cooked originals like corn pudding and cheese grits, Monell's has both locals and out-of-towners rave about the lunch and breakfast served in this house-turned-eatery.

Perhaps even more unique that the food is the way its served. At Monell's, there are no menus. Upon arrival, you're seated at a table with 12 chairs, even if you're just a party of 4. Then, the food comes out family style, all in big bowls and plates, just like Thanksgiving.

Of course, this means you'll be sharing a table and passing the veggies with complete strangers. And, this can make for either some meaningful lunches or forgettable brunches.

At first glance, it would seem that Monell's take on dining is also one that fosters community. After all, if you're sharing table space with others, you'll certainly make new friends or at least start up conversations with those whom you might have never met otherwise, right?

Not so fast.

While each diner's experience is certainly different, I didn't find community spontaneously happening around the brunch table at Monell's. It's one thing to get a bunch of people together in close proximity to one another and think that meaningful community will somehow 'happen.' It’s another thing entirely to actually create meaningful interactions that then allow people to start the long journey towards community.

There were four different groups at my table. There were me, my wife and my sister. There was the family of four (mom, dad, daughter, grandmother). There was the mother and daughter team. There was the husband and wife. And as everyone chowed down on hash browns and scambled eggs, no substantial conversations happened across inter-familial lines, save the occasional, "Can someone pass the bacon?" or "Is there any more orange juice?"

Conversations happened. My sister and I talked about Scrubs. The husband and wife at the other end of the table chatted about their friends. But no one made new friends. New community didn't happen around the Monell's brunch table.

Or did it? Afterwards, as we walked back to our car, we talked about the experience and our fellow tablemates. We had a good laugh (and some great pancakes). So maybe the family-style brunch didn't create new community. Maybe it just strengthened an existing one.
We've got to figure out how to offer people meaningful experiences, understanding that new community and better community are equally valid pursuits.