The earliest eateries — they probably grew out of inns catering to travelers — were plenty comfortable. Coming in off a country road out of a cold driving rain, you'd wiggle out of your boots, hang your overclothes up to dry, and put your feet up on the hob to warm them before a roaring fire as the rain spattered against the windowpanes. If you were hungry (and I bet you were) the innkeeper brought you whatever his wife happened to be making in the scullery, a one-plate meal that became known as a table d'hôte ("the host's table"). There wasn't much choice, and a stew, cold meat pie, or simple roasted wildfowl were common offerings, if 18th-century English literature is to be believed.
These European country inns spun off another type of institution, the precursor of the modern restaurant, sometimes called a bouillon (meaning "soup" or "stock") in France. This sort of place was directed more to dining than drinking or sleeping, though alcohol still played a major supporting role. It was a relatively large place (a few modern examples still exist in Paris), wherein long trencher tables provided communal seating. You found yourself cheek-by-jowl with working stiffs in bowlers who didn't use deodorant and whose elbows probably poked your ribcage as they served themselves from giant bowls using large wooden spoons. How modern these places now seem!
The price of a meal ballooned as comfort became a major preoccupation of restaurateurs.
Gradually, as the French Revolution dawned at the end of the 18th century, two things happened. Restaurants improved their food selection from a simple table d'hôte to an actual menu, one that tended to lengthen as time went on. These evolving restaurants also began to compete by putting an emphasis on comfort. No longer was your only choice of seating a long backless bench at a crowded table; you could enjoy an individual chair — sometimes a padded one — at a private table intended to accommodate one to four diners. Of course, the price of a meal ballooned as comfort became a major preoccupation of restaurateurs.
Note that the same evolution was occurring in New York soon after it happened in Paris. The crowded lunch counters and oyster bars of the early 19th century, where you were often expected to eat in 20 minutes or less, gave way by the early 20th century to restaurants as we know them. Though spacing of tables could be tight, especially in New York City itself, you were still guaranteed an individual table, a chair with a back, and a certain casual atmosphere that allowed you to relax as you ate a repast that could occupy two hours and sometimes more.
But as the 21st Century dawned, all of that began to change. Part of it was caused by insane real estate pressures that forced restaurants to become smaller and smaller; part of it was an increased emphasis on profits where restaurants were concerned, many of which formed chains to decrease costs and increase cash flow. Restaurants were suddenly big business, and restaurant finance became a major predilection of bankers as the Age of Foodism flowered.
The Stool Makes Its Painful Appearance
The first time I became aware of decreased comfortability was at The Spotted Pig, which opened in 2004, calling itself the city's first English-style gastropub. Here was a relatively expensive restaurant offering a salad that set you back two figures and entrees in the over-$20 range. Yet when you tried to sit down to enjoy your food, you encountered low stools with no backs, like you were a kindergartener again. Yes, the stools had padding to make them slightly more bouncy, but the stool was still low and somewhat rickety and vastly less desirable than an actual chair.
Moreover, the seating was exceedingly tight, suggesting that the reason for stools partly involved saving space. But as you sat on your stool, shifting uncomfortably, it might have dawned on you that there was another reason for this discomfort — it caused you to eat more rapidly and not feel like you were relaxing in someone's living room. Space constraints and turning tables are two reasons contemporary restaurateurs make their establishments intentionally uncomfortable.
If your ass doesn't hurt after sitting on one for 15 minutes, either you're five years old, or your derriere is very well cushioned.
Backless stools in many restaurants are now the norm, I thought sadly as I dropped by the new Bleecker Street Tacombi the other night. Here we find something of a contemporary comfort standard for today's restaurants. Seating is at exceedingly small tables decorated with checkers and backgammon boards — though, conspicuously, no playing pieces are provided. That might cause you to linger over your meal. Each table is surrounded by colorful but very low stools made of metal with no padding. If your ass doesn't hurt after sitting on one for 15 minutes, either you're five years old, or your derriere is very well cushioned.
Other features of declining comfortability involve noise levels and meal speed. The modern restaurant is noisy as hell, making meaningful conversation impossible and potentially leading to outright hearing loss. This prompts you to want to leave sooner, I contend, though others believe deafening noise is synonymous with having fun and eating well. As far as meal velocity goes, how many times have you heard the spiel from your waiter, "Dishes can arrive at any time"? That means that the restaurant will serve you dishes as fast as it can bring them out, whether you've finished the previous ones or not. If the kitchen is humming, everything can arrive at once (and often does), forcing you to eat fast before everything goes cold, once again hastening the end of your meal and speedy departure.
Another oddity I noticed during those early visits to Spotted Pig was a little shelf that ran around two of the pillars. It turned out these were eating shelves where one could order and then eat standing up. Soon a ring of diners was often to be seen crowded around the pillars fumbling with their food and drinks. (Later an inadequate number of high stools were added around the pillars.) These were the forerunners of later gastro-shelves, which actually form the exclusive places to eat at some of today's micro-establishments. Offering some very good sandwiches, Harry and Ida's is a case in point, providing only two standing positions at a shelf in the window. The justification for this is that the place pretends to be a grocery store rather than a restaurant. A financial accounting would prove otherwise.
Acceptance of Upscale Food Trucks Greased the Wheels
We had been softened up for this kind of treatment, of course, about the same time as Spotted Pig opened by the explosion of semi-upscale food carts and trucks, which provide no seating at all. We glamorized these plucky vehicles, which often charged on par with brick-and-mortar establishments, or paradoxically even more. Once diners were accustomed to gobbling their food while standing in the gutter with the smell of dog poo rising up around them, any kind of seating or standing accommodations became more desirable, even when they weren't truly comfortable.
As real estate pressures increased in the current decade, food courts have appeared in profusion. These often fail to provide enough seating for patrons who are willing to stand in long lines to snag their lunch, with no assurance they could ever sit down and eat it. As Chelsea Market has become more and more a food court than a big grocery store, management has removed many of the tables that once encouraged tourists and lunch visitors to linger, and now most of the stalls that offer prepared food provide no seating. This is a cynical move, expecting visitors to pay a lot of money for food and then fend for themselves as far as seating goes, often forcing them to eat standing up in a dense crowd.
In many ways, we're back to square one, 1830s style, as far as restaurant comfortability goes. Sadly, it will probably take a real estate crash — or laws that prevent greedy real estate operators from letting restaurant spaces stand empty for long periods in anticipation of ridiculous rents — to return the average eating establishment to the level of comfort it displayed just 20 years ago.